Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi was born c.1924 at Iltuturunga and first left his homelands west of Lake Macdonald in 1962 with his wife Ningura Napurrula in order to seek treatment of their son Mawitji who was suffering from severe burns. Following this first taste of community life during which Mawitji was treated in the newly established Papunya community hospital they returned with welfare patrols to their desert homeland. In July 1963 they returned to live at Papunya where their second son was born and Yala Yala became one of the founding members and shareholders of the artist group that began painting in 1971. Geoff Bardon remembered him as a solemn man who spoke little, but who gave himself wholeheartedly to his work, quickly developing fine technical craftsmanship and a particular style characterized by a strong linear quality. Bardon had the difficult job of choosing the core group of artists from the enthusiastic crowd that regularly gathered at his small flat to experiment with the art materials he provided. As one of the inventors of the ‘Tingari’ painting style Yala Yala became one of the six artists who received a government allowance to paint full time in the very first years of the painting movement. During this time, his distinctive line drawings helped to point Bardon towards some comprehension of the ‘hieroglyphic-like language’ that underscored the Dreaming stories. Bardon was fascinated by the weaving relationship between circular forms and traveling lines. He realized that between the principles of stillness and movement, an entire worldview could be articulated. The circle was the completed line of the traveling principle, curled up in a campsite, yet also the origin of the traveling line, ongoing in its many modes and modifications. Traveling itself was an expression of life, a response to the seasons and the need to find food, but also intrinsic to the people’s understanding and mythology of the earth.
The interaction and collaboration between the artists at Papunya was intense and provided impetus to the increasing momentum of the Western Desert art movement. However, it was not without its moments of contention. There was disagreement between groups as to what sacred objects and designs could be included. In 1975, forty-four paintings out of forty-six, in a Perth exhibition, were turned to the wall in response to the demands of a visiting group of Pitjantjatjara men. They were deeply disturbed by overt references to their secret beliefs and ceremonies. Papunya Tula painters were forced to pay compensation and a process of abstraction and stylisation ensued. Sacred elements were veiled, and Pintupi painting in particular took on a strong design focus. With his natural talent for conceiving uncomplicated yet arresting arrangements, Yala Yala’s paintings were at the forefront of this classic Tingari period. His mind-maps of his vast, desert homeland emanate a simple grandeur. Loops, spirals and roundels are linked by traveling lines and held in unity with, often diffuse, background dotting. A restricted range of ochre colours conveys his sense of tethering to the earth, which was also reflected in his working manner. With the other Pintupi artists, he would often sing traditional chants while painting and always use a sense of touch through hands and fingers, to bring the work into being.
He returned to the Western Desert with several of his countrymen in 1974 and moved to KIntore to establish an outstation at Mantardi in 1981. In a move that was interpreted as signalling the acceptance of contemporary Aboriginal art by the Australian art establishment, his work was included in an exhibition of large acrylic canvases shown at the Art Gallery of NSW that same year. This was due in part to the then art manager at Papunya Tula, Andrew Crocker, who promoted the paintings as a form of contemporary art rather than ethnographic imagery that belonged in a museum. Crocker did much to set the whole enterprise on a sounder business footing as growing international attention focused on the artists. In accord with market demand, the Papunya men broadened their experimentation with abstraction and painterliness, loosening the restrictive rules and patterning that had helped to consolidate the earlier phase of their painting, each responding with increasing confidence in their own signature styles. After a period during the late 1980’s, when Tingari paintings became moribund and fell out of favour in a market already embracing an ever-growing number of regional styles, several senior men managed to make the conceptual leap to less descriptive, abstracted designs based on their traditional patterns. This was especially so of Mick Namarari, Turkey Tolson, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and a small number of others. To some degree however, Yala Yala’s work remained unchanged. His son, a spirited young man who was often away, would write to his father in the English that he was being taught at school and Geoff Bardon would read Yala Yala the warm and reassuring letters. But even this would not raise a smile. The outer circumstances of Yala Yala’s life had caused him to withdraw from those beyond his small community yet inwardly his spirit continued to burn brightly through his art and ceremonial obligations. Having moved to his outstation Mantardi, he was far happier to be close to his traditional lands midway between Kintore and Kiwirrkurra. He was a senior custodian of Pintupi sacred sites and knowledge, and painted devotedly until his death in 1998.
As would be expected, Yala Yala’s early boards, most especially those created in 1971-1973, occupied six of his ten best results at auction until the end of 2006. Today only 4 early boards remain. In failing to make the transition to the minimal aesthetics adopted by other important Papunya male artists during the 1990s, Yala Yala has been greatly undervalued for some time and this is reinforced when looking at the length of time many of his best sales records have stood. Nevertheless the sale in 2008 of a large Papunya Tula provenanced work created in 1979, for $126,000, had the effect of lifting his career average price by almost $2,000 to $14,295. It was more than three times his former record and provided further evidence that the mid to late 1970s works by a number of formative Papunya painters could follow on the coat tails of Clifford Possum’s $2.4 million Warlugulong 1977 canvas in setting the secondary market on fire.
During 2007, sales for two works painted just prior to his death displaced his second and fourth best results. Snake Dreaming at Karrilwarra 1998, a small work measuring just 91 x 46 cm, was originally sold by Sotheby’s in 2002 (Lot 86) for $15,600 against a presale estimate of $7,000-10,000. Even Sotheby's must have been surprised when, carrying the same estimate five years later, it sold in their July sale for $38,400 (Lot 53). Lawson~Menzies were far more confident just two months earlier in June when they estimated a larger work, measuring 122 x 122 cm, at $30,000-40,000 and achieved the low estimate. (Lot 71). The speculator who had paid $15,600 at Sotheby’s in October 2006 for a very large work created in 1977, entitled Tingari Men at Mulli-Ukutu, would therefore have been very disappointed when it failed to attract any interest from buyers at Lawson~Menzies in November the following year (Lot 145). In 2012 an early board Old Man's (Yina) Dreaming (1972), recorded Yala Yala's second highest record when sold at Sotheby's for $45,600.
Yala Yala’s reputation, as a seminal member of the original Desert painting group who helped to refine the early Puntupi style, is substantial. Prior to 2008, he had a very healthy average price on sale at $13,921, although his total sales were a very low $574,551. His career sales totalled $715,507 in 2009. They now stand at $944,221. Yet despite his $126,000 record and an above average clearance rate of 67%, his sales are dominated by very low results. More than half of the 68 works sold have achieved less than $10,000 and, other than his record price, his best sales are poor in comparison to many of his contemporaries. Notably, 2007 and 2008 were by far the best years since 1995, the year after his works began appearing on the secondary market, with ten works sold out of 12 offered.
Yala Yala Gibbs was not a highly prolific artist and despite the stellar 2008 record, his results are unlikely to escalate rapidly. Most of the works that achieved relatively low prices were created in the 1980s and early 1990s and these are likely to remain out of favour amongst collectors other than those with an ethnographic preference who are interested in the second stage in the development of Pintupi art. There are few early boards even amongst his unsold works and this would indicate that his output was small. His best works are tied up in institutional collections or tightly held. If and when any come on to the market, expect them to fly.