Timmy Payungka was one of the original group of artists who began painting for Geoff Bardon in 1971. Seeking sustenance during severe drought, he and his family walked a great distance from their homelands in the Gibson Desert, west of Wilkinkarra, Western Australia. After arriving at Haasts Bluff during his childhood he later travelled with family members back to his homelands far to the west of Lake Mackay near his birthplace, the important claypan site of Parayilpil. It was here in this country that his father passed away and Timmy was taken with his adoptive fathers further south to Yarrannga rockhole where the family were contacted by welfare branch patrols and moved to Umari rockhole. In 1957 Timmy accompanied Jerremy Long to Mount Leibig and on to Haasts Bluff making a brief visit to Alice Springs before returning to his wife and child and escorting them in the company of Uta Uta Tjangala into Haasts Bluff the following year. They were amongst the last group of Pintupi to arrive in Haasts Bluff before becoming amongst the first to settle at Papunya. By then, Timmy’s experience travelling with white men and keen sense of responsibility for his people prompted him to become a guardian for the newcomers that followed.
Payungka proved to be a highly individual painter from the outset and Geoff Bardon felt a natural affinity with this 'tall boisterous man with an exuberant laugh'. He was by all accounts extremely handsome with a fine physique, and his confidence, and extroverted personality, were reflected in his art. This was typified by vivacious brushstrokes and the resourcefulness in which he transposed Dreaming stories onto the confined painting surface without loosing its vibrant sense of power. Bardon suspected Timmy to be a Kadaitcha Man, a secret enforcer of tribal law, because of his knowledge and apparent ease when broaching upon the most feared stories. In subsequent travels in the company of Dick Kimber he proved to be an exceptional tracker, with an extensive knowledge of his country. During the early days of painting at Papunya, Timmy was inclined to paint unrestrained despite prevailing anxiety about revealing sacred material. Many of his early works include an occasional mix of stylised ceremonial figures, animals and simplified objects such as headpieces and bullroarers, only partly disguised among more abstract designs. In works like his Kadaitcha Dreaming, which he created in 1972, lines radiate out from the central focus, a ceremonial Kadaitcha hat, while on the surrounding prepared earth, Kadaitcha slippers, knee imprints and ritual objects signify a feared punishment being negotiated for an offender. Similarly in Men’s Spirit Ceremony 1972, Timmy painted a bird’s eye view down upon two stylised men who face each other in the middle of a field of dancing tracks and ceremonial objects. His love of ceremonial activity and the sharing of ritual knowledge saw him preoccupied with carving sacred boards when paint and canvas were not available.
Payungka’s Tingari works of the period 1975- feature the concentric circles representing sit down places and the linking straight lines for travelling signs in keeping with the Pintupi conventions of the time. These ‘mind maps’ of his immense homeland depicted important places for a long journey, such as food and water sources as well as places of spiritual significance and regeneration. His paintings occasionally included elongated ovals that depict caves, very rare in this area and places of great importance where Dreaming ceremonies took place.
However from the early 1980’s onward Timmy increasingly removed representational motifs from his paintings and became more focused on Pintupi male conventions akin to formal abstraction. He used repeated patterning to build a palpable sense of intensity, augmented by contrasting areas of dotted colour and experimentation with tonal arrangements. These late career paintings, characterized by reductive designs in which the repetition of geometric keyed elements concentrates the visual power in referencing the sacred realm, assert Timmy’s ceremonial authority.
In 1974 he left Papunya and settled for a time at Balgo Hills. He joined the move to Kintore in 1981 and lived with Uta Uta and John John Bennett 30 km from the community until the establishment of Kiwirrkurra where he settled until the early 1990’s by which time his health had deteriorated to the point that he needed to move to Alice Springs for regular medical treatment. He was amongst a group of Aboriginal artists awarded damages after their sacred designs had been used without permission in a commercial carpet manufacture during the mid 1990’s. The incident served as an indelible reminder to the general public as well as the business world that the Dreaming stories and their ancient symbolic language are not to be taken lightly. Though his legacy is not as potent as a number of his contemporaries, Timmy Payungka played a vital role in the emergence of Western Desert art. He may well have been a Kadaitcha as Bardon surmised. While his paintings may not be as highly recongised as those of several of his contemporaries, they emanate a subtle power and physical presence in keeping with his powerful ritual authority and deep traditional knowledge.
While undoubtedly a bold and adventurous painter who was happy to experiment stylistically, Timmy Payungka could never be considered amongst the first rank of Papunya male painters. His importance lay in his role as man of great ritual knowledge who embraced the act of painting as a regenerative cultural force making it possible for others to follow his lead. Although a prolific painter and an important member of Papunya Tula Artists during the last decade of his life, seven of his ten best results are for works created during his first three years as an artist. Even at this early stage, between 1971-1973, his works varied greatly in style and content.
His most successful work at auction was Cave Story 1971, a small work on composition board, which sold for $79,500 when estimated at $30,000-50,000, as long ago as 1999. The most interesting thing about it stylistically is its similarity to the linear minimalism adopted by other Pintupi men nearly twenty five years after its creation, and perhaps this was the reason for its success at Sotheby’s at the time. However for a record by such a prominent artist to have stood for more than eight years during what was nothing short of phenomenal growth in the market, is a tell-tale sign that something is amiss. His second highest result for instance was just under half this amount, achieved by Lawson~Menzies in their November 2006 sale. This work’s interest lies more in the fact that it shows elements of the interlocking key design that became his leit-motif late in life; its dotted pattern is contained within the structure of a conventional Tingari painting of the period. The painting failed to sell on the night when offered at $35,000-45,000 but sold the next morning for $38,400. (Lot 58).
One of his highest results was achieved for a work that was attributed to the artist when Sotheby’s sold it in their July 2004 sale (Lot 210). The attribution is unlikely to be correct however, as the work shows far closer stylistic resonance to paintings by Yala Yala Gibbs, Shorty Lungkarta, and one or two other artists than to Payungka, other than the way in which the Kangaroo, or possibly bandicoot, is depicted. Sotheby’s relied on the word of the vendor, who had bought it directly from the artist while working as a patrol officer with the Northern Territory Administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Still, if it was actually created by Payungka, it is, in my opinion, the best early work by him that has been offered at auction to date.
His Water Dreaming 1971-1972 was not a good work, despite achieving $31,200 in July 2006 against a presale estimate of just $12,000-18,000. It did however clearly demonstrate the same elements as many of the perfunctory paintings he created for independent dealers toward the end of his life. None of these have done well at auction and most fail to make the cut.
Tingari Painting Associated with the Site of Parayirrpilnya 1986 is one of only two 1980s works which appear in his top ten results and only four in his top 20. As generic Tingari works go, this one is surprisingly good, and better than most. When originally offered in November 1998 Sotheby’s advertised it with an estimate of $7,000-10,000 but failed to find a buyer. The work was later reoffered at Sotheby’s in July 2001 carrying an estimate of $12,000-18,000 and this seems to have done the trick. It found a buyer at $24,000.
Despite all of the results above, most collectors identify Timmy Payungka with his late career paintings in which the iconography has been discarded in favour of his immediately recongisable interlocking key design, seemingly derived from the patterning on men’s ceremonial story boards. Although usually in black and white, the artist also created them in a variety of formulaic duo-tonal formats during the mid to late 1990s. The most successful of these has been a work created in 1997 for Papunya Tula. Kangaroo and Fire Dreaming, sold in Sotheby's June 2002 sale (Lot 189) for $31,050. It should be a salutary reminder to collectors that this price is more than four times higher than his next best result for a 1990s painting.
In 2004 no less than 24 works were offered of which 15 went unsold. Not surprising then, that in 2007 only two works were offered for sale amongst all of the auction houses taking Aboriginal art in that year. 2008 was not much better. Although the number of works on offer increased to eight, only four sold for a total of just $22,429 despite the fact that one very nice 1973 board work, Big Rain Story, snuck in to the artists top ten results at ninth place when sold for $10,800 at Sotheby’s in October (Lot 84). However, when quality works appear they fetch respectable prices. In 2010 the early 1971 board, Men's Traveling Dreaming, sold for $23,900 at Mossgreen Auctions, making a new sixth place record. The artists best year other than 1999 was 2013 when the only two works offered for sale both entered his top 10 results. Created in 1971 and 1972 respectively they appeared in the Sotheby's sale of works from the collection of Melbourne dealer Beverly Knight. They fetched $67,100 and $36,600 and achieved the artist's 2nd and 4th highest results ever. Since then only underwhelming and generic works from his later years have appeared at auction, with about half of the works on offer selling for an average price $1,164.
There is no question that Timmy Payungka was a seminal figure in the Western Desert art movement. He created a large body of work for almost thirty years. While many of these are fine paintings and deserve to be in exalted company, collectors should be extremely careful in selecting works that best represent the various periods of his artistic output. There is a very definite and easily read stylistic progression through the development of his art. While serious collections should definitely include his work in their holdings, only the finest examples are likely to prove a sound investment in the long term.