At the time of his death in 2007, Hector Jandany was the oldest member of the Warmun artists, at Turkey Creek. His family history was littered with harrowing tales of persecution. Gadiya (white people) shot his grandfather and harmed his grandmother, who subsequently died in childbirth and, while Hector was still in infancy, his father also died in confrontation with white people. Though his mother remarried a stockman, whom Hector admired, it was his mother’s country, the Bungle Bungles (Purnululu), that became the primary source of his artistic inspiration when he took up painting late in his life.
Hector’s decision to become an artist sprang indirectly from his work with the Bough Shed School, which opened in 1979 at Warmun, and of which Hector became the director. It was here that he encouraged two-way learning, maintaining a firm belief in his instinctive knowledge of country whist having adopted a strong Christian belief. 'White people read things, but I can feel what’s right and wrong, in my heart. I have that inside feeling, but the white man - the paper tells him' (cited in Rothwell 2004: 6).
Hector began painting with the establishment of the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in Kununurra in the late 1980’s and continued a decade later after the Warmun Arts Centre began operating out of the old post-office building at Turkey Creek, the community in which he was born. Here he would sit, an inspiration and delight to anyone who found the time to just sit and enjoy his company and humour. He would build the surface of his canvass slowly and carefully by applying soft earth colours, pink, greens, greys and later introducing warm browns, reds and blacks. He gained renown for quirky figurative depictions and irregular hill formations rendered with an innate sense of spacial geometry. He treated the surface of his work as if it were sacred, touching and rubbing his hand gently across it reverently. Watching him use a stone to rub, sand and smooth the thin washes of softly coloured earth pigment that had been mixed from rocks gathered and carefully ground in the surrounding environment, made one feel as if he believed the painting to be the country itself.
Hectors preference for traditional ocres was significant. Like the other old men that had been his contemporaries, he believed that 'you can feel that paint, you can feel that country' (cited in O’Riordan 2004: 235). It is this tangible connection that reflected Hector’s commitment to maintaining his spiritual obligations. One aspect of this spirituality is seen in his magical Krill Krill paintings, such as those created for the ceremony that took place at Warmun in 1994. In these stark works on board his depiction of ancestral owl spirits bears comparison to early Christian icons. Hector was a deep spiritual believer whose faith blended his Gidja upbringing and beliefs and his Christianity into a unique interpretation of Catholicism. His religious philosophy is best understood through works such as Mary and Joseph 1993, consisting of two bird-like carved statues created after Hector had been invited to share Christmas lunch with the residents of the local hostel. He was sensitive to the spiritual meeting point between two vastly different traditions of religious practice and could enliven this cross fertilisation with an animated sense of humour. In life Hector could be profoundly funny in a ways that belied the pain of his early childhood. He was loved for the gentle way in which he could make the driest comments on people’s odd behaviour, the hazards of old age, or ‘those mad bastards in Canberra.'
Although his only solo exhibition came in the last 12 months of his life at Raft Gallery in Darwin, he was a regular entrant in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and his art was included in the landmark exhibitions Aboriginal Art and Spirituality held at the High Court in Canberra, and Images of Power at the National Gallery of Victoria as well as the books published under the same titles.
Though Hector Jandanay played second fiddle to many of the brightest stars of the Warmun movement, the eccentricity of his compositions, their variety and sensitivity, make his works of art particularly memorable and interesting. Over two decades he produced a steady and consistent body of significant works. He lived to become the last of the grand old pioneers of the painting movement at Warmun. While his fame may never match that of his more successful contemporaries such as Queenie McKenzie and Rover Thomas, once discovered, many collectors are likely to find his works a more than adequate substitute. Indeed, those with an eye for the unique and eccentric may find that, here in Hector, lies something even more appetising.
Hector Jandany’s art bears witness to the intimate connection he shared with the artists who founded the East Kimberley style. Although he reputedly assisted Paddy Jaminji in creating early Krill Krill boards used by Rover Thomas, he did not begin painting conspicuously in his own right until the late 1980s. Rover Thomas’s Krill Krill had been integral to the cultural and artistic rejuvenation at Warmun in the late 1970s. A decade later Paddy Jaminji had become completely blind and Rover was joined by others most notably George Mung Mung, Jack Britten and Hector, who were important community leaders in Turkey Creek and the nearby Frog Hollow community, along with Queenie McKenzie and the much younger Freddy Timms.
From the outset, Hector’s imagery was noted for its quirky appeal and interesting narrative. His paintings depicted Kimberley history, including station life, as well as Christian themes. His highest priced work is a fine example. Painted for Easter ceremonies at Warmun in 1993, Ascension is an unusually large canvas, measuring 186 x 190 cm that sold for twice its high estimate, achieving $36,925, when sold at Sotheby’s July 2005 auction (Lot 43). In the painting two spirits depicted as shields, make a fire to cook fish while the abstracted owl-like disciples are gathered below. Ascending at the centre is a hill surrounded by smoke from the fire, which carries the obscured Jesus up to Heaven. The painting depicts a Christian theme in a highly original way that inextricably binds the narrative with Gidja lore, a hallmark of many of Hector’s best works.
His second highest sale was the $29,875 paid for another large canvas measuring 200 x 95 cm titled Kalumba Spear Hill that sold in Christies August 2005 Melbourne auction (Lot 33). This is a more conventional image of the Bungle Bungle ranges in lateral perspective seen from a distance at the top of the tall thin painting, with the specific site that lies within them depicted in the foreground. The appeal of this work rests more in the unusually large size, the soft palette, and the exquisite way in which the earth pigments have been worked to give a silky patina, rather like the highly burnished surface of ceramic vessels.
Hector was not a prolific painter, as he worked slowly and carefully. His sale rate at auction was quite good at 72% with 38 of 53 works sold until 2008 when only two of the nine works offered sold at auction and again in 2009, with only two of ten works selling. Yet in 2008 the fact that the two works both entered his ten highest sales resulted in two seemingly incongruous effects. His career clearance rate dropped dramatically to 65%, however, his average price jumped $600 thereby increasing his Art Market index by 11%. This lifted him seven places in the ratings of most successful artists from 81 to 74 and 49 to 45 amongst deceased artists. However his clearance rate has declined since his passing.
Hector's standing, however, is likely to increase along with his career average as major paintings are released over future years for, although he has four works that have sold for more than $21,000, the remaining six in his top ten results achieved less than $12,000. These major works do exist, but are tightly held by collectors. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any but his very best and largest works will ever reach the prices achieved for those of the more prolific and renowned Warmun artists like Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji and Queenie McKenzie. Hector’s oeuvre is dominated by smaller paintings and these have proved to be a fertile ground for collectors who have been able to acquire some very charming pieces under $10,000. In what was perhaps the bargain of the year. one lucky collector picked up the delightful Ngarrgoorroon Area 2003 at Mosgreen Auctions in August 2009 (Lot 124) for just $3,585.These works are beautifully prepared and lovingly rendered thus ensuring many years of pleasure until sold for an expected reasonable profit.
While size has not strictly been the determining factor in terms of value, those works painted in the early nineties have tended to fare better on the secondary market than those from the later nineties. Hector painted a number of boards for use in re-enactments of the Krill Krill ceremony and these have sold particularly well. They include three of his top ten highest results at sale to date. Expect Hector’s iconic Krill Krill ceremonial paintings on board to appreciated substantially. One of these, depicting a Magpie Goose, doubled in value from $10,350 to $21,600 in the four years between 1998 and 2002. This made the failure of 17 Dance Boards and Two Masks relating to the Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) Ceremony in 2010 particularly disappointing. Estimated at $120,000-150,000 at the October Deutscher & Hackett sale (Lot 85), the lack of interest from any major collector or institution was in part seen as due to the ill timing of the auction. But it was a wake up call to an industry desperately needing to cultivate new collectors and audiences.
Now his 18th highest result, the carvings Mary and Joseph 1993 depicting Jesus’s parents as two quirky birds, reflect Hector’s unique religious philosophy. When offered for sale by Deutscher~Menzies in 2000 (Lot 281) they sold for $5,875 against a presale estimate of just $1,200-1,500. This was Hector’s fourth highest result. At that time the Krill Krill boards, sold in 1998, held his two highest records. In a market that appreciates clear trends in distinct regions, carving is unusual in Warmun and their sale at that time was a testament to Hector’s brilliance as an individual artist. Should these or similar works be offered again in the future, one would expect a sharp increase in price. Works that depict the crossover between two seemingly contrasting religious world-views in three dimensional form, are rare.
Hector Jandany passed away in 2007 and left a generous, if not large, body of unique works. Though many are relatively small they are highly desirable and will always be relatively affordable. No Kimberley art collection could ever be considered complete without a good example of this great old artist’s work.