Lilly Kelly Napangardi
Lilly Kelly Napangardi
Born at Dashwood Creek in 1948, Lilly Kelly arrived at Haasts Bluff as a baby in the arms of her mother Narputta and her father Sandy Opal Tjapanangka. The family moved to the newly established settlement of Papunya in 1958 when Lilly was still a young girl and her father became one of the original Papunya Tula shareholders. In the late 1970’s Lilly married Norman Kelly Tjampitjinpa and began assisting him with his paintings while living at Papunya, before the family moved 75 km west to Mt Liebig at the foot of the McDonnell ranges.
Lilly Kelly began painting in her own right for Papunya Tula Artists during the mid 1980’s when the company's field officers first began visiting Mt. Liebig regularly, and in 1986, she won the Northern Territory Art Award for a painting entitled Watiyawanu. The win drew attention to the growing number of artists in Mount Leibig and the nascent art centre operated by the shop owners in the community.
During the 1990’s Norman Kelly moved to Lajamanu and took a second wife while Lilly remained at Mount Leibig and brought up their three children. In time, while she continued to paint without particular distinction, she became one of the senior Law Women of the community, and the custodian over the Women Dreaming stories associated with Kunajarrayi, in Warlpiri and Luritja country stretching between Mt Liebig, Haasts Bluff, Kintore and Conniston. Here she passed on her knowledge of traditional law and ceremonial dancing and singing to her children, eleven grandchildren, and other young women of her clan.
With the success of the Watiyawarnu art centre, Lilly Kelly’s paintings began once more to gain national attention. From 2000 onward Watiyawarnu participated in the annual Desert Mob exhibition in Alice Springs and with the art centre’s patronage she was selected as a finalist in the NATSIA Telstra awards. Her depictions of country during this period and thereafter referred to sand hills, the effect of wind and rain on the desert landscape, and the crucial waterholes found in the area. The best of these works evoke the ephemeral nature of the drifting, changing sandy country in the finest microcosmic detail. Rain streaks the land as it runs off the sand hills while the blowing wind folds them into the undulating waves of an infinite expanse. Beholding each work in is entirety, is to view the landscape in macrocosm as the eye follows the hypnotic fine doting and muted tones that build up into a mysterious, enigmatic topography of her land. Rendered in intricate detail, with subtle colour variations these paintings covey powerful and inspiring visions of her country.
Early examples of Lilly Kelly's sandhill paintings were rendered using a dotting technique, which diminished the size of the dots with each row. In later works she diminished the dots within each evolving line. Earlier works therefore have a more meditative settled quality and stronger formal compositional structure, whereas the ebb and flow of the dotting in her later works is evocative, rhythmic and ultimately engaging.
Lilly Kelly has been described by those who know her art practice intimately, as an action painter. They suggest that her works are essentially haptic and unplanned and that she engages in painting without any formal schema in mind. If this is the case, then it is likely that it is this informality that evokes such a powerful response from the viewer.
The first institutional purchase was of two spectacular major works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales arranged through Neil Murphy Indigenous Art, which organized a solo exhibition for the artist at Span Galleries in Melbourne during the same year. In the wake of her Melbourne success Kelly was reputedly under consideration for inclusion in the 2004 Biennale of Sydney however, although nominally represented by Watiyawanu Artists, she has painted indiscriminately for many dealers in Alice Springs since that time and attempts to present her works at the highest level have, unfortunately failed.
Lilly Kelly is a very fine artist who, if handled professionally, is capable of greatness. With this no doubt in mind, Australian Art Collector Magazine selected her as one of Australia's 50 most collectable artists for 2006. Yet in equal measure she produces perfunctory works motivated more by income than the pleasure of creative engagement. A number of her finest paintings have been acquired by major international collectors including Thomas Vroom and Richard Kelton as well as being added to several Australian State art galleries. The magnificent paintings held by the Art Gallery of NSW, rated by Murphy as the artist’s finest, were exhibited in the exhibition Gifted: Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Molly Gowing Acquisition Fund in 2006/2007.
Lilly Kelly is one of three Mount Leibig female artists whose careers burgeoned post 2000. While Ngoia Pollard, who won the Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award in 2006, and Wentja Napaltjarri, have arguably established a higher profile than Kelly amongst exhibiting galleries in the primary market, their sales at auction have been too infrequent to have established a secondary market presence as yet. There is little doubt however that, in time, they will join Kelly and Bill Whiskey amongst the top 100 artists.
Lilly Kelly’s auction records are completely dominated by works created after 2000 including all of her top 10 results. One of the few exceptions was a work created as early as 1989. It is the only Papunya Tula provenanced painting that has appeared for sale despite the fact that she created works for the company for almost a decade beginning in the mid 1980s. When offered at Christies Auctioneers in October 2004 (Lot 21) the rather generic Untitled work failed to attract a buyer despite its provenance. All of her top four results however were created for Watiyawarnu Art, the semi-official art centre in Mount Leibig and works created for independent dealers litter her best sales.
Lilly Kelly’s work first appeared at auction in 2004 more than a decade after the first specialist Aboriginal art sale and nearly two decades after she began painting. Few works of significance had appeared by the end of 2005 however in 2006, her most successful year at sale, 13 works were offered of which nine sold for a total value of $95,805. During the following year eight sold of 13 offered and although her works fared slightly worse during 2008, thereby dropping her average price to slightly below $10,000, her career clearance rate was still a very healthy 63%.
However this has changed dramatically since, and the decline in her results reads almost like an object lesson in how painting indiscriminately for the market can adversely affect an artist’s reputation. By January 2009 her success rate at auction dropped to 59% and the decline continued. By 2014 it sat at just 45% with just 46 works sold out of a total offering of 102. This can be attributed to the fact that only nine works of 22 sold in 2009 and five of 17 in 2010. Her results were so bad in 2010 that the total value of these 5 sales was just $7,448. This was nothing however when compared to the utter disrespect paid to her by Lawsons Austioneers during the period 2015-2016. In 2015 Lawsons offered no less than 12 works of the 14 on offer publically that year. Nine of the 12 failed although Bonham's did sell a lovely Neil Murphy provenancned work measuring 90 x 122 cm for $5,124 in its sale of the Thomas Vroom Collection. Lawson's highest p[rice was a measly $1, 227. Early in 2016 Lawson's were at it again. It offered 11 works including many of those that had failed twice during 2015. Nine went unsold once more while two sold for a paltry $736. In my opinion, this sort of behaviour shows the Aboriginal art market utter disrespect and the artist, a lack of duty of care.
Kelly's record price at auction was achieved for a work of the highest quality commissioned by Neil Murphy through Watiyawarnu. Sandhills Around Mount Leibig 2004, measuring 176 x 120 cm. sold for $39,600 against a presale estimate of just $12,000-16,000 at Sotheby's in July 2007 (Lot 167). This transcended the previous record set by another very fine work from the same original source which had sold in Lawson~Menzies November 2006 sale for $24,000 (Lot 42).
While there do not appear to have been many resales, the number of highly estimated works that have failed however should be of deep concern. Lilly Kelly's best works are highly accomplished and regardless of provenance, many others are very good paintings indeed. In the right setting, their spacious textural feel resonates sympathetically with contemporary aesthetics. These are paintings to be valued more for the pleasure they impart than their cultural content. Due to her fierce independence and prolific nature, her works appear in a range of primary market outlets from retail stores to exhibiting galleries. If you like her work, take your time, and chose wisely. Only the most delicately executed are likely to be good ‘investments’.