AKA Ubargu, Kubarku, Kubaku, Gubargu, Gobargo
71 Career Overall Rank
165 2020 Market Rank
In 1971 when Dan Gillespie visited art dealers in Sydney whilst on holiday from Maningrida 'carrying a few suitcase-sized barks’, he successfully negotiated to provide a consignment of paintings to an Oxford Street ‘primitive art’ dealer. Subsequently, on receipt, the dealer wrote to Armstrong (The Chaplin at Maningrida) complaining that a nice young man who had visited had sent him 'unsaleable rubbish' (Altman 2004: 177).
At the time total sales at Maningrida Arts and Crafts was of the order of $50,000. Today the Bawananga Corporation turns over more than a one million dollars in arts and crafts annually, produced at more than 30 outstations as well as the Maningrida community itself. Until 2016, works by major artists including John Mawurndjul, and carvers like Owen Yalanja sold in galleries for prices that are many times higher than the auction prices paid for paintings created by key historical figures from the community such as Mick Kubarkku.
In 2016 however, Sotheby's offered three carvings by Kubarkku in its London Aboriginal Art sale to stunning effect. Each piece exceeded its high pre-sale expectation by more than 5 times and sold for more than twice the artist's previous highest record (set as long ago as 2006 for a bark painting created in 1975). Two of the sculptures depicted Mimih spirits and the third was described as a Namarodo (though how Sotheby's could tell is beyond me!). They displaced the lot comprising two barks, each with a single highly peculiar Namordoo spirit from Kubarkku's second highest record to his 5th.
Nevertheless, works by Mawurndjul who continues to produce, sell for up to $40,000 in the primary market and have sold for as much as $120,000 at auction. By comparison, Kubarkku’s prices have been rising in value, albeit slowly, as exemplified by Five Freshwater Crocodiles c.1970 which sold for $7,800 in 2003. At that time this became is 4th highest result. Yet today, it is his 23rd.
In 2007 three bark paintings entered his top ten results followed by another 4 in 2009. The total value of these 2009 sales was $70,071, making a significant contribution to Kubarkku’s total sales revenue of $323,710 in that single year. 2016 however, has been his best year on record. Every one of the 5 pieces on offer sold at an average price of $34,494 seeing him finish as the18th most successful artist that year.
Despite their scarcity, Kubarkku’s woodcarving's have been extremely successful at auction. Indeed wood carvings like Kubarkku’s Mimi and Yawk Yawk figures were largely unknown until fairly recently, as public awareness grew with the publication and exhibition Crossing Country in 2004 and exhibitions of his work in primary galleries. Annandale Galleries, and William Mora in particular, had promoted Western Arnhem Land wood carving with Annandale Galleries holding an exhibition of Mimi and Yawk Yawk Spirits in December 2006. The exhibition showcased a younger generation of artists influenced by early pioneers such as John Mawurndjul and Mick Kubarkku. Yet even with these significant successes, I believe that Kubarkku is still a highly undervalued artist. The failure of the beautiful work on paper, Namarkon, Light My Spirit 1999 in 2005, carrying an estimate of $3,000-5,000 is evidence of the artist’s unrealized sales potential.
The average price for a medium size bark in the 80 x 50 cm range has been around $6,000, while the average price for a small bark is just under $1,000. His larger barks have not necessarily fared any better than smaller ones, with the condition of the ochres and the quality of the image being important determining factors in prices achieved. Barks from the 70s have fared better than his later works most likely due to their finer execution.
The highest recorded result for a bark painting by Kubarrku is $26,400 for a 91.5 x 64 cm bark titled Namorul and His Two Brothers c.1975 at Sotheby’s in July 2006 (Lot 69). Second highest was the afore mentioned $22,800, paid for two quite similar barks titled Namorodo Spirit 1971 sold at Sotheby’s in June 2001 (Lot 80). This pair of barks were around 72 x 56 cm each, and while not quite as impressive as the larger painting that achieved the record price, the buyer did extremely well purchasing two very good works for the price of one.
While Yawk Yawk spirits have sold well, a wonderful 180 cm. high hollow log coffin sold for just $3,840 at Lawson-Menzies in June 2005 (Lot 69). The piece estimated at $4,000-6,000 was covered in imagery every bit as good as that on many of his bark paintings. Perhaps the title Log Coffin is not helpful when it comes to selling these wonderful sculptural items. Whatever the case, it sold for an absolute bargain.
Mick Kubarkku’s results are definitely on the increase, however, as seen when looking at his total sales per year since they began to be recorded in 1994. In that year just one work sold of the six offered. In 2006-2007 14 were offered of which 12 sold at an average price of $8,392 per work. During 2008 his average rose again considerably to $10,010. The effect on the market of Kubarkku’s passing is likely to continue to increase the desirability and prices of his paintings in the years ahead. In 2016 for example his average price was $34,494 compared to his career average of $6,947, a figure which will only increase over time.
Canny collectors should understand that the availability of early bark paintings in excellent condition is strictly limited. Works by Kubarkku and a number of his contemporaries may be found in all of the major institutions and important collections, but finding really good ones that have been well looked after in private hands is not as easy as one might think. While the landmark exhibition Crossing Country, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the MCA’s They are Meditating exhibition of bark paintings from the Arnott’s collection reminded serious collectors about the incredible beauty of bark paintings and the identity of many of their greatest creators, those collectors more recently attracted to Aboriginal art, continue to largely overlook them. They would be well advised to begin their journey toward a deeper understanding of their meaning and importance in the visual history of Aboriginal art. This can only lead to a world of undiscovered delights amongst which the work of Mick Kubarkku will never fail to impress.
Mick Kubarkku is recognised as being one of the great Kunwinjku artists. He was born c.1922 at Kukabarnka, the large Marrinj clan wetland area near the Liverpool River of Western Arnhem Land. Having spent his youth largely oblivious to a European presence, he was one of the few who remembered the old men who painted the caves there, and could give detailed interpretations of their content. His father Ngindjalakku, instructed him in the creation of paintings for sacred ceremonies and he lived between his father’s Kulmarru land and his mother’s Kardbam country. As he matured through adolescence he attended and made art for the many Kunabibi, Wubarr and Mardayin ceremonies that were held there. It was not until the outbreak of the war that Kubarkku was rounded up with his brothers and sent to Milingimbi Mission. Kubarkku returned to his country at the end of the war, however, wanting tobacco, he decided to live at Oenpelli and work at the buffalo shooters camps.
Though he had sold a few barks at Oenpelli beforehand, Kubarkku moved to the new Government settlement of Maningrida in 1957 and along with David Milaybuma became the first of the regular painters there. A system of marketing art had operated since the 1950’s at Yirrkala and Millingimbi however it would be twelve years after Kubarkku began painting on bark before Maningrida Arts and Culture would be established in 1969. With Peter Cooke’s appointment as Art Advisor, Kubarkku’s art gained increasing recognition.
In his early barks, Kubarkku restricted himself to the dotted infill reminiscent of rock paintings. However, later he incorporated his father’s ‘rarrk’ cross-hatching from the Mardayin ceremony into a rugged and individual painting style. Gowan Armstrong, Maningrida’s chaplain, recalled that ‘the ever cheerful Mick Gubargu (sic) began to bring his crocodile paintings from about 1970s onwards‘ (cited in Altman 2004: 176). These were accompanied by barks depicting other totemic animals including barramundi, turtle, kangaroo and echidna. The crosshatching that adorned these and other totemic figures at the time was not the meticulous geometric rarrk, common throughout Arnhem Land. It was less refined than that of many of his contemporaries, having a similarity in style to the rock markings found in the country near Kubumi, where he lived during the most artistically productive period of his life. His subject matter and stories were a direct continuation of that cave-art tradition executed with a raw, rough, and direct quality, in which the use of white dotted areas on black is a stylistic marker. Large, uneven dots were often applied to the heads, hands and feet of his figures as well as the internal divisions. Kubarkku's rarrk typically comprised horizontal, vertical or sloping bands of red ochre, relieved by patches of black dots on white.
He also began depicting Mimis and other spirit beings from the early 1970’s. Unlike many of the stone country artists, whose Mimis are characteristically matchstick thin and fragile, Kubarkku’s were depicted as substantial spirits emerging from the rock escarpments. In later years the Mimi figure would appear in Kubarkku’s art as three-dimensional carvings. While figurative carvings were not traditionally made in central Arnhem Land, Kubarkku credited England Bangala as the instigator. However Jon Altman has also suggested that the adoption of carving in the 1990 amongst Kununjku artists may have been at least partly due to influence from residing woodworking artist Andrew Hughes. In time, not only the Mimi were the subject of his carvings, but also the Yawk Yawk mermaid spirits, said to be a transformational manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent that live in the freshwater streams of Kubarkku’s stone country. In a final late development in his artistic life he employed Kunwinjku iconic conventions to create paintings that revealed aspects of Yolngu cosmology.
However, apart from the introduction of carving, Kubarkku’s career was marked by an astonishing continuity in subject matter and style. Kubarkku spent his last years living on his outstation, too fragile to work. He pssed away in 2008. During a rich and active life he produced a body of work that ranged across forty years of which the final twenty were a period of prodigious output, and while his work may not be characterized by aesthetic finesse, as that of other bark painters, its boldly figurative individually recognizable style is enduringly memorable.
Hetti Perkins and Theresa Willsteed (eds). 2004. Crossing Country - the Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art. Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales.
West, M., (ed.). 1995. Rainbow Sugarbag and Moon, Two Artists of the Stone Country: Bardayal Nadjamerrek and Mick Kubarkku. Darwin. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
Yikarrakkal, Kubumi, Kardbam, Kukabarnka, Kulmarru
Moon, Namorrkon Lightning Man, Mimi Spirits, Rainbow Snakes, Sting Ray, Kangaroo, Yawk Yawk, Barramundi, Dib Dib, Namorrordo, Crocodile, Turtles
Natural Earth Pigment on Eucalyptus Bark, Printmaking, Works on Paper, Carved Wooden Artifacts