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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

1933 - 2002


Clifford Possum was the first recognised star of the Western Desert art and one of Australia’s most distinguished painters of the late twentieth century. After his father, Tjatjiti Tjungurrayai, passed away during Clifford’s youth in the 1940s, his mother, Long Rose Nangala, settled at Jay Creek with her second husband, One Pound Jim Tjungurrayai. One Pound Jim, a legendary figure in Central Australia, acted as guide to early travellers and anthropologists and became the Aboriginal face of the centre after his portrait featured on the stamp used by the Australian postal service between1950 and the introduction of decimal currency in 1966. It was under his tutelage, with that of other Tjungurrayai men that Clifford was initiated into manhood at Napperby Station. Yet it was from Tjatjiti’s country West of Mount Allan that Clifford inherited his famed Love Story and this, along with the Bush Fire Dreaming inherited from his mother’s country south of Yuendumu, became the major Dreamings he came to depict in his art. During his early days Possum worked with cattle at Glen Helen, Mount Allan, Mount Wedge, Napperby Station and Hamilton Downs. He began his artistic career at Glen Helen when he found that he earned more pay and lived under better conditions while producing carvings for the developing tourist market than he had as a stockman. His carvings of wooden snakes and goannas, like those of his classificatory ‘brother’ Tim Leura, were renowned in Central Australia for their brilliant craftsmanship. Together they worked on the construction of the Papunya settlement in the early 1950s, joining Clifford’s first cousin Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, the son of Long Rose’s sister Margie Long. It was during this period that Clifford married Emily Nakamarra who became the mother of his four children, Daniel, Lionel, Gabriella, and Michelle. Tim Leura became a founding member of the Papunya Tula artists, Clifford Possum did not join the growing band of active painters working with art teacher Geoffrey Bardon until February 1972. His unique artistic style developed rapidly and was characterised by its innovative use of spatial configuration beyond the more conventional Papunya idiom of dots, circles and lines. This inventiveness with space, perhaps derived from his skills in woodcarving prior to the Papunya movement, resulted in early paintings that conveyed a remarkable sense of atmosphere. These stood out from those of other Western and Central Desert artists, who were less preoccupied with evoking a psychological mood in their paintings. His small early career works, however, were a mere foretaste of the grandeur of the paintings he was to create, on an unprecedentedly massive scale, in the late 1970s. They have been described as ‘beautiful palimpsests’ of his extensive multiple Dreaming sites, seen from shifting viewpoints in space. Clifford’s works at this time enabled the 'unfamiliar viewer to see these sites as a fusion of the abstract diagrams of ancestral passage in the traditional expressive forms of the Western Desert, with the maps of Europeans' (Johnson 2003: 79), a form very familiar to the Western onlooker. As he developed his art practice, Clifford introduced Western iconography and figurative imagery to convey certain elements in his narratives. This played a dual role in both making them more intelligible to western audiences, and allowing him to create imaginative compositions within the parameters of the ‘law’. Possum was acutely aware, as one of the founders of the desert paining movement, that to give away too much ancestral meaning could at that time have risked his life. He employed a set of his own invented, secular, non-traditional motifs in what would become a recurrent theme in his art, the 'Man's Love Story.'  This story is a story of the Tjungurrayai man who desired, against kinship rules, a Napangardi woman, and wooed her by spinning hair string while singing love songs. This and other works from the start of the 1980s onwards are characterised by a complex of designs rendered with modulated tone and broken colour. The fractured shaping of the in-filled fields of dots achieves an extraordinary visual effect, ‘flat but with a thin three-dimensional disguise’ (Bardon 2004: 82). It was only towards the end of Clifford’s life that there was a dramatic reduction in his palette. His most emblematic final works are bleak depictions in black and white; boys skeletal remains float starkly on unadorned backgrounds as if ethereally infused with the artist's 'own impending sense of death' (Nicholls 2004: 24). The retrospective of his work that toured extensively throughout Australia from 2002 included works spanning the artist’s 30 year career with the wonderful examples of his early smaller works of 1972-1973, and the dramatic skeletal sketches of the final years acting as the bookends to a great artistic adventure. While Clifford himself may have pointed to his private audience with Queen Elizabeth II as the highlight of his career, the low point was most likely his discovery of an exhibition full of fakes in Sydney in the late 1990s and the adverse publicity that this attracted. Despite the fact that he was the only Papunya Tula artist honoured with a solo retrospective by a major institution by the beginning of the current millenium, he forsook his association with the organization almost entirely by the mid 1980s. He returned to his Anmatjerre homeland at Mount Allan and began selling his works directly to the government marketing company, Aboriginal Arts Australia, in Alice Springs. He also signed and passed off as his own many other works that had been produced by Michael Tommy, Brogus Tjapangarti and other countrymen in order to maximise their income. In the late 1980s he produced a large body of works for John O’Laughlan who acted as his agent and travelled with him to his exhibition at Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London. Clifford worked for a time with disgraced dealer Chris Peacock in Adelaide whose company TOAC printed the logo ‘Bush Myths’ on the back of all canvases. Peacock worked with many artists who painted outside of the art centre system including Emily Kngwarreye. He was reported to have used stand over tactics and violent threats in forcing Possum to sign paintings that were not entirely his own. However the truth is elusive as sadly, by this time, Clifford was addicted to alcohol and gambling and was producing a large number of perfunctory minor works, signing paintings that he ‘owned’ but which he did not actually paint and others that were not entirely executed by his own hand. Throughout the early 1990s he lived and travelled with his daughters Gabriella and Michelle and his son-in-law Heath Ramzan as well as others. He worked for a variety of dealers including, Michael Hollows at his Aboriginal Desert Dreaming Gallery, Peter Los in Alice Springs and Semon Deeb at Jinta Gallery in Sydney. He painted for Frank Mosmeri in Broadmeadow and Des Rogers in Sunbury on the outskirts of Melbourne, and Swiss collector Arnaud Serval, who seemed to share a good relationship with the artist and ensured the works he handled were entirely in Clifford’s own hand. No doubt there were a great many others, as Clifford was a born entrepreneur and was in constant need of money. For a time his affairs were managed by Joy Aitken who sold amongst the genuine paintings, individually painted by Clifford and his daughters, many collaborative works where the daughters assistance was never acknowledged. Leaving Aitken with a number of canvases in various states of completion it appears that out of desperation, given the financial difficulties involved in keeping the ‘Possum Shop’ going, she crossed the Rubicon and completed the dotting on some of these works herself. Clifford’s career and standing reached its nadir when a solo exhibition organised for an important Sydney gallery in the late 1990s was exposed as being almost entirely composed of fakes. The works had been commissioned by the late Patrick Corbally Stoughton from Alice Springs based dealer John O’Laughlan who was found guilty of fraudulent involvement. When Clifford came down to view the exhibition he visited the Art Gallery of NSW and other institutions pointing out countless works purported to have been created by him but which he denied having painted. In abandoning the communal identity of the Papunya movement in favour of personally negotiating with the dominant western mainstream, the motivation of his painting practice became blurred in favour of his fame as a personality. In this regard his life was not dissimilar to that of Albert Namatjira who died 40 years earlier, before the Papunya movement had even begun. Both began their lives in a creek bed, light years from the international art circles in which they would later move with such fearless assurance. Clifford was actually asked by Namatjira to continue in his footsteps (Johnson 2002: 243), although undoubtedly he did not mean that he should do it quite so literally. Although physically unwell and with failing eyesight Clifford Possum lived throughout his final years in a loving relationship with Milanka Sullivan at Warrandyte in the hills outside of Melbourne and created many of his finest late career works in her care.  Sullivan has continued to work since Clifford’s death in 2002 authenticating his paintings and uncovering suspect and fake works and writing a book that she maintains will re-establish Clifford’s reputation as Aboriginal Australia’s finest painter. No life was written larger across the page of the Aboriginal Art Movement than that of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. During a career, which lasted more than 30 years, he produced a number of masterpieces that will come to be seen by Australians as amongst the most important works created in this country’s artistic history. His inclusion in major national and international exhibitions and his presence in the literature rivals that of any other Australian Aboriginal artist. He received an order of Australia for his contribution to the Western Desert art movement, was chairmen of Papunya Tula in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, and was the first real Ambassador for Aboriginal art around the world. He was honoured posthumously by a solo retrospective by the Art Gallery of South Australia which toured state galleries and, moreover, was the subject of two books on his life and work written by Vivien Johnson, his long time friend and biographer.


Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari’s career spanned more than 30 years. His most prolific period was between 1983 to 2000, after he began working independently of Papunya Tula Artists. His highest prices at auction have been predominantly for early boards painted in the first two years of the Papunya movement and these account for six of his ten top prices. By 2006 two quite different works had sold at his record price which then stood at $411,750. Both were recorded at Sotheby’s in July 2005. Emu Corroboree Man 1972 (Lot 72), a board measuring just 46 x 61.5 cm, handsomely exceeded expectations of $150,000-250,000 but not as spectacularly and unexpectedly, as the large 184 x 457 cm canvas Man’s Love Story 1993-1994 which carried an estimate of a mere  $50,000-70,000 (Lot 306). These estimates clearly reflected Sotheby’s belief that, given its rarity, the early board would be of greater value to serious collectors than the canvas painted more than 20 years later. Yet the monumental canvas, featuring many of the most innovative elements the artist had introduced into his work over the previous 20 years amply demonstrated the power that many of his late career works engender. At the time, a number of Clifford Possum collectors, particularly those with large holdings created during the 1990s, were not prepared to offer them for sale due to their disgust at the market’s apparent disinterest in works produced after he left Papunya Tula. Emboldened by this particular sale, a number of collectors began to release paintings on to the market for the first time since the scandals surrounding the artist in the mid to late 1990s. While the vast majority of these canvases lacked the elaborate complexity of the masterpiece sold at Sotheby’s, many were none-the-less rendered with great integrity and imbued with deep meaning, and demonstrated the artist’s unique design sense and artistry. Given the dearth of material of high quality on the market during the years 2003 and 2004, his sales between 2005 and 2007 were nothing short of spectacular, and as a result he was the fifth best performing Aboriginal artist over the period. Two strong results were achieved for Clifford’s 1990s canvases in 2005. In June, Lawson~Menzies sold Warlakurlangu 1994 estimated at $80,000-100,000 and measuring 138 x 211 cm for $96,000 (Lot 94). Six months later, Men's Spider Initiation 1999, a work measuring 184 x 201 cm sold at the low estimate of $120,000 to become the artist's seventh best record (Lot 114) at the time. Two years later the same painting was resold, once more by Lawson~Menzies, achieving $132,000. Offered once again through the same auction house in 2009 it sold for just $102,000. Those reading this review are invited to speculate as to why the same painting would be offered and appear to sell successfully four times in as many years through the same auction house while on each successive offering the price paid actually decreased. I could not possibly do so without inviting litigation. Regardless of any market shenanigans, Clifford Possum’s place in the annals of Aboriginal art was reinforced in spades during 2007 when, following Lawson~Menzies record breaking sale of Emily Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation 1995 for $1,056,000 in May, Sotheby’s announced that they would be offering the monumental 1977 masterpiece Warlugulong at an estimate of $1,800,000-2,500,000, and published it on the wrap around cover of their July 2007 catalogue. The painting had a fascinating history and had been last sold by Joel's in their April 1996 action with the title Legends of the Western Desert 1977 (Lot 109). In what is indicative of the rapid rise in interest and change in the dynamics of the Aboriginal art market during just one decade the 202 x 338.5 cm painting had been estimated at $3,000-5,000 in 1996 and sold for $39,600. It was purchased by Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings owner Hank Ebes who, having exceeded the limit set by his U.S. client, decided to go on bidding for the masterpiece himself. The work had hung in a cafeteria for the previous decade, and for the following 11 years held pride of place amongst a treasure trove of important indigenous paintings in Ebes Melbourne home. However with the closure of his successful Bourke Street gallery, Ebes released the work to Sotheby’s who sold it to the National Gallery of Australia for $2,400,000, a record for an Australian Aboriginal artwork that is likely to stand for many years into the future. Average prices and numbers of works offered at sale have almost doubled since his death in 2002. However they have risen from a rather low base average of just $10,000 through the 1990s and of the 578 paintings offered only 334 or 58% have sold. This confirms the unwillingness of owners to part with Clifford’s works cheaply given their belief that they have been prejudiced and undervalued in the market. Yet it is equally true that many contemporary collectors find Possum’s images problematic and are not drawn to his palette and general aesthetic. Although his works do not have the restricted colour and minimal imagery of a number of currently successful artists whose works better fit the contemporary aesthetic it is likely that, as fashions change, the lasting power and cultural content evident in the best of Clifford’s paintings will prove more satisfying to collectors with a more cultural bent. In addition, the market is generally unaware that there are a number of works created by the artist in the early 1990s that are every bit as good as the record holding 1977 Warlugulong painting. What’s more, they are painted in more splendid colours and are far more archivally sound. Both buyers and sellers need to be aware that, more importantly than is the case with any other single Aboriginal artist, paintings attributed to Clifford Possum must go through a very rigorous vetting process in order to establish their bona fides. So unwitting has been their entry into even the most prestigious collections, that wrongly attributed works and outright fakes lie dormant waiting for their authenticity to be verified by those expert in his iconography and painting style. Due to the volume of works presented to auction houses and their strict selection criteria, as well as the affection in which the best works are held by their owners, very few come up for re-sale apart from those that failed to reach their estimates in previous sales. One such work, an accomplished and attractive Worm Dreaming measuring 128 x 180 cm, that had sold for just $6,600 at Phillips in 1998 (Lot 5) achieved a price of $30,000 when re-offered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2005 (Lot 77). Clifford Possum rarely worked on paper. Only three such works have appeared at auction. One painted in 1972 reached $57,500 at Sotheby’s in June 2000 (Lot 111) while another undated work sold for $22,000. Carved and painted objects are also rare and highly sought after at sale. Eighteen of the 22 objects presented have sold at an average price of $10,026. The average price of his works had risen steadily throughout the ten years leading up to its peak in 2011, where it rested at $31,163. Since then Clifford's results have steadily declined. Although each of the five works offered in 2015 sold, they were all small and reached an average price of just $7,554. This left him wallowing in 54th place for that year. In the 2016 ranking he slipped further, ending at 76th place with an average sale price of $5,676. 2017 was another unremarkable year, with only one notable sale for $73,636. The year ended with him at 18th place. 2019 however, saw a significant rally in the fortunes of his works. 80% of the 20 works on offer found new homes and he was the 4th most successful artist in that year., in keeping with his place as the 4th highest ranking artist of the movement. Though Clifford's artistic legacy is vast and uneven, his best works represent extremely good value in the current market and he remains one of the most enduring and important Australian Aboriginal artists of all time. Provenance will always be an issue with works attributed to Clifford Possum, and buyers should take every precaution to ensure that paintings credited to him are in fact authentic and unassisted. Those collectors with works that turn out to have been assisted by others should reattribute them accordingly. They may still be highly desirable pieces and worthy of sale even though their value is likely to be diminished.

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