Walala Tjapaltjarri, brother of well-known painters Warlimpirrnga and Thomas Tjapaltjarri, was born in the Gibson Desert east of Kiwirrkura in the early 1960’s. He was one of a small party, that included his brothers, several sisters, and two old aunts whose arrival in Kiwirrkura in 1984 made international headlines that proclaimed the discovery of a ‘Lost Tribe’. Until this time, at age 21, Walala had never encountered Europeans and their ways. The group had been following their traditional lifestyle in the country west of Lake Mackay.
In 1990 Walala lived in Kiwirrkura and watched in admiration and respect as his brother Warlimpirrnga began to paint. He had taken to accompanying his brother on trips to Alice Springs from 1986 onward and it was on one of these trips that Walala himself was offered small boards, and was encouraged by his brother to paint. While Warlimpirrnga instructed Walala in the use of paints and canvas, from the outset he was seen to possess a bold and strikingly individual style. He took to painting with the assuredness of a young man firmly grounded in his culture and intimately familiar with the sites he depicted. His subject from the outset was that of the Tingari cycle, a series of sacred and secret men’s mythological song cycles associated with a number of related sites in his country including Marua, Minatarnpi and Mina Mina in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia.
Having developed his style during the early 1990’s Walala produced a work on canvas in 1997 that was unlike anything he had done before. Strongly gestural and boldly graphic it featured roundels, rectangles and abutting lines set against a stark monochrome black background. This was the distinctive and individual style that laid the foundation for the remarkable body of work that he has completed since that time.
All three brothers as well as Dr. George Tjapaltjarri, the old medicine man who had put them through the ‘law’, began painting for Gallery Gondwana during the late 1990’s.This was due in large part to the personal relationship they shared with Gallery Gondwana Manager Brice Ponsford, who had worked for Papunya Tula in Kiwirrkura when the brothers had first arrived in the community a decade earlier. By 1999 Dr. George painted less and less frequently as his eyesight began to fail, and Walala, preferring his independence, lived in Alice Springs and Katherine where he painted for a number of independent dealers. Warlimpirrnga however, tired of life too far from his family and homeland, returned to paint principally for the art centre other than on his infrequent travels during which he painted for others. Amongst the female members of the group that left the desert with them Yukultji, Yalti and Takarria Napangati all became painters working with Papunya Tula.
Walala’s first solo shows were held with Gallery Gondwana in Alice Springs, which was the gallery that encouraged and first presented his art. Following his 1998 solo exhibition at Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Sydney, SMH art critic John McDonald enthusiastically endorsed his work and it appeared he was headed for a stellar career. However since that time Walala has become a nomadic and independent artist and this has seemed at times to mitigate against the collectability of his work. Nevertheless his success prior to 2002 was followed by his participation in a number of important exhibitions most notably at Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane where he had the opportunity to engage with international artists in the production of experimental modernist paintings and sculptures, and with Art d’Australie in Paris.
Walala is still a relatively young artist at 52 years of age though he has already been painting for nearly 30 years. His secondary market offerings have been relatively prolific with more than 78 works having been offered for sale since 1998. Perhaps because of the large number of his works in galleries throughout Australia his clearance (success) rate at auction is a low 51% compared to the average accross the top 100 artists of around 65%. However artists who are ubiquitous in the primary market rarely fare well at auction during their lifetime. While his auction sales total more than $89,500 his highest individual price is the $7,200 paid for an untitled Tingari painting at Lawson~Menzies in November in June 2009 (Lot 142). This displaced a smaller, though visually superior triptych (Lot 170) that sold in their 2004 sale for the presale low estimate of $6000. In fact it is Lawson~Menzies that has championed this artist's work in the secondary market having sold 16 paintings for a total of $40,512. Quite amazingly Sotheby's are not recorded as having sold a single work. Having 'come in' with the last remnant Pintupi group in 1984 and settled at Kiwirrkura, Walala by rights should have painted for Papunya Tula when he first took up a brush. Instead he created works exclusively for Roslyn Premont's Galllery Gondwana in Alice Springs. Under normal circumstances this would have been more than safe enough to ensure that the major auction hosues would accept works with this provenance, even if they refuced to accept works created post 2002 by which time he painted for independent dealers on a casual basis.
Because of the sheer number of works in galleries his average price at auction is a very low $2,239. Only four works have sold for more than $5,000. Collectors should vote with their hearts with this artist. His importance is unquestionable. The nature of his imagery unique and, despite its ancient origins, his has a decidedly modern edge and is ideally suited to contemporary interiors. While many of his early works may prove to be more collectable over time, those who simply love his work should look for fine contemporary examples like those that have set his highest prices at sale (see top ten results).