1905 - 1979
Munggurrawuy Yunupingu was a prolific artist, who was a master of both bark painting and figurative carving. He was foremost amongst those artists who brought such artistic traditions to prominence being amongst the first artists to produce bark paintings for sale. Although the majority of his works were produced between 1946 and 1978, the missionary, Wilbur Chaseling, collected his paintings as early as 1935.
Munggurrawuy was a senior Gumatj elder during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a critical period during which the Yolngu of North East Arnhem Land gained artistic recognition as part of their political campaign to seek recognition of their land and sea rights. He developed, along with several of his contemporaries, most notably Mawalan, an episodic style in his paintings characterised by a painted surface divided into narrative panels. This allowed mythical sequences to unfold across time, as superbly depicted in Ngulbanblili c.1958 and other works of the period including the collaboratively executed Bark Petition created to assert the Yolngu’s rights over their land and sea.
From the early 1950’s the development of bark painting was heavily influenced by external demand. A medium previously not intended to last beyond ritual ceremonies was transformed to one whose purpose was inextricably market driven. The addition of figurative elements to images that formerly consisted entirely of geometric schematic clan patterns, came after forty years of intensive contact with Europeans. Paintings with a greater figurative content expressing mythological themes in a pictographic form were encouraged by the craft store manager, amongst others at the time. Moreover, artists were paid a higher price for these than for the largely geometric paintings that preceded them.
Just as European demand led to stylistic change on Munggurrawuy’s bark paintings, the much earlier foreign visitors, the Macassan fishermen, had influenced his woodcarving. According to Roland and Catherine Berndt, these comparatively realistic representations of men and women, covered with totemic patterns, played an important part in the social and religious life and ceremonies of Yolngu peoples and were considered to be sacred objects. The painted patterns, intended to mimic the body paintings of particular ancestors, are subdivided into panels on Munggurrawuy’s carved figures. It has been said that the production of these highly accomplished and individually distinctive carved figures marked the moment when the dominance of individual expression asserted itself over the confinement of traditional cultural values in the development of North-Eastern Arnhem Land art of the period.
Late in life Munggarawuy established an important and productive relationship with Melbourne art dealer Jim Davidson, who saw that his work was collected by major museums both nationally and internationally. Although his works have been considered primarily of ethnographic importance and interest, they have also gained considerable market recognition since his death in 1979 and, most especially, during the past decade.
Munggerrawuy Yunupingu’s art has inspired that of his daughter Gulumbu Yunupingu and the many North East Arnhem Land artists who have succeeded him. His works have been included in a large number of major exhibitions both nationally and internationally since 1951 and he is extremely strong in the literature of the movement. In addition, important works are held by many Australian institutions as well as the Musee et Institut d’ethnographie de la Ville De Geneve, in Switzerland, as well as the Rhue and Kelton Foundation collections in the USA.
As with the work of all Arnhem Land painters of the period, the most important determiners of the value of bark paintings by Munggarawuy Yunupingu are the age, condition, size, and the complexity of the image and the story. While barks painted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, containing complex imagery describing sacred ceremonial practices, characterize his most highly priced works, they are also less likely to be as stable as his later works. During the early period of bark painting, Munggarawuy and other bark painters employed white and yellow ochres far more liberally in their paintings than after the 1980s, when black pigment became more prominent. It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this, however here is little doubt that the sacred connotations of the white and yellow ochres are of primary importance in these early works. At this stage in the development of Arnhem Land paintings, artists used orchid juice and other natural fixatives to stabilise their ochre paints and, while this imparted a much softer powdery effect than the wood glue introduced later, it was a less effective binder and as a result many early paintings suffer ochre loss, thereby diminishing their value. Nevertheless, when in good repair, Munggarawuy’s large old barks are far and away his most valuable.
Munggarawuy’s early carvings are quite rare and are more likely, on average, to fetch higher prices than his barks. A 1959 Mokoy Spirit, 81 cm in height, sold for $16,800 in Sotheby’s 2002 sale (Lot 50) as did a 74 cm 1962 Mokoy in July 2004 (Lot 152). However, when the 1962 Mokoy was re-offered in the Thomas Vroom sale at Bonham's Sydney in September 2015 it re-sold for only $5,856 almost $9,000 less than its previous result. In fact, 2015 was not a particularly good year for this artist, for though four of six works sold, their average price was only $5,736, well down on his career average of $8,005. In that year, two highly accomplished barks carried very conservative estimates of $4,000-6,000 and $5,000-7,000 in the Vroom sale and failed to sell on the night.
His record price of $50,085 was achieved for a painting, entitled Ngulbanblili c.1958, which measured 184 x 64 cm. The work sold well above its presale estimate of $25,000-35,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2003 (Lot 85). His second highest result was for a group of five small barks produced in 1959 that sold at Sotheby’s in July 2001 for $19,200 (Lot 169).
However the prices achieved for works such as the large 166.5 x 85 cm bark created c.1972 entitled A Creation Time Story are more representative of the interest in his works. Estimated at $8,000-12,000 in Sotheby’s July 2003 auction this work sold just above the high estimate for $14,400 (Lot 254). Only a year later an earlier and slightly smalle bark painting with a more pleasing image of an equally important story sold within its expected range for $12,000. The bark entitled Ceremonial and Sacred Grounds of the Gumatj 1965 had been offered at Sotheby’s in July 2004 with an estimate of $10,000-15,000 (Lot 157) after previously been purchased at Sotheby’s eight years earlier for just $5,750. On the other hand, a wonderful large bark, The Coming of Fire c.1970, was passed in at Sotheby’s in 2001, and even when the estimate was lowered to $5,000-8,000 it still failed to sell in their July 2004 auction (Lot 531).
All ten of Munggarawuy’s highest prices have been achieved since 2001 and although his average price is a modest $8,162, this is heavily weighted by works offered during the 1990s, and smaller, less detailed paintings which sold at considerably lower prices. Munggarawuy was a major figure in the emergence of Arnhem Land painting and one of its greatest masters; a towering figure both culturally and historically with important works in major museums both nationally and internationally. Proof enough that his prices will continue to rise, especially when increasingly rare major examples of his bark paintings or exquisitely carved and decorated figure sculptures find their way onto the market.