1910 - 1983
Wattie Karruwara was born in the Hunter River basin in the far north west of Western Australia c1910. In 1921 two shipwrecked sailors stole a canoe from a clansman and, in an attempt to cross the Hunter River, became swamped. On their return to shore, the owner of the canoe speared and killed them, and as a consequence the police detained four women and two men, of whom Wattie was one. After a period in Wyndam jail and a trial in Perth, Wattie Karruwara was eventually released as a minor, set free in the alien surroundings of Perth. It took him some twenty years to return to Broome and his home at Mowanjum, during which he worked with the police as a tracker in the gold fields of Western Australia.
In Mowanjum, Wattie lived with his uncle Micky Bungkuni a senior Wunambal elder who painted infrequently and, under his guidance, Wattie also began painting works. A few of these have been found over the years through various anthropologists who studied in the Kimberley area at that time. The earliest record of one of his paintings is a work titled Wandjina Man with long neck which was collected by anthropologist Norman Tindale in 1953. A number of Wattie’s works were donated to the University of Western Australia in the 1960's by linguist Peter Lucich, while Wandjina paintings created during the 1970's for Helen Groger Wurm are now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia.
Wattie’s Wandjina figures fall within the traditional genre of the region. The Wandjina are unique to the rock art of the Kimberley. They are said to have lain down in the caves and turned into a painting after their activities on earth. These spirit ancestors usually appear with a large face and dark eyes, but without a mouth. The Wandjina takes many forms according to the exact location and tribal group that are its custodians. Images can usually be identified across artists as they have strong individual traits. Wattie Karruwara and Charlie Numbulmoore were among the first artists to emerge as individual artistic identities prior to the 1970's. Karuwara’s Wandjinas are distinctive with long rays emanating vertically from the headdress, small eyes, nose, and delicate hands and feet.
However, Wattie is most famous for a series of watercolours quite different from these Wandjina paintings, and his occasional boab nut carvings. His works on paper were the result of a friendship developed between the artist and American anthropologist John McCaffrey who, in the early 1960’s, noting Wattie’s genius, provided him with small flat painting surfaces. Initially these took the form of portable barks, which McCaffrey had flown from Arnhem Land through Professor Roland Berndt as bark painting was not a Kimberley tradition. However the difficulty in obtaining the bark led the anthropologist to look for a simpler medium and, in Perth, he purchased the best quality paper and Windsor and Newton watercolour paints (Flynn 2003). The results were astounding and McCaffrey noted that Wattie painted 'sometimes up to eight hours straight, in a trance like state with eyes open' (cited in Flynn 2003: 10). Karruwara completed the series at the Derby Leprosarium after being diagnosed with leprosy. His friend McCaffrey 'spoke sadly of his leave-taking of Wattie, and was pleased to learn in 1997… that Wattie had later been released, and had lived until 1983' (Flynn 2003: 10). In all, more than 38 watercolours resulted from their exchange, the beauty of which resides in the naive charm of the colourful semi-naturalistic depictions of the flora and fauna of his country.
Wattie Karruwara is an art figure largely untied to a particular community. Being one of the first individual artists recognized in the Kimberley, his career did not follow the trajectory of many other Kimberley artists who only began receiving recognition post 1970s, with particular promotion from key figures such as Mary Macha. Instead his career was firmly entwined with early anthropological research in the Kimberley area. As a consequence many of the finest examples of his Wandjina figures are now in museums and national art galleries. Moreover these works are rare, bark being a tradition originating in Arnhem Land and a medium difficult to source in the Kimberley. Only four of his Wandjina barks have surfaced on the secondary market including: the impressive c.1962 work that sold for a considerable $26,350 against a presale estimate of $15,000-20,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2004; the 76 x 30 cm bark created in 1959 that achieved $13,200 as lot one in Lawson~Menzies May 2006 sale; and the more diminutive Wandjina c.1962 standing only 41 cm tall that was sold for a respectable $7,200 despite being estimated at $12,000-18,000 by Sotheby’s in July 2003.
It has been Wattie’s watercolours however, that have achieved his highest prices. In 2002 four watercolours from the McCaffrey collection were sold for more than $29,000 at Sotheby’s including one which set his record at $59,250. No doubt this result prompted the legendary sale of the entire remaining McCaffrey’s collection in 2003 through Sotheby’s at the request of John's widow Winifred. The sale, unprecedented of its kind, was catalogued under separate cover and looked to be enormously successful. None of the watercolour works sold for any less than $8,000 and the majority achieved prices in excess of $20,000. While several of the works passed their top estimates and one in particular achieved his third highest price ever at $40,450, other results were disappointing and the auction average for his watercolours fell by nearly half to $22,109. A relatively small proportion remained unsold, due to their optimistically high estimates rather than their quality. However when three of these were included again in Sotheby’s 2005 sales, they were once again passed in despite their obvious quality and a hefty drop in the estimates.
The sale of such a large body of work that was so beautifully documented positioned Wattie Karruwara as an important figure in Kimberley art history. His record on the secondary market is distorted by this one-off event, in much the same way as the records for works that occur in occasional sales of major collections tend to over inflate their values. Due to all the hype, the prices paid would have been at a premium, and it should be some years before any of the buyers of these works will be able to sell their pieces at a profit. This is evidenced by the fact that very few works have appeared since 2003 and those that sprang up in 2005 were passed in at auction. A few of his boab nuts and carved works have sold since the 2003 auction, but few significant watercolours have done well and have failed to rival the 2002 record prices. Indeed, in 2010, Untitled c.1965 resold for $30,000 seven years after it had originally been presented in the McCaffrey's collection, a loss of nearly $6,000. However 2010 results were not wholly disappointing, both works offered selling at an average of $27,000. This is in contrast to previous years. No works appeared during 2007 and in 2008 only two of the four works on offer were successful both of which were watercolours, with the highest price paid being $9,000 for a McCaffrey provenanced work measuring 56 x 76 cm that had been estimated by Sotheby's at $7,000-10,000 in their October sale (Lot 271). In 2006 a Wandjina slate nearly doubled its estimate selling for $13,200 at Sotheby's Melbourne, while in the same year Lawson-Menzies also achieved $13,200 in their May sale for a Wandjina on bark. 2015 was a disappointig year for works by this artist. While 3 of 5 lots on offer sold, the highest price achieved was for a painting on sandstone which sold for $14,966 at Sotheby's Thomas Vroom Collection sale in London. The only work that appeared in 2017 was an untitled watercolour on paper with McCaffrey provenance, which sold for just under $2,000. The work had last been sold in a 2008 Sotheby's auction for $8,000.
With just a few year’s results and recent falls in the value of his watercolours, it is difficult to predict the short-term future of works for this artist. Good bark paintings are rare and will always sell well if in good condition when they infrequently appear on the market. Of his 77 auction records, only 10 works have appeared for sale during the last decade, and those that have appeared to date are likely constitute the bulk of his artistic output. It is these works that are most likely to re-appear time and again in the market over the coming years. Nevertheless, Wattie Karruwara’s works are rare treasures, and despite the high estimates they are likely to carry, they should be thought of as integral to any serious Kimberley collection.