David Malangi, who began painting in the early 1960’s, played a vital role in the development of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement and became, during his lifetime, one of the great inspirational figures of Arnhem Land art. While, for many older Australians, he is best known for the image that featured on the now defunct one-dollar note, he was also a traveling ambassador for his country and his people and achieved worldwide recognition for his innovative yet deeply tradition-based bark paintings. He was born at the mouth of the Glyde River in Central Arnhem Land and like many of the Manharrju people, divided his time between periods at the off-shore Milingimbi mission and extended stays in his own country on the mainland, where he and his family lived according to traditional law. He often worked on the mission as a garden labourer and caring for livestock. He had been painting for ceremony since his teenage years but, after the death of his father in the late sixties, he became apprenticed to the ceremonial leader Ghawadanygulili. He soon took a more serious approach to art as a career and painted for a growing audience outside of his tribal group. He had already been painting for more than fifteen years when, in 1979, he became a founding member of the Ramingining Arts and Crafts centre, later called Bula Bula Arts. This enabled him to paint full time. In 1966, after Paris-based collector Karel Kupka purchased his work for the Musee National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie in Paris, Malangi’s bark Mortuary Feast 1963 was noticed by the Australian Reserve Bank and, without his permission, used as a design for the new one dollar bill. The design depicted the funeral of the first man, the hunter Gurrmirringu, who lies in state surrounded by seated song men with clapsticks and didgeridoo, ensuring that the ancestral spirit arrives safely at his final destination. Surrounding the group were the animals representing the hunter’s catch and his final funeral feast. The white berry tree, with its ordered rows of berries and leaves, structured and framed the picture while at its roots lurked Dharpa, the King Brown Snake, the evil spirit whose bite had killed Gurrmirringu. This image depicted the occasion of the first death and how Gurrmirringu’s spirit came to watch over the Manyarrngu people. As this Dreaming myth was of sacred significance and Malangi felt responsible as its custodian for the theft, he was deeply upset when he eventually saw it. At this time non-Indigenous Australians considered that, as Aboriginal art was communally owned, individual copyright should not apply in law. It would be many years and many individual legal cases before Indigenous copyright would be established, however the publicity that was generated by David Malangi’s anguish played a vital role in stimulating the debate about Aboriginal intellectual rights both legally and morally. He was eventually awarded a specially struck medal and paid one thousand dollars for the design. The governor of the Reserve Bank, Dr. Nugget Coombs who presented these to him, became his lifelong friend and went on to become a legendary figure in Australian politics and a tireless advocate for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Malangi began to take aspects of the Gurrmirringu myth and explore new compositional possibilities in individual paintings, often setting the scene with the plants and animals before the grand event. His style was unmistakable with its masterly draughtsmanship, rich natural pigments and captivating composition. His bold, iconic depictions of ancestral beings became established figures in the Australian psyche. Another focus of Malangi’s work was the mapping of his mother’s country, Yathalamarra, through the journeys of its mythic ancestors. In tracing their travels he depicted the sacred sites and life giving waterholes they created as they passed; the plants and animals they named; and the ceremonies and religious knowledge they provided in order to assure both the physical and spiritual sources of human sustenance. By this time, Aboriginal art was entering the forefront of the Australian art scene, generating great international interest and becoming sought after as representing an extraordinary and unique cultural heritage. Malangi was a key figure in these developments. He was one of the first Aboriginal artists to be included in the Sydney Biennale and in 1983, his suite of paintings in Australian Perspecta at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, constituted an incontrovertible land rights statement that later contributed to a successful claim by his people. He was sought out to participate in other major exhibitions and events, including the New York exhibition Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia, 1988, and the permanent Aboriginal Memorial 1988, at the National Gallery, Canberra. In 1989, twenty three years after his Mortuary Feast design had been used without his permission, Malangi again played a pivotal role in the benchmark case that finally, and for all time, established copyright for all Aboriginal artists. He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws by the Australian National University in 1996 and two years later received an Emeritus Award from the Australia Council. Doctor David Daymirringu Malangi was now world famous but still lived with his four wives in the beautiful freshwater region of Yathalamarra, his mother’s country, painting diligently and encouraging his many children towards art and education. Late in his life, during the 1990’s Malangi, in a way reminiscent of Henri Matise and Constantin Brancusi, distilled everything he had ever wanted to say into the most iconic simplified imagery. Two of these remain the most indelible and powerful statements about the connection between Aboriginal people and their land. Luku, meaning foot but also root, depicted the footprint of Malangi’s ancestor Gurrmirringu. The other, which was other most likely the last painting he ever created, depicts in black and white with simple yellow outline, the encrusted mud at Dhamala. Both denote Malangi’s connection to the subterranean domain, the spiritual source of all worldly beings and of the country that holds them. For Malangi, this was the ever-present awareness that had always fuelled his generous and deeply creative soul. In 1998 the entire community, from the youngest person to the oldest, paraded to a gathering outside Bula Bula Arts to celebrate David Malangi’s ‘retirement.' Elders led every clan group in their own totemic dance in paying honour to Malangi as he sat, resplendent in white, surrounded by his large extended family. It was, for all who participated, an incredibly moving occasion. He passed away the following year, greatly missed and very fondly remembered by friends and a large number of far-flung admirers. Five years after his death, a major retrospective exhibition of his works, No Ordinary Place: The Art of David Malangi, was held at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and toured to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
During his lifetime David Malangi was one of the best known and loved Aboriginal artists in Australia. He was more highly recognised, during the 1970s and 1980s than most of the desert painters whose reputations did not transcend his until the early 1990s. He was a prolific bark painter whose works were collected by major museums throughout Australia as well as France, Germany and the United States of America. The list of prestigious exhibitions that included his works, the awards that he was given, and the books in which his artworks featured is as impressive as any other single Aboriginal artist. His works first appeared at auction in 1987 and since that time over 150 have been offered. However the fact that his works have been available since the earliest specialist auctions were held, as well as his prolific production has mitigated against his average prices despite the high regard in which he is held. While he was principally known as a bark painter he occasionally created carvings and it was for two of these rare works, created during the 1960s, that his highest record prices have been recorded. The first Gurrmirringu’s Wife c.1968, stood 85 cm high and sold for $56,900 in Sotheby’s July 2005 auction (Lot 67). The other, a smaller double-sided piece measuring 56 x 56 cm of Gurrmirringu and His Wife c.1961 fetched $33,400 when sold in Sotheby’s July 2003 auction (Lot 235). These were astronomical prices justifying the high estimates Tim Klinginder of Sotheby’s placed on the works. In fact these excellent results indicate that rare sculptural pieces have been received with far more interest than even the very finest of Malangi’s more ubiquitous bark paintings. Admittedly, the two spectacular carvings were created in the 1960s, however another one half the size, that was made c.1980 had sold below the lower estimate for a mere $690 in Sotheby’s June 1997 sale (Lot 300). Nevertheless a hardwood boomerang featuring painted File Snakes sold for a very healthy $6,362 at Joel Fine At in June 2007 (Lot 86) against a presale estimate of $2,000-3,000 and a ceremonial paddle created in 1969 sold for $1,200 at Lawson~Menzies in May 2006 (Lot 248). While these were beautifully realised pieces of art, one can only assume that the premium paid for Malangi’s sculptural pieces was due to their rarity. Only eight have been offered since 1987 and six have sold. This may also apply to the only work on canvas ever recorded as having been offered for sale. Gurrmirringu Story c.1992 measuring 183 x 188 cm was offered at Sotheby’s in July 2001 (Lot 175) and achieved $8,400, the artists third highest price for a painting and his fifth highest price overall. Sotheby’s indicated that this work, previously exhibited at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, was reputedly the artist’s first attempt to paint on canvas rather than bark and it was possibly the largest work he ever created. Malangi was obviously unimpressed with the medium as, having held several solo exhibitions for him in Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery during the late 1990s, I never saw any evidence of others. However he did engage in printmaking and while only one print has appeared to date at auction, three works on paper have been offered and all three have sold at an average price of $1,752, the best being Burala Cormorant and Waterlillies 1995, created in natural earth pigments and measuring 98 x 70 cm. This sold for $3,360 at Lawson~Menzies in November 2004 (Lot 340). The highest price for a bark was the $9,000 paid for a 86 x 63 cm work titled Gunmirringu (sic) the Great Hunter 1985, which sold in Lawson~Menzies June 2004 auction (Lot 264). This image and that of the canvas work mentioned above, was very similar to the artwork reproduced on the one-dollar note for which David Malangi was famous. Interestingly, it was for bark paintings that David Malangi was most famous, yet his barks have often languished when offered for sale. For an artist who painted for nearly 40 years it seems unusual that the year his works were painted appears to make little difference to the price, while the image seems to be the determining factor. For example, the average price for a work featuring ‘catfish’ in the title is only $1,500, while the average for a similar sized bark with Gurrmirringu is closer to $4,000. By looking at the trend of his average prices over the years and ignoring 2001 when just one work sold (his second best result) it appears that, apart from a spike in 2004 when 11 works sold at an average of $3,737 and 2005 when seven sold for an average of $10,511, there has been very little change since 1994. Only 9 of his paintings have sold for more than $5,000; while 20 have sold for between $2,500 and $5,000; over 45 between $1,000 and $2,500; and 15 for less than $1,000. Granted these records have been achieved over two decades however, along with the prices paid for his sculptures, they provide ample evidence that for an artist of such importance, David Malangi’s paintings are very good buying indeed. However, between 2016 and 2017 only two bark paintings were offered and both passed in. Since the secondary market for Aboriginal art gained pace in the early 1990s, collectors have been prepared to pay extremely high prices for even the most ordinary 1971-1974 desert paintings. And when compared to the prices currently being paid for the vast majority of contemporary desert and Kimberley works, not to mention a host of bark painters that were taught by Malangi and his contemporaries (such as John Mawurndjurl and Ivan Namariki) in the primary market, paintings by Malangi and a number of his contemporaries are vastly undervalued. Bark painters like Malangi produced works that, in the opinion of those that have real historical and cultural knowledge and insight, are the epitome of Aboriginal fine art. That being the case, now is most definitely the time to acquire one for any respectable collection.