1924 - 2000
Born in Kutakurtal around 1924, Wimmitji Tjapangarti moved to the old Balgo mission in 1943 as a young initiated man. He began painting alongside his wife Eubena Nampitjin when in his 60’s and together, they created a unique shared aesthetic 'quite different from that of the other Balgo painters' (Watson 1997: 49). Their early works, produced at the Adult Education Centre, were predominantly rendered in a palette of browns with areas of white dotting and lines, which from the outset were identifiably more detailed and refined than works by their contemporaries. As the Warlayirti Art Centre developed during the early 1990’s from a one room ‘donger’ and moved into a former accommodation block, the two artists began to paint more individually and their works exhibited growing differentiation. While the artistic evolution of Balgo art was influenced by the progressive introduction of new acrylic paints, Wimmitji did not employ the floral colours, pastel greens and pinks, which were available from 1989 onwards. He did however add new shades of red and yellow in creating his minutely detailed cartographic renditions of his country and the stories relating to it.
Despite speaking little, if any, English, Wimmitji’s intimate knowledge of his country and Dreaming narratives proved extremely helpful in assisting Ronald and Catherine Berndt (1989) with their book The Speaking Land: Myth and Story in Aboriginal Australia. He also worked with Father Anthony Peile to compile the Kukatja dictionary and various articles on medical subjects.
Wimmitji’s paintings are visually complex and contain a vast amount of knowledge within each single composition. The intricacy and textural richness were achieved with spontaneous outpourings of dotting, and myriad surface treatments. The disciplining force was the spiritual dimension of the story, related by a cultural custodian of the highest degree. Wimmitji was a mapan (traditional healer) of unsurpassed knowledge and ceremonial importance amongst the members of the Wangkajunga society. His painting style and earthy palette gave the best of his works a look of great age and this, no doubt, added to perceptions of their authenticity, 'though from his own perspective it would have been drawn from his deep involvement with the law' (Johnson 1994: 209).
Wimmitji continued painting until his death in 2000 despite his frailty and almost total blindness from the mid 1990’s onwards. In this later period of his life he seemed to live entirely lost to the everyday world, thoroughly immersed in his Dreaming. On approach you would find him muttering chants, as he painted completely oblivious to the world around him. He gave the impression that he existed unseparated from the earth; that he traveled through an interior space where physical dimension is non-existent. With eyes closed to barely visible slits and tiny hands shaking as he applied dots to the canvas, he seemed far away in the land of his Dreaming as he sang up the ancestors and joined with the spirits of the land.
During a ten-year period between 1986, the year in which the art centre in Balgo Hills was established, and the mid 1990s, by which time he was almost totally blind, Wimmitji Tjapangarti produced no more than 200 works of which none exceed 120 x 90 cm in size.
Only 61 have appeared on the secondary market, of which 38 have sold. His record price is $78,000 for an untitled 1990 work measuring 120 x 85 cm sold at Lawson-Menzies in June 2006 (Lot 58), which fell within the estimated $70,000-$90,000 price range. This was more than twice the price achieved for his next highest result at the time. Kutu 1989 measuring just 120 x 60 cm sold for $35,750 in Sotheby’s July 2004 sale. His most spectacular success at auction was for Artists Country 1990 estimated by Sotheby’s to sell for $8,000-12,000 in its June 1998 sale (Lot 209). This complex 120 x 85 cm work that had featured in the artists exhibition with his wife Eubena Nampijin at Gallerie Gabrielle Pizzi eight years earlier sold for $32,200 and still occupies the artists seventh highest record. 2015 was a very good year for this artist with 4 of the 6 works on offer selling. Of these, three entered his top ten results. A new second highest mark was set when Artist's Country (Iirrawilli) 1989 sold for $48,800 at Mossgreen's Alan Boxer Collection sale. Another work in the Laverty sale at Deutscher & Hackett became the new third highest result when sold for $45,600. And the Dr. Peter Elliott sale at Mossgreen saw Artist's Country (Wantjanmurra) 1992 sell for $39.040, Wilmmitji's 5th highest result to date. All of Wimmitji’s highest selling works were created prior to 1992 and all are less than 120 x 90 cms in size. Provenance is not an issue here, as Wimmitji painted his entire oeuvre for Warlayirti artists which sold his works through highly reputable galleries, principally in Sydney and Melbourne.
While Wimmitji’s works are exceedingly rare, collectors have just woken to the fact that it is a fortunate person indeed that has one in their collection. They are greatly undervalued in today’s market. He, along with Sunfly Tjampitjin, were the most senior male participants in the earliest days of the Balgo Hills art centre, which was established in 1986. He painted for less than ten years, as he was blind and very frail toward the end of his life. Paintings created between 1989 (by which time he had grasped and become highly accomplished in the medium) and 1993 (when his eyesight began to fail him) number no more than 50 works, all of which will, in time, come to be recognised as masterpieces of the formative period of Kukatja and Wangkajunga art.