1916 - 1996
Sunfly Tjampitjin, was born in the Alec Ross Ranges north-west of Lake Mackay c. 1920 and began painting in his mid sixties in 1984, several years prior to the establishment of Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills. As the senior Kukatja ritual leader he, and other elder men of the community, sought to create a body of work to record, in the most intimate detail, the site maps of the desert country in which they grew up prior to outside contact. Sunfly’s early endeavors made a significant contribution to the first exhibition of art from the Balgo community held in Perth in 1986. Hosted by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art from the Sandy Desert was the first public recognition of the nascent art movement at Balgo Hills and gave the lead to their subsequent establishment and commercial success.
Despite hearing about the genesis of the painting movement at Papunya when a group of Pintupi people traveled to Balgo for the ceremonial season in 1971, the Balgo elders were cautious in following their initiative because of the dangers of representing imagery connected to sacred ceremonies in permanent media, which would later enter the public domain.
The starkness and simplicity of Sunfly’s compositions is indeed reminiscent of sacred ground paintings – 'the style is stripped of subsidiary detail and is startling in its economy' (Ryan 1993: 93). The bold use of flat blocks of red, yellow, white and black have spiritual significance for, as ochres, they embody the transformed substances of the ancestral beings. These same pigments are applied as body paint during ceremonies to reunite the participants with the land. Tjampitjin employed these sacred pigments to depict an element of the Tingari ritual, of which he was a senior custodian. However, the strong linear elements and interconnected circles that represent paths and places denote more than landscape in the traditional sense. They depict an area of ancestral travel, and are representational only in so far as the mythical landscape of the Dreaming and the actual landscape coincide. It is this metaphysical concept of a sign invoking a transcendent reality that underlies the visual language inherent in the art at Balgo. Apart from Sunfly’s representational motifs of Luurnpa, the ancestral kingfisher, beings are often only shown by the mark or trace they leave. This tradition is upheld throughout many parts of the Kimberley, amongst artists such as Rover Thomas despite the distance between his and Sunfly’s aesthetic.
Following his participation in group exhibitions at Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Sydney and Gallerie Gabriele Pizzi in Melbourne, from the late 1980’s onward, Sunfly Tjampitjin’s works were included in the most important landmark exhibitions during the final years of his life. Amongst these were Mythscapes, Aboriginal Art of the Desert, at the National Gallery of Victoria and Aboriginal Art: The Continuing Tradition at the National Gallery of Australia in 1989; Aboriginal Paintings from the Desert, shown at the Union of Soviet Artists Gallery, Moscow and Museum of Ethnographic Art in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1991; Crossroads-Towards a New Reality, at the, National Museums of Modern Art, Kyoto and Tokyo in 1992 and Aratjara, Art of the First Australians, at the Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf and other touring venues throughout Europe in 1994.
Sunfly was already around 70 years old when the Walayirti art centre opened in Balgo and only lived for another ten years. In those early days the volume of art produced at the art centre was no more than 300 works by a wide array of artists, far fewer than the 1500 or more paintings per annum that are created today. It is estimated that in Sunfly’s entire career he produced little more than a total of 50 paintings. Yet so powerful are his works that his renown was unparalleled amongst the burgeoning art community at Balgo Hills during his lifetime. The visually dominant traveling paths in Sunfly's paintings connote the intimate connection he retained with the hunter-gatherer way of life.Sunfly only painted a few works before the art centre at Balgo Hills opened. After its establishment, it took the early art coordinators visiting him at his camp in Yaga Yaga, 120 kilometers into the sand dunes south of Balgo, for him to start painting for the art centre. Painting in collaboration with his wife Bai Bai Napangarti meant his bold aesthetic developed independently of other Balgo artists, who relied more on dotting and parallel currents of lines. The effect was to create work of an almost primeval quality. The emotive potency of his work comes from being, 'like Miro, another artist steeped in his land and culture, whose small stylized paintings, made up of simple black lines and coloured patterns, contain all the knowledge and experience of a lifetime' (Snell cited in Bardon 1989: 58). This knowledge has impregnated Sunfly’s modest output with far greater value than its weight would suggest, transforming him into a central figure of, and formative contributor to, the priceless legacy left by the older generation of painters who left the desert nomadic life in their maturity and settled to the north of their homelands.
Only a handful of collectors have a painting by Sunfly Tjampitjin and it is a lucky one indeed that possesses one of his finer works. Little wonder they rarely appear in the salerooms with works being offered for sale on only 20 occasions.
His record price of $200,250 was achieved for the cover work in Sotheby’s July 2004 catalogue. Measuring 118 x 84.5 cm and painted in 1991, Yapinti-Pinki Dreaming sold for more than double the estimated $70,000-100,000. The painting was well known and anticipated with great interest having been illustrated many times over the years in books featuring art from Balgo. Sotheby's did not make the mistake of underestimating the next major work they managed to secure. Their huge expectation of $120,000-180,000 for Wanayarra the Rainbow Snake in The Artist's Country 1990 was thoroughly justified when it sold in their July 2007 sale (Lot 57) for $144,000. His third highest result was for a work of similar size to his record holder which sold at Lawson-Menzies’ May 2005 sale for $87,000, $7,000 above the top estimate.
Only a small number of knowledgeable collectors would have been aware that in June 2000 a similar sized work Two Women at Yataru had been purchased at Sotheby's for just $9,200 . When sold four years later in May 2004 at Lawson~Menzies however, it made a tidy profit of more than $30,000 (Lot 32). However, another work purchased for $22,800 from Sotheby's in 2005 by Dutch uber-collector Thomas Vroom was re-sold during Vrooms de-accession sale with Bonham's in 2015 for $9,600.
Only five works by this artist have failed to sell at auction and two occured in 2012. Surprisingly Sotheby’s did not manage to find a buyer for the untitled 1992 work that carried a low estimate of $20,000 in their July 2006 sale. Yet two other works that did not sell when first presented, both found new homes when presented at subsequent offerings. Litjin 1989 was passed in at Sotheby’s in July 2001 with an estimate of $12,000-18,000 and later fetched $26,400 at Lawson-Menzies in Nov 2004. The other work that failed to sell when first up for auction was an atypical work measuring 60 x 120 cm, which sold six months later at Lawson-Menzies in July 2005 for only $3,600. It was the artist’s worst result replacing the $7,475 paid for a small work on a canvas board created in 1985, one year before the art centre opened. This small board was one of the six that were in the very first Balgo exhibition organized by the Catholic Mission and held at the Art Gallery of WA.
In 2013 Bonhams achieved the artists 3rd highest result of $79,300 with the sale of a work from the 'The Laverty Collection: Contemporary Australian Art'. Proving that although rare, these works still continue to fetch well-deserved high prices. As time goes by, expect these early works from Balgo that were painted by old men of high degree to carry a similar mystique to those from the early Papunya period and sell for escalating prices. Sunfly Tjampitjin never had the opportunity to paint anything larger than 120 x 80 cm canvases of which there are no more than 30 in existence. They are tightly held and will attract ever-increasing estimates on those rare occasions when they appear for sale.