Charlie Tawara Tjungurrayi
Charlie Tawara Tjungurrayi
1925 - 1999
Born west of the Kintore Ranges in Pintupi country, Charlie Tawara’s friendship with Europeans began early and continued to be instrumental throughout his life and career. He first encountered whitefellas as a youth and in his early teens lived for some time at Haasts Bluff before returning with a prospecting party to his homeland. By the onset of the Second World War he had moved to Hermannsburg and worked for some time as a builder there and with the army at military camps around Adelaide.
In the 1950’s he moved with his family to live at Haast’s Bluff, near Papunya, but still traveled out into the desert to contact and take rations to his people, often liaising for the welfare patrols who sought to draw the various tribes of desert dwellers into the government settlements and assimilate them into the encroaching white society. From its very beginnings Papunya was a place of tribal tensions and government neglect, so the Pintupi strove to establish their own camps, removed from the ‘conflict and grog’ that threatened their tribal integrity. When the painting group began on the veranda of Geoff Bardon’s flat in 1971, Tawara enthusiastically applied himself realizing, along with the other men, that this was one way they could improve their situation. Ultimately they hoped to return to, and set up, independent outstations within their homelands.
An adventurous and energetic man, Tawara was a predominant figure in the Papunya community during the 1970’s. He was a founding member of Papunya Tula and became an important spokesman for the Pintupi due to his strong command of English, despite a number of the white people in the settlement characterizing him as ‘difficult’ or ‘bitter’ (Johnson 2008). Bardon, on the other hand, found him ‘accessible’ and of ‘quiet disposition and warm loyalty’ (1979: 46). His versatility with language and European customs enabled him to guide and explain, on both sides of the cultural divide, the financial and cultural transactions that were the basis of the fledgling art business. He was the eldest of the many Tjungurrayi skin ‘brothers’ that included Kingsley, Shorty Lungkata, and Yala Yala as well as Don, George, Willy, Two Bob and Yumpululu who would follow them in to painting. As such, he took it upon himself to look after their interests. At the same time, he proved himself a prolific and talented painter, responding to criticism with a good-natured determination that saw through to the consolidation of the distinctive Pintupi style. His own work reflected this formal structuring, particularly his renditions of the Tingari creation myths, but at times he gave way to a more experimental flair. The vitality of his brushwork gave his works a characteristic textured surface that emphasized his attachment to solidity of form, and imparted a ‘vigorous presence’ to his paintings. Because of controversy surrounding the depiction of sacred subjects, Bardon suggested painting children’s stories that trace more general activities of traditional life such as food gathering. At the time it became a pathway to peace among the differing opinions as to what subjects and images were safe to reveal and Tawara helped to show the way forward with his vibrant Yam Dreaming 1972. This painting was intended to teach young people where and how to find this valuable desert food. It was Tawara who suggested to Bardon in 1972 that the newly established company be called Papunya Tula. Literally meaning ‘a meeting place of brothers and cousins at the Honey Ant place’, the small hill that looked over the Papunya settlement. It seemed to satisfy everyone, pointing to a new business arrangement that acknowledged an Aboriginal conception of sociability and consultation.
When Andrew Crocker came to Papunya as the new art advisor in 1981, a strong friendship developed between the entrepreneurial English man and Tawara who was, as described by Bardon, 'by far the most accessible of the Pintupi painting men' (Bardon cited in Carter 2000: 293). Crocker significantly raised the profile and sales of Papunya Tula. He contacted wealthy people around Australia and overseas, encouraging their interest in the paintings and selling a sizeable collection to the Holmes a Court family. The company broke free from its dependence on annual government grant money and a wider group, including women, became involved in producing art works. Crocker brought Tawara into the limelight, as a representative of the company but also as an artist in his own right. They traveled together to America and Europe, where in England Tawara met with Queen Elizabeth the second. In 1987 he was afforded the first retrospective devoted to an Aboriginal artist, organised by Crocker for the Orange City Festival, which later toured Australia. Because of the complexity of his relationship to both his white friends and his own culture, Tawara was deeply affected by these experiences, so removed from the basic difficulties his people faced as they began their exodus back to Kintore. His authority and political position within the Pintupi community wavered somewhat, even though he remained confident of his own importance. There is no doubt however, that the growing economic and political value of painting which enabled the Pintupi to regain their beloved homelands and determine an independent and hopeful future, was greatly powered by the vitality and heartfelt persistence of Charlie Tawara. He did eventually return to live in his Pintupi country, 25 years after he left it, by camel in 1956 aided by the money generated from his art sales. He and his wife, Tatali Nangala who passed away shortly after her husband at the end of the 1990’s, had nine children although tragically five of these died before their parents. Charlie Tawara lived an eventful and extraordinary life. Today his art resides in collections around the world and testifies to a life rich in spirit, despite the often alien world and personal sadness that he encountered.
As is the case with so many of the artists who worked directly with Geoffrey Bardon, Charlie Tawara’s top selling works were produced during the 1971-1972 period including nine of his top ten results. His record is held by a brilliant, striking and memorable black and white image with a unique story, titled The Trial 1972. This 40.5 x 76 cm board more than doubled its presale high estimate of $100,000 when it sold for a startling $212,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2004. The superiority of this image over the rest of his 1972 paintings is attested by the fact that of the 17 works created in 1972 and offered at auction 13 have sold, yet only three have achieved prices in excess of $30,000. Just ten of his 1971 paintings have been offered at auction and only seven of these sold. Those works which have failed, or have achieved prices under $10,000 were either rather stark images, or the application of dotted in-fill created an unfortunate spotty effect thereby marring the iconic imagery.
Prior to 2004, a small 20.5 x 60 cm 1971 board with unusual and striking image, and an evocative story, set the artist’s top price when sold at Sotheby’s in July 2001. Fear 1971 sold for $87,500 and this remains the artist’s second highest record to date.
In the mid 1980s Charlie Tawara travelled with Papunya Tula art adviser Andrew Crocker through the USA, Europe and England and met Queen Elizabeth II. This was the inspiration for the only 1980s work in his 10 highest results. An Audience with the Queen,was created in 1989. Measuring 121 x 121 cm, it sold for $70,250, more than double its high estimate, in Sotheby’s July 2001 auction. This is still the artist’s fourth highest result and the only work in his top ten results that was not produced between 1971 and 1972.
Very few of his works from the 1980s have been presented or accepted for auction and the majority have sold for less than $3,000. The exceptions were three quite large canvases which took around $7,000 on average. This is due to the lack of interest in repetitive Tingari site paintings lacking in energy and harmonic tension. With 121 works having been offered at auction, it is somewhat surprising that so few have been re-presented. Two that first appeared during the 1997 and 1998 period dropped in value slightly when offered again in 2000 and 2003, while a 1975 Tingari painting increased in value slightly from the $3,120 sale price at Sotheby’s in July 2003 to $3,840 when offered in June 2005 at Lawson-Menzies.
Despite his renown and high prices paid for a small number of his works, Charlie Tawara's paintings have not performed well at auction. Apart from his early boards and a small number of thematic paintings produced during the 1980s, there are many formulaic paintings barely distinguishable from a large group of generic paintings produced by Pintupi male artists post 1975. Early boards will also perform well as was the case in 2012 when three 1971-2 paintings were offered for sale. Though far from his finest works two sold for just above $21,000 and a third for $14,640 against his career average price of $15,248. Today there are so many wonderful Aboriginal artists and art styles from such a diversity of regions that it would be better to avoid one of Charlie Tawara Tjungarrayi’s paintings after 1973 unless it is especially aesthetically pleasing.