Lofty Nadjamerrek was born and spent his youth at Kukkurlumurl and his clan lands in the Mann River region of Western Arnhem Land. It was amongst these rocky outcrops and caves, where they camped during the wet season, that Nabardayal's father, Yanjorluk, taught him the art of rock painting. Indeed a number of Yanjorluk and Nabardayal’s earliest cave paintings survive to this day, in the Kodwalehwaleh region of the Djordi clan estate.
Nabardayal left Arnhem Land as a teenager, migrating to the tin mining region of Maranboy, a two hundred kilometer walk to the south. He worked at the mine, where his European boss dubbed him Lofty, a reference to his tall stature, until the mine’s collapse in the face of the Federal Government’s equal pay legislation. Prior to this time, Indigenous workers were paid in rations and tobacco. Bardayal then took up stock work on various cattle stations until the onset of WWII. He left for the bush at one point, but was promptly brought back and forcibly made to work at the Army’s Stirling Mill near Mataranka. ‘We had to work, we were all frightened, there was nothing we could do and all that working has given me grey hair‘ (cited in West 1995: 8). With the end of the war Lofty returned to his clan lands and then into Oenpelli (Gunbalanya), where he worked as a buffalo-shooter. He married Mary Kalkiwarra, who gave birth to three of their eight children there.
Though a number of anthropologists had visited Oenpelli and collected paintings on bark, beginning with Sir Baldwin Spencer in 1912, it was not until Peter Carrol had arrived that bark paintings were created ‘commercially’. Encouraged by Carol’s energy and enthusiasm, his linguistic interest in the culture, and a policy of paying 60% ‘up-front’ for bark paintings, Bardayal began to paint in earnest from 1969 onward. Even though there was a significant international demand for bark paintings at this time, no ‘official’ art centre existed in Oenpelli until 1989. Between 1970 and 1987 the Aboriginal Development Commission’s Aboriginal Arts and Crafts, later renamed Aboriginal Arts Australia, exhibited bark paintings in its galleries located in each of the capital cities. Lofty’s bark paintings were a familiar mainstay and ‘field operatives’ including Dorothy Bennett aided in their collection and documentation, with additional works being sent to dealers such as Jim Davidson in Melbourne and emerging privately owned outlets such as Sydney’s Coo-ee and Hogarth Galleries. During this period, Lofty’s career continued to blossom and receive recognition in group shows that focused on the art of the ‘Stone Country’ and the Oenpelli region in particular. By this time, with the encouragement toward self-determination initiated by the Whitlam government, Bardayal had moved from Oenpelli and lived at a number of outstations, before establishing his own at Malkawo in 1980. Tragically, in 1988 the family Lofty had been living with was shot, and this preempted his move to Kamarrkawarn, in his mother’s country on the Mann River, where he and his family resided until his death in October 2009.
The establishment of Injalak Arts at Gubalanya in 1989 finally brought about the recognition that Lofty deserved, as one of the community's most significant artists. His subjects range across a wide array of secular and spiritual themes. Bardayal’s style is firmly seated within Western Arnhem Land conventions, with figurative elements contained within an unadorned red, brown or black ochre background. His predominantly white figures are in-filled with a combination of X-ray details of their internal organs and his own uniquely identifiable cross-hatched (rarrk) patterns. The design elements in his work differ from other Western Arnhem Land painters of his generation, such as Mick Kubarkku, with whom he is strongly associated since the important 1995 landmark exhibition Rainbow, Sugarbag and Moon - The Art of Mick Kubarkku and Bardayal Nadjamerrek. The exhibition was mounted by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. While both of these artists' styles are related to the rock art tradition, Bardayal confines his in-fill patterns to red parallel lines, that are more closely associated with these conventions than the geometric body paint designs from which Kubarkku derives his own unique cross-hatching. Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, praised him for his ‘sure draughtsmanship and sense of proportion, the mark of a great artist‘ and concludes, that his ‘ power of outline, not the patterning within each figure, is what transmits life to the compositions‘ (1990: 80).
During the later part of his life, Lofty continued to paint, most notably on Arches paper due no doubt to the difficulty of collecting suitable bark. Despite a long and enduring career, it is only since 2005 that solo exhibitions of his work were organized by Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne and Annandale Galleries in Sydney. However the group shows that he participated in were many and various since his first exhibition in 1975 at the Meadow Brook Art Gallery in Rochester, Michigan. In 1982 one of his paintings was used on the Australian 40c stamp, and in 1999 he won the Telstra Work on Paper Art Award at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, having been an entrant many times since the first Award was given in 1984. Furthermore, after a lifelong legacy of creativity, in 2004 he was a richly deserving recipient of the Order of Australia for his lasting contribution to Australian culture.
Considering the serious push behind his work by a number of important galleries including Sydney’s Annandale Galleries, and the records set for works by John Mawandjurl and several North East Arnhem Land painters in recent years, Lofty’s best works are seriously undervalued in the secondary market. His works did not finally rise above $10,000 on the secondary market until 2008, despite the variety of their subject matter and the four-decade period over which they were painted. While Lofty had been a most important Arnhem Land artist, his lack of stellar sales was due principally, in my opinion, to the under appreciation of barks paintings in general, and the fact that few of his finest works had been offered for sale at auction.
In 2008 and 2009, three works transcended his record price that had stood since 2000, when $8,625 was paid against an estimate of $5,000-8,000 at Sotheby's in June for Namarrkon - The Lightning Man, an image composed of a highly potent bold singular figure against a red ochre background (Lot 98). It is surprising to look at the image, which is a very long way from his best work, and imagine that this could possibly have held his record price during an eight year boom for Aboriginal art, especially in light of prices charged for his paintings on the primary market. However, in 2008 no less than four works entered his top ten results, making this his most successful year historically to that time and lifting his career average price by close to $500 and his AAMI by 14%.
Despite the success of Nawaram - Rock Python Eating Dreamtime Woman–Ngalyangdon and Male and Female Mimihs, which became the artists two highest records at $14,400 and $11,400 when sold at Sotheby’s in October 2008 (Lots 70 and 71) both were relatively static compositions created in the early to mid 1970s. They both lacked particular distinction other than their provenance, having once been part of the Jerome Gould collection in Los Angeles.
By far the finest work that had been offered at auction to that time was Creatures of the Sacred Maraian Ceremony 1991, which sold at Sotheby’s in July 2004. In what is a complex compositional arrangement, an array of animal and plant imagery central to the Sacred Maraian Ceremony were depicted with stunning execution on a full sheet of Arches paper. One can only envy the purchaser of this beautiful 100 x 153 cm piece, which was estimated at just $7,000-10,000 and sold for a mere $8,100.
In 2013, however, Bonham's held a sale of the Clive Evatt Jnr.'s collection of Arnhem Land barks and scultpure. The lively octogenarian was renowned for taking a punt. He had famously bought a major painting from Brett Whiteley with a boot full of cash after a massive win at the races. He reputedly won the building where he established the Hogarth Galleries, which became Sydney’s first privately owned commercial gallery of Aboriginal fine art in Australia during the mid 1970s. Its founding director, Kerry Steinberg (better known by her maiden name, Williams) built the Arnhem Land collection and for a period of eight years, at least a decade before institutions began purchasing in any quantity directly from the communities, a significant proportion of the Australian National Gallery’s collection was purchased through the Hogarth.
The sale of Evatt's bark paintings and sculptures was held on 24 November 2013, and it was touted in the media that he had left his most treasured barks till last. Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Munggurrawuy Yunupingu were the undisputed stars of the sale. No less than four works by Lofty smashed his previous record. Lighning Spirit (Namarrkon) sold for $47,580, Mimi Spirits Dancing achieved $36,600, and images of Ngalyod (The Rainbow Serpent) and Kolobarr (The Plains Kangaroo) both sold for $28,060. On the strength of this sale, Lofty was recorded as the 6th most successful artist in 2013 after no less than 6 individual paintings entered his top ten result. In fact, 4 of these works broke his previous highest record at auction and these propelled him from 102nd to 72nd on the list of Aboriginal art’s most successful artists. The 92% success rate in this one sale lifted his career success rate at auction from 68% to 72% and his average price at sale to $6,596.
Lofty has created a great many works on paper and, in general, these have not been popular on the secondary market indicating collectors’ ethnographic preference. In fact, the majority of his works that have failed to meet their reserves are works that were created on paper. This is to be expected, since his early works in good condition are favoured over his later ones, and it was not until the early 1990s that paper was available to Arnhem Land artists. However, if it is a particularly good image with his wonderful rarrk-work, neither the date of execution nor the medium seems to affect the sale price, as witnessed by his sixth highest price at auction to date. During the last decade of his productive life, Lofty’s works lost much of their precision and commonly appeared messy due to his infirmity. Nevertheless, galleries preferred to sell them without having any blemishes ‘touched up’. Although he had all but ended his artistic career, he continued to paint the odd work for the Injaluk Art centre while providing paintings to outlets in Jabiru and Darwin, including Phil Hall's Aboriginal Fine Arts Gallery and Marrawuddi arts.
Lofty painted for almost 40 years and fine works are likely to come up for auction on a regular basis. Prior to 2013, I had consisently advised collectors to buy his works while they could be obtained for no more than $10,000. The effect of his passing in late 2009 had yet to be seen on the market, and like the passing of fellow Arnhem Land artist Mick Kubarkku the previous year, a spike in both works on offer and sales results was always on the cards. Indeed, the time for purchasing his works at reasonable prices may well already be over. His retrospective at the Sydney MCA at the start of 2011 saw his artistic contribution finally recognised and the secondary market was always going to follow suit.
Given the invaluable legacy of a 40 year long artistic career and the high regard in which his art is held, it was surprising that Lofty Nadjamerrek’s most prized works did not fetch infinitely higher prices until fairly recently. It seems to have been forgotten that there was a time in the late 1960s, prior to the genesis of the Western Desert art movement, when the international demand for bark paintings was so great that it far exceeded supply. After Baldwin Spencer initiated the first major commission of bark paintings from Oenpelli artists in 1912, a string of visiting anthropologists followed, culminating in Roland and Catherine Berndt’s visit in the 1940s. This marked a pivotal moment in the growth of public awareness about Indigenous Australia’s rich cultural heritage. At that time Western Arnhem Land X-ray and Mimi paintings had become firmly established in the Australian psyche as the ‘epitome of Indigenous art' (West 1995: 5). Seen in this light, it seems bewildering that, apart from a small number of Wandjina barks of the Kimberley, few Western Arnhem Land artists have attracted sales that come even close to those paid for top works on canvas, with the very rare exception of major works by historic figures such as Yirawala that have sold for more than $20,000.
Outside this limited, and very specific category of early bark paintings, historically important figures like Lofty Nabardayal Nadjamerrek, who have painted well into the boom period of the Aboriginal art market, continue to sell for far less.