Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula
Available Gallery Artworks
Turkey Tolson was born under a tree beside a creek bed about eight kilometres east of Haasts Bluff. After years working in the Haasts Bluff stock camp droving cattle to Mount Leibig, he underwent initiation into manhood and the family moved to the Papunya settlement where Turkey worked as a construction labourer and in the communal kitchen. In 1961 he married and moved with his young family to an outstation west of Papunya. After his first wife’s untimely death, he remarried at Papunya where he lived during the early years of the painting movement. He joined Papunya Tula artists as one of its youngest members, painting his earliest artworks for Geoff Bardon in 1972.
Throughout the 1980s Tolson’s unassuming leadership style and commitment to the community led him to remain focused on the more anonymous, collective meaning in his work – to the detriment of any personal ambition. He was, in fact, the artist Chris Anderson of the South Australian Museum had in mind when he stated ‘Andy Warhol didn’t have a CV either. I mean- they’re not artists on the make. They’re not part of the whole career structure’ (cited in Johnson 1996: 98). Yet Tolson’s individual approach and quiet creative momentum were the hallmarks of what became an enduring career.
During his early period, Turkey Tolson was one of the most innovative and figurative artists of the Papunya Tula movement. In the 1980s, he travelled to Paris with Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri to create a sand painting as part of the Peintres Aborigines d’Australie exhibition. He collaborated with renowned artist Tim Johnson, supervising Johnson’s use of sacred designs in Emu, Porcupine and Bandicoot Dreaming 1983. Throughout his distinguished career, Tolson’s experimentality and versatility were abundantly manifest as he embraced new, less traditional mediums including the prints he created for the Utopia Suite and multicolour woodblocks which were, according to Stephen Rainbird, 'a bold expression of his individual sensibility and creativity, his artistic maturity and outstanding carving skill' (1994: 182). His prints were included in the comprehensive survey of Aboriginal printmaking New Tracks, Old Land, which was shown to international acclaim in America, touring 25 venues throughout Australia in the early 1990s.
Turkey Tolson was elected Chairman of Papunya Tula in 1985 and held this role until 1995, despite painting for a variety of outside dealers from the early 1990s onward. He became one of the company’s best-known artists, and seemingly had no problem in marrying this status with his desire to act independently when the circumstances seemed propitious.
His paintings were invariably included in landmark exhibitions from the early 1980s. These included the exhibition of works from the Richard Kelton collection, Contemporary Australian Art 1981 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles, The Face of the Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1985, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians which toured Germany and the UK in 1993-1994 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000.
Tolson’s versatility in medium and practice was firmly grounded in his superb command of the more traditional painting techniques. His most emblematic and famous images are of Straightening of Spears at Ilyingaungau. Mick Namarari, in fact, was at Kirdungurlu for many of Turkey Tolson’s Dreamings and this in part accounts for the striking resonance between their paintings of the period. Turkey’s Spear Straightening images depict spears lying in the desert. The subtle modulations of line and tone evoke the quintessential desert landscape. This, according to Johnson (1994), was one of the most influential artworks of the Papunya Tula movement. Mindful of the profusion of major abstracted canvases produced by artists like Mick Namarari, George Tjungurayai, Willy Tjungurayai, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, and a number of other senior Pintupi men, Turkey Tolson becomes the pre-eminent figure in the last decade of the Central Desert art movement and the importance of his work can not be overstated.
While Turkey Tolson was present during the early painting years at Papunya, his early works have never been valued highly. Despite being extremely pleasing and well-rendered small images, only two appear in the best 50 results for this artist at auction. For example, Napaltjarri Dreaming’, created by the artist in 1973, was valued by Sotheby’s at just $5,000 – 8,000 and sold for $6,000 in 2005. The best sales result achieved for an early career work occurred as early as 1996 when a very attractive untitled painting measuring 46 x 15 cm sold for $8,625. Why Sotheby’s failed to increase the estimate and stand by his early board in 2005 remains a mystery. This may be partially explained by the failure of an extraordinary canvas thought to have been painted by the artist in 1974/5, which appeared in Christie's Modern Aboriginal Art auction (Lot 51) just the year before. The very large canvas, measuring 203 x 174 cm, was thoroughly documented by Dr. Vivien Johnson and had an estimate of $60,000-80,000.
Tolson painted continuously throughout the 1970s and into the late 1990s exploring many themes throughout his career as an artist, but none of these works have achieved the success of his most emblematic image – that of the Spear Straightening associated with the site Illingaungau. Paintings of this story occupy almost all of his highest results. Moreover, five of his top ten paintings were produced for Papunya Tula between 1996 and 2000, two years before his death.
Turkey Tolson was a highly gifted, innovative artist whose range of imagery sets him amongst the finest exponents of desert painting. In comparison to the Spear Straightening works of his later years, his 1980s paintings have been mysteriously overlooked and would seem to represent great value in the current market for an artist of this stature. Many of these works explore a range of stories with imagery that is more varied and complex in structure than those created late in his life. While the telltale signs of his subsequent imagery are present, he was yet to pare down his imagery to its most essential elements at this earlier stage of his career. An iconic painting of this period is a Papunya Tula work titled, Two Travelling Women at Pultja, 1983 which measured 194 x 274 cm. Offered for sale in 2003 by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $10,000-15,000 it sold for the modest sum of $9,200. Sotheby’s put up another very nice example in 2004 (Lot 491) with an estimate of $12,000-18,000, yet this work failed to sell until the following year when Lawson~Menzies (May 2005) achieved $15,600 (Lot 63). In 2015 a very interesting 120 x 180 cm untitled work created in 1985, featuring a Perente Dreaming story, was offered at Mossgreen auctions with a presale estimate of just $6,000-$8,000. It sold for $15,860 (Alan Boxer Collection of Australian Indigenous Art, Melbourne, 17/03/2015, Lot No. 14).
Under 40 of the over 300 works that have gone to auction have achieved prices higher than $20,000. Paintings created during the 1980s, with a wider artistic range and good provenance, would seem to represent fantastic value and canny collectors would be well advised to seek them out. Tolson is a much better artist than he is given credit for. Gathered together, his 1980s works would make a fascinating exhibition, and herald a major reappraisal of his career.