Peter Marralwanga resided for most of his life at the remote outstation of Marrkolidjban, in Western Arnhem Land. Although he moved to the nearby government settlement at Maningrida to lobby for formal recognition of his outstation in the 1960's, he soon returned to country, driven by a dislike of the lifestyle and concerns of foraging mining companies on Kunwinjku lands. Bark painter Yirawala shared Maralwanga’s desire for an outstation at Marrkolidjban as his clan lands lay in the surrounding country. The two forged a close friendship and it was under Yirawala’s tutelage that, around 1970, Maralwanga began to transfer his great ceremonial knowledge onto barks that were sold for an income that proved vital for the economic viability of their outstation.
Naturally, Marralwanga was greatly influenced by Yirawala, particularly in the use of cross-hatching or rarrk in-fill, derived from the designs of the Mardayin ceremony. Yirawala has been attributed as the first Kunwinjku artist to adopt these designs into their bark paintings. There was a marked stylistic difference between these and barks created earlier, which imitated the x-ray manner of rock painting without a great deal of decorative in-fill. Maralwanga was innovative with his rarrk techniques and empowered many of the next generation of artists, such as John Mawurndjul and his own sons Ivan Namirrkki and Samuel Namunjdja to continue experimentation and invention in their works. However, Maralwanga differed from these younger artists, particularly Mawurndjul, who allows rarrk designs to drive his work into pure abstraction. In contrast, Marralwanga’s compositions always centered upon the figurative, to which the rarrk designs remained subservient while altering the formal convention of the rarrk’s colour sequencing and orientation in order to illuminate, to its utmost, the flow and movement of the figure.
Marralwanga explained the interplay in his work, between stylistic conventions and his own personal interpretation, as being ‘half secret one, half ordinary one' (cited in Taylor 2004: 123); one half being determined by Marralwanga’s own emotional response to every day life on the land and the other half by the more formalised spiritual connotations of that same land. Thus Marralwanga’s work carries layers of meaning. At one level, that of his distinct visual aesthetic and interpretation, but always underneath remains a link to deeper spiritual meaning.
In his rendition of the giant creator spirit Luma Luma, complex rarrk designs adorn this central figure of the Mardayin ceremony to evoke its power to transform upon death into the sacred objects, which the ceremony centers upon. While in Mimi Spirit Dancing at Catfish Ceremony 1979 he portrays a large catfish of the type caught in fish-traps during the run-off of the rivers at the end of the wet season. The scale of the fish allowed him to explore the subtleties of rarrk and contrast these with the bold colours and shapes of the fish's tail and backbone. A Mimi spirit dances to the lower right to indicate that it was the Mimi who taught Marralwanga’s ancestors to hunt and fish and who gave this power totem to them. And in his depiction of Yingara, the Rainbow serpent, the weed in the waterholes is the hair of his second born daughter, the mermaid-like Ngalkunburruyayami, while the vines growing in the nearby trees are the feathered strings she and his son, Ngalod, carried.
Marralwanga’s scope of subjects was diverse and revealed a profound and deeply spiritual knowledge. As Luke Taylor lamented during a conversation with Marralwanga about the mermaid-like Yawk Yawk spirits, while ‘we can begin to learn the outside aspects of spirituality in these works, I don’t believe that non-Aboriginal people can progress to feeling this spirituality in exactly the same way as the artist' (1991: 26).
Peter Marralwanga was a truly great painter who lived and died before Aboriginal art gained its current national and International prominence. In 1981 and 1983 he had solo exhibitions with Mary Macha at Aboriginal Traditional Arts in Perth and at the time was second only in recognition to his lifelong friend and countryman Yirawala as the most influential Kunwinjku artists of their generation. His works were included in the important landmark exhibitions; A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art in 1989, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality in 1991 and Crossing Country - the Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art in 2004 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Peter Marralwanga created paintings for close to 20 years and during that time institutions collected many of his finest works. He began painting prior to the formation of any art centres in Arnhem Land and sold works to Dorothy Bennett, Jim Davidson and others, who infrequently visited his outstation on buying trips. Marralwanga became an active member of Maningrida Arts and Culture upon its establishment in the late 1960’s and, in the absence of all but a few private galleries, it was through the Government owned Aboriginal Arts and Crafts marketing company that he gained greater recognition as it opened galleries in each of the State capitals between 1970 and 1987.
His work first appeared on the secondary market in 1994 when all three of those offered failed to sell. However, over the next three years his paintings fared much better with all nine of those offered finding willing buyers. Overall his success rate is a very healthy 76% at auction, although his best year was as long go as 1999, the year his record sale was achieved for Untitled (Saltwater Crocodile) c.1972. This large bark measuring 210 x 90 cm sold for $21,850 at Sotheby's in June of that year against a presale estimate of $15,000-25,000 (Lot 15). The painting is of exquisite beauty and detail, with shades of purple ochre unique to Marralwanga’s country. Though it is characteristic of his style in its diverse arrangement of the clan design that illuminates the rotund crocodile in motion, its age and subject sets it apart from many of his other works. A white figure sits above the figure of the Crocodile lying on a vast plain background, clearly resembling an artifact of some ethnographic importance. In contrast, works such as Mimih Spirit Dancing at Catfish Ceremony 1979 are distinctive for their innovative pattern and intricacy, This work sold for a considerable $13,200 at Sotheby’s in July 2005 when estimated at $10,000-15,000 (Lot 56). And in November 2006, despite an estimate of just $3,000-4,000 a magnificent Lorrkon, Hollow Log Coffin, c.1977 sold for $10,200, and became his highest priced sculpture to date. (Lot 83).
Despite his success at auction there have been some notable failures. Luma Luma c. 1980 which had sold for $9,200 in 1999, failed to resell in 2006 at an estimate of $15,000- 25,000 despite being a stunning piece. Though smaller than the work that holds his record, it was still a substantial painting measuring 172.5 x 50.5 cm and certainly looked to have all the ingredients required to break a record that had stood for seven years. In the buoyant mood of the market, its failure to sell seems to indicate that Marralwanga’s works may have reached a plateau. Another minor work, Jati the Frogs, 1975, failed to sell at Sotheby’s in 2003 while carrying an estimate of $4,000-6,000 and when offered a year later with an estimate of just $2,000-3,000 failed once more to find a buyer. Though his best works achieve good prices, only nine have sold for more than $10,000. This is not particularly encouraging when compared to results achieved by many far less important desert painters. His average price for paintings is low at just $5,374 yet both of the sculptures that have appeared to date have sold at an average price of $6,780.
While his sale rate is high, there is no doubt that the trajectory of Marralwanga’s works on the secondary market has, undeservedly in my opinion, not compared favourably to that of his contemporary Yirawala. Though some of Marralwanga’s works, particularly of crocodile headed rainbow serpents appear a little frightening, perhaps even garish to the Western eye, his works are unique and his figures are animated and full of life. He is an artist who is certainly worthy of far greater recognition by serious collectors. During 2010 two sales entred his top ten results, as well as one in 2011. Though Sotheby's July 2010 sale suffered poor results, Maralwanga’s lively Yawk Yawk bark (Lot 82) become his third highest career result selling for $11,400. Another powerful Namarnkon (Lightning Man) image became his ninth best result. During 2011 he was the 95th best performer, bringing his AIAM ranking to135th amongst all artists of the movement. 2017 saw another work displace previous top ten results, when Borlung the Rainbow Serpent sold for $11,780. There is reason to believe that this success should be sustained over the years ahead.