Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara
Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara
1895 - 1970
The practice of Tiwi figure carving stems from Pukumani funeral carving: spectacular carved and painted poles that are placed around the grave during ceremonies for the dead. This figurative element is in keeping with the longstanding innovative and evolving nature of the Tiwi artistic tradition, even though it developed at the time of European arrival and influence. Enraeld Munkara was one of the most pre-eminent early sculptors, recognisable by the distinct expressiveness of his work as well as the characteristic stance of his hunched, mourning figures, their arms extending down from a bulbous head. They portray the characters of myth and are often double sided, or Janus-like, with negative spaces similar to they way they would be sculpted as part of Pukumani poles. Enraeld’s carvings capture the movement of the ritual dance. They seem alive and mobile, with delicately painted faces and the geometric body designs that are seen in Pukumani ceremony. Their haunting, human quality has made them highly regarded by collectors and major collecting institutions. Besides being a gifted artist, he was a ceremonial leader and a man of high ritual authority.
Pukumani denotes a taboo and is a period of time in which certain tasks are forbidden, including the speaking of the deceased’s name. This accounts somewhat for the plethora of names that Tiwi often have or use and which have often confused outsiders. The dramatic rituals of Pukumani are mythic in origin. The enacting of the story of how death came into the world is performed over days. It is a story of human desire and misdemeanour that brought to a close an Eden-like creation period, similar to the Dreamtime. Artistic talent has always been greatly admired and rewarded in Tiwi culture, encouraging a committed professionalism amongst individuals and whole families. This in turn has allowed for a fascinating degree of creative control and experimentation within it. This explains the verve and vigour of these funerary carvings, even in the face of human mortality. Enraeld’s carvings were grave markers that were placed upon the grave after burial. They appeased the parting spirit who would stop to talk to them upon rising for its journey to the spirit world. The carvings evoke the powerful grief of the Pukumani period.
This attention and sensitivity to the spirit world perhaps explains why Dorothy Bennett, a prolific collector of Tiwi art during the 1950s and 60s, would always find Enraeld waiting for her when she arrived to buy some of his work. At the time there was no phone available at Milikapiti on Melville Island where Enraeld was living. It was the preferred place for acquiring works due to its relative independence from missionary control. In 1957, the Art Gallery of NSW commissioned a large installation of Pukumani poles. It heralded a dramatic entry for the Tiwi into the mainstream art world. Many items from Dorothy Bennett’s private collection are now housed in the National Museum of Australia and other institutions.
The electrifying geometric designs of Tiwi art reverberate with an energy and meaning that has been condensed and abstracted from the lived experience of generations. The dances that accompany the installation of Pukamani poles are no less riveting. Besides his enigmatic figures, Enraeld less frequently carved birds, usually ducks and owls. As an elder, he became the leader of the Tikalaru people in south-west Bathurst Island and is seen in archival photographs with a distinctive cloth covering his lower face. This is because he suffered the disfiguring effects of the tropical disease yaws. In the museums that now provide inspirational resources for present and future generations, Enraeld stands as a master. He was a gentle man whose dedication and dexterity are felt in the evocative character of his carvings
Profile author: Sophie Baka
2003 – Tactility: two centuries of Indigenous objects, textiles and fibre, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
1990 – Keepers of the Secrets, Aboriginal Art from Arnhemland, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.
1989 – Aboriginal Art: The Continuing Tradition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
1974 – Australian Aboriginal Art from the Louis A. Allen Collection, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
1972 – Australian Aboriginal Art, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
1969 – Australian Aboriginal Art – The Louis A. Allen Collection, R. H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
1966 – Art of the Dreamtime, the Dorothy Bennett Collection of Aboriginal Art, touring exhibition, Tokyo, Japan.
1963 – Art of Arnhem Land, David Jones, Sydney.
Allen, L., 1975, Time Before Morning: Art and Myth of the Australian Aborigines, Thomas Crowell Company, New York.
Caruana, W., 1987, Australian Aboriginal Art, a Souvenir Book of Aboriginal Art in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Parkes, Australian Capital Territory. (C)
Caruana, W., 1993, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London. (C)
O'Ferrall, M., 1990, Keepers of the Secrets, Aboriginal Art from Arnhemland in the Collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. (C)
Enraeld Munkara created carvings from the hardest Eucalyptus ironwood. Before the arrival of Europeans and the development of a market for traditional Aboriginal sculpture, ironwood carvings were sculpted by successive burning over an open fire and scraping away the charcoal with shells. Even later, when metal tools were employed Tiwi sculpture was rough hewn and organic by comparison to the more refined carvings created from softer woods in Central and Eastern Arnhem Land.
Enraeld carved during the 1950s and 1960s and died at the start of the 1970s. For this reason his output was very small and those works that do turn up for sale are hotly contested. It is a rare piece indeed that remains in private hands once its presence has been uncovered.
It is a remarkable fact that no less than 11 of his auction sales were for a collection of sculptures that all appeared at Sotheby's in 1997. The works were all collected by Dorothy Bennett on her visits to Melville Island in the 1950s and were all catalogued as circa 1955. According to the accompanying documentation, when Dorothy Bennett would visit the island it was a mystery to the missionaries how Enraeld Djulabinyanna would know she was coming. In the early 1950s there was no way he could have heard as there were no phones, yet he was always waiting by the jetty when she arrived on the island. In this 1997 sale at Sotheby's, a rendition of Purukapali established the artist's record price when it sold for $18,400. Another piece sold for $17,250 and two more achieved $13,800.
No other sculpture by Enraeld appeared at auction until July 2001 and when it did, Sotheby's sold it for a whopping $30,000. The double sided figure of Bima and Purukapali, created in 1957 bearing the Bennett collection number 67 along with its original label, measured 57 cms in height.
Enraeld's record price was set the next time one of his works appeared for sale in 2006. On this occasion Sotheby's re-offered the Purukapali figure which originally sold from the Dorothy Bennett collection in its 1997 sale for $17,250. By this time any work on offer by Enraeld was bound to cause a real stir and the 75 cm high ironwood carving with attached beeswax and feathers sold for $60,000.
In 2015 and 2016 no less than 5 works were offered for sale, three of which came from the collection of Dutch uber-collector Thomas Vroom. In 2016, the failire to sell a Pukumani pole marked the artist's first failure at auction, bringing his sale rate down to a still incredible 95%. Less than a month later, a double-sided figure representing Bima and Purukapali sold for $29,280, marking the artist's 3rd highest result at auction.
Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara is an artist of supreme interest. There are so very few of his works around, and all will eventually be collected into important public and private museums. Lucky is the private collector who owns one.