Cookie Stewart Tjapaltjarri (Paddy)
Cookie Stewart Tjapaltjarri (Paddy)
Paddy (Cookie) Stewart (c.1940) has justifiably been described as a ‘living legend’. His early years were relatively free from European influence, but as a young man he began working across the Northern Territory on the cattle stations that were gradually disrupting the traditional nomadic life of the Warlpiri people. Nevertheless, they still maintained their ancient traditions through ceremony and song and this provided the bedrock of Paddy’s vast knowledge that would eventually inform his painting.
Paddy Stewart was present during the crucial early period in the emergence of Western Desert art at Papunya. The enforced settlement of different tribal groups there saw him participate in the discussion and exchange that took place at the time of the groundbreaking Honey Ant mural in 1971. Soon after, however, he moved to settle at Yuendumu, 100 kilometres to the north and closer to his traditional Warlpiri homelands. More than ten years later he was instrumental in the art movement that sprang up there.
Unlike the all-male group at Papunya, painting at Yuendumu was initiated by a group of women giving rise to a quite different painting style. There was concern among the elders that the young people were loosing touch with their cultural identity and spiritual roots. In 1984, school principle Terry Davis asked the senior men to join in addressing this educational imperative by painting ancestral designs on the school doors.
Of the total 30 doors that were painted, Paddy Stewart painted eighteen and three more in collaboration with other artists including Larry Jungarrayi Spencer, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Roy Jupurrurla Curtis, with help from of some of the schoolchildren. This ‘eruption of painting’ was characterized by large brushstrokes and a ‘messy’ finish, clearly distinguishing it from the earthy ochres and hard edge precision of Papunya works. Although over time the Yuendumu style has refined, the bright colours and meandering spontaneity have remained a trademark. The doors expressed the passionately independent Warlpiri spirit. No instructions had been given with the new synthetic colours, no aesthetic suggestions or special requirements, the five artists let loose with loud pinks, purples and blues in a confident gestural style, revolutionary and raw but also determinedly political. ‘We painted these Dreamings on the school doors,’ Paddy stated, ‘because our children should learn about our Law…they might become like white people which we don’t want to happen.’ (Ryan, 1989, p69) After the doors were completed, thirteen huge collaborative canvases were painted by the men and brought south for the world to see.
This recognition and legitimization by the educational authorities at Yuendumu helped to fuel the confident, flamboyant style that took the art world by surprise. Following a successful exhibition at the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney 1985, Warlukurlangu Artists was established in Yuendumu in 1986. Although the collaborative nature of Yuendumu art making has often been remarked upon, Paddy’s name was destined for wider recognition when he was selected to create a ground painting installation in Paris for the 1989 exhibition ‘Magiciens de la Terre’(Magicians of the Earth). The group received much attention and acclaim and Paddy’s work was thereafter included in major exhibitions and collections around the world.
After twelve years of withstanding the harsh desert elements and school children’s graffiti, the ‘Yuendumu Doors’ were purchased by the South Australian Museum in 1995 and taken away for a long period of restoration. Paddy was a key negotiator during this process. He (along with Paddy Simms who passed away in 2010) was later encouraged by Basil Hall of Northern Territory University to retell the stories in another medium. (Hall, in Petitjean, 2006, p.35) In 2000, thirty small etchings of the same Dreaming stories won the prestigious Telstra Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander National Art Award for works on paper.
“My Dreaming is the Kangaroo Dreaming, the Budgerigar Dreaming and the Eagle Dreaming…my son has to teach his sons the way my father taught me, and that’s the way it will carry on into the future, and no-one knows when the Jukurrpa will ever end.” Paddy Stewart in Kleinert & Neale, 2000, p.9.
This very specific and personal engagement with the Dreaming challenges the singular meaning that is often assumed by non-Aboriginal people who apply notions of linear time to this timeless space. The Dreaming is an ongoing process of creation rather than an originating moment upon which all others follow. The inherited stories, with their particular attachment to place, plant and animals, carry a custodial responsibility. The stories elucidate, "a dynamic field of associations within which humans play an essential part”, binding them within ’the Law’ but also giving them a place, an identity and a sense of value.
Today, the Warlukurlangu art centre mediates between the Warlpiri desert artists and the commercial art world as well as promoting local artists and cultural programs. Paddy’s ongoing concern for his people and community is reflected in the many roles he has served there, from chairman of the Warlukurlangu committee and community council member to school bus driver and night patrol keeper. He could still be found at the art centre, sitting there working alongside his fellow painter Paddy Simms (until Simms death in 2010), “talking and singing together.” (Alfonso, in Petitjean, 2006, p.41)
Paddy Stewart is now at the end of his career as a painter. His legacy conveys the power of those ancient narratives, so essential to survival through the centuries of human habitation of this vast and remote Tanami desert region. Paddy Stewart had a seminal influence on a whole generation of artists.
Given his seminal place in the emerging Warlpiri art movement post-1980, paintings by Paddy (Cookie) Stewart have been remarkably absent from the secondary market sale rooms. This is doubtless due to the scarcity of his works in private hands.
Only 17 lots have ever been offered for sale by this artist of which five were single etchings offered through Artemis auctions in Melbourne. Each of these small etchings were individual works from the larger ‘Yuendumu Doors’ folio (including works by Paddy Stewart and Paddy Sims) published by Warlukulangu art centre in collaboration with Basil Hall Editions. The prints had been launched at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, at the Fourth Australian Print Symposium in 2001.
Interestingly, not one of these folios has ever been offered at public sale in its entirety. Had it done so the price would certainly have matched those that have passed hands privately through secondary market galleries. The folio (an edition of 75) was originally marketed for $3,200 but sold out almost overnight. Within months the final remaining sets were being sold to eager buyers for $10,000 each. During 2010, Coo-ee Art secured a single set from a collector and found a buyer prepared to pay $25,000.
Paddy Stewart played a significant, though not singular, role in the production of these etchings as he did in the set of paintings that are recorded as his highest result at auction. In July 2005 Sotheby’s offered a specially comissioned set of 24 paintings representing the Yuendumu Doors, each measuring 122 x 61 cm. They carried what appeared to be an astronomical estimate of $120,000-180,000 (Lot No. 305), taking into account the almost nonexistent auction record of the artist. The set was created to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Yuendumu community and coincided with the opening of the renovated and extended art centre building on 15 October 2005. Warlukurlangu Artists had consigned the paintings to Sotheby's in order to raise funds for the new building and for a cultural festival to celebrate its opening. As one of the two surviving professional artists from the original school door project, as well as the major contributor, Paddy Stewart had now re-produced the stories on the school doors on canvas for the first time. The original doors were painted with a definitive purpose in mind – to reinforce traditional knowledge among younger generations of Warlpiri. The sale of Paddy Stewart's paintings was intended to support the current and future generations of Warlpiri artists through their local art centre. When the hammer finally fell after spirited bidding the set of 24 paintings sold for $253,125, easily eclipsing Paddy Stewart’s previous highest result of $3,680 that had been achieved for a minor work at Cromwell’s Auctions in 2003.
Though this is the only major result for Stewart at auction, his cultural cache is based on his seminal role in the creation of the Walrlpiri style and the presence of his works in public collections. His overall AIAM100 standings are distorted due to the tiny number of works that have been offered, but his high average price due to the sale of this one major work has been enough to ensure that even at the end of 2015, a full decade after this major record sale, he still ranked as the 34th most successful Australian Aboriginal artist of all time. By the end of 2017 only two more prints had been offered, both selling for less than $300, resulting in his ranking dropping to 45th – still an incredible feat with just one notable sale.
Expect the appearance of any work by this artist to be a rare event indeed. The collector who is aware and well informed might well be fortunate to pick it up, under the radar.