In common with others the world over, Aboriginal artists develop their art practice from youth to old age and, as they do so, their medium and imagery passes through many developmental stages. Some achieve notoriety relatively early in their careers, while others do not achieve wide recognition until after their death, by which time their paintings may sell for far more than anything they were paid during their lifetime. In retrospect, we are able to look at an artist’s output (their oeuvre) and determine those periods and styles that have struck a stronger chord, were more successfully realised, and, as a consequence, hold greater affection in the collective imagination.
Over the almost 40 years that I have been looking at Aboriginal art, I have come to realise that certain content, regardless of its cultural importance, has proved to be unpopular and poorly received at auction. For instance, other than in Hermannsburg watercolours or when included in the Papunya boards created during the early 1970s, the presence of figurative elements in Central and Western desert painting, though appropriate and occasionally successful, is generally seen as evidence of a concession to the market. Occasional works with figuration by Western Desert masters Turkey Tolson and Mick Namarari, or more recently by Boxer Milner from Billiluna, have failed to generate interest at auction. The presence of Witchety Grubs and Honey Ants, Snakes and Goannas is particularly unpopular in works offered for sale on the secondary market, even when evidenced in works by extremely important artists such as Michael Nelson Tjakamarra and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Paradoxically, the presence of figurative imagery in North Eastern Arnhem Land bark paintings was clearly an innovation introduced from the 1930s onward. This was intended to make the original abstracted clan designs more appealing to potential buyers. These bark painters largely escaped the critical contempt leveled unfairly at those Queensland artists whose mixed Aboriginal heritage saw them introduce figuration into paintings that stylistically borrow heavily on dot painting traditions. Nevertheless, it is an even greater paradox that in recent years a move away from figuration has heralded the greatest explosion in the prices of bark paintings since that medium first entered the market over a century ago. The examples would include many of the most important Yirrkala artists, as well as the work of central Arnhem Land painters John Mawurndurl and James Iyuna.
A careful examination of the prices achieved for paintings by prominent artists at auction reveals the periods, style, and content for which collectors have been prepared to pay a premium.
Works by Hermannsburg painter Albert Namatjira that feature figurative elements, other than gum trees and vegetation, are rare and have tended to be more highly contested in auction rooms than those that depict no more than plain landscape. The presence of his archetypal gum trees adds value but not as much as the occasional inclusion of animals or the buildings of early settlements in his Aranda homelands.
Some artists have been strongly identified with figurative imagery and it is worthwhile looking at a number of their works in books and catalogues in order to determine why some have proven to be more popular than others. It is interesting to note that Djambu (Sambo) Burra Burra, Jarinyanu David Downs, Jimmy Pike and many of the bark painters of Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land have all fared badly in the secondary market with their largely figurative works.
Certainly, at this point in the development of the market for Aboriginal art, there is a strong preference for aesthetically minimal imagery that approximates abstraction and works well in contemporary spaces. This may be extremely prejudicial and culturally absurd, yet it is the undeniable truth. The major exception to this has been the incredible interest in, and prices paid for, Wandjina images by Charlie Numbulmore and Alec Minglemanganu, which have surely proven to be amongst the most significant improvers in the secondary market during the last decade. Perhaps this can be explained by their relative scarcity, having been produced at opportunistic workshops during a seminal period prior to the advent of an art movement as such in the East Kimberley region. So startling and powerful are these images, that they transcend their ethnographic context and can work in a contemporary setting. In contrast, the Wandjina images of Lilly Karadada, the last of the great Wandjina painters still living, are unfortunately yet to attract the same level of interest.
While traditional Aboriginal sculpture has been vastly underrated and extremely cheap during the last 20 years, several deceased artists, most notably David Malanagi, Mani Luki and Enraeld Djulabinyanna, have achieved spectacular results. In Malangi’s case, these results are far higher than anything achieved for his far more prolific yet equally important bark paintings. A notable exception among living artists has been the Owen Yalantja, whose Yawk Yawk spirits now hold the same cache as Caruso Guningbal’s Mimi Spirits during the 1980s, when he was the only Arnhem Land artist creating them.
Here, Indigenous Australian art differentiates itself from contemporary Western painting. In traditional dot paintings, and ceremonial paintings from the desert, the surface acts more as a two-dimensional plain, often with little to differentiate one section of the work from another. This is also true for many Arnhem Land bark paintings and Tiwi art, where figuration is all but absent. In departures from these traditional styles, such as the Hermannsburg watercolour school of landscape painting and the work of more modern abstract painters (such as Sally Gabori or Kudditji Kngwarreye) composition plays a much larger role.
Abstract Aboriginal painters such as Kudditji Kngwarreye rely on tension and balance to set some works apart from others. This is more of an innate sense in the artist than something that is studied, though it can be honed. Each colour field has a certain weight which is ascribed through its hue, size, and sometimes even surface texture. These fields have to be expertly distributed so as to have the desired effect, while still remaining true to Kngwarreye's inherited country. Focal point, here too, plays a role, though not as obvious a role as in traditional landscape painting.
In landscape paintings such as Albert Namatjira watercolours, the composition will always be a huge factor in determining the work’s value. Namatjira painted most of his desert country from a slightly elevated point of view, as if looking down, ever so slightly on the landscape. He was able to capture the subtleties of colour as the desert changes from the soft tones of summer heat, to the rich colours of the early morning and late evening light. The majority of his paintings lack a central focal point yet, 'a visual emphasis on the edges holds the composition in balance without either a dominance of forms near the centre or a hierarchy of forms’ (Morphy 1998: 273). Works by Namatjira that typify his unique style and tell-tale sense of balance and point of view will always fetch more than those that stray from the aesthetic that made him famous.
Most Aboriginal paintings from the Central and Western Deserts, The Kimberley and the Top End are painted en plein air, that is ‘in the landscape’. While many artists work on the patio or floor within the confines of their art centre, many paint on the veranda at home or directly on the ground. During the day, they may eat their food nearby or, in some cases, while actually sitting on top of the partly completed work. Camp dogs may walk across canvases and be shooed away by anxious art coordinators or family members. Sudden rain bursts may see half completed paintings, still wet with paint, whisked away and hung up under the veranda with clothes pegs. These working conditions do not make for the most ideal environment in which to paint as, from a conservator’s point of view, all art loses value when not in pristine condition. For those of us who have worked in the industry over many years, it has not been uncommon to see canvases that are stained with animal fat, discoloured from fine ochre dust or affected by water damage, despite the often-magnificent artwork that has been applied to their surface. As the industry has improved professionally this has become less problematic, as has the quality of the paint being used. Cheap student acrylics and cotton duck have long since been replaced by synthetic polymer paints and imported linen of the highest quality. Such is the success of the Aboriginal art market, that even emerging art centres and the majority of independent dealers ensure that their artists receive the finest art materials that are available.
Nevertheless, what of all of those thousands of desert paintings that have been painted over the past 40 years and tens of thousands of bark paintings created over more than a century? How have they survived the ravages of time? There is no doubt that many of the finest early paintings created in communities from Papunya to Yuendumu to Balgo Hills have suffered degradation in their pigment since created. Many will soon be in need of conservation if they are to survive as Aboriginal Australia’s greatest legacy for hundreds of years in to the future. Another great paradox is the fact that the more their pigmentation fades the more ethnographic they appear and this may well add value instead of reducing their desirability.
Collectors should also be aware of the presence of repairs and patches adhered to the back of desert paintings in particular. These are often found along the margins of the work. I will never forget receiving more than 70 paintings for the first Balgo Hills exhibition held in Sydney during the early 1990’s and measuring the works to have stretcher bars prepared for their presentation. I simply could not get over the number of paintings with holes in the corners and remember asking the art coordinator at that time why they existed. He explained by informing me that the English translation for the Kukatja name for the community was ‘Windy Place’ and that most of the old men, having painted their works at home, used them as walking sticks when crossing the dustbowl between their camp and the art centre. I witnessed it myself later that year as the men, their long white beards streaming back across their shoulders, were buffeted by the fierce frontal wind, on their march across the compound. Needless to say, although it may not dissuade you from purchasing, it is always advisable with old Aboriginal paintings to ask for a full condition report when considering purchase at auction.
More obvious, and more aesthetically challenging is the effect of time and moisture on bark paintings. Prior to the 1960s barks were created using orchid juice and other natural substances as the fixative that was mixed with the earth pigment in order to make it more stable. While these imparted a softer and more desirable patina than the acrylic binders that became ubiquitous from the 1970s onward, many of the finest old bark paintings have suffered severe ochre loss thereby reducing their commercial value dramatically. This is most especially so of white pigment which in many cases contains a proportion of lime. It is not just old bark paintings that are thus affected. Many fine paintings by Kimberley artists including Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji, Jack Britten and most especially Queenie McKenzie suffer from the loss of the white ochre dotting that characterises the highlighted demarcation between blocks of colour, and this inevitably considerably diminishes their aesthetic potency. Repainting and repairing damaged blocks of ochre or dotting in Kimberley painting or the rarrk cross hatching in bark paintings is a job for specialists and never approached lightly. The fine line between being absolutely faithful to the original artist’s hand, and going just one step too far in returning artworks to their former splendour is one for only the most practiced and devoted conservator. It can not be undertaken without a kit bag full of earth pigments gathered from around Australia and a great deal of colour testing prior to the application of a single brushstroke to the work itself. Many works have been repainted badly. Yet it is surprising how many have been repaired successfully and returned to their former beauty. Collectors have varying views in regard to the ethics and suitability of conservation work so it is best to be aware of the issues and have any potential purchase checked thoroughly prior to acquisition.
In addition to ochre loss, bark paintings are commonly seen to have warped, curled, cracked, or been affected by mould or insect damage. Once more, these are all repairable other than in the worst cases. Barks can be re-humidified over a period of days so that they loose their stiffness and actually slump on to a flat surface. This must be done professionally and with such care that the moisture sinks in from the back but stops just short of the painted surface in order to avoid water staining the artwork. If achieved with skill the painting can then be slowly dried after applying a brace that will prevent it returning to the shape that it had assumed in the years subsequent to its creation. Nevertheless the truth is that this is never entirely satisfactory. Great bark painters who took extreme pride and care in stripping and preparing bark slabs for their paintings were master technicians. They could make a surface for their art that was wafer thin and perfect in every way. If the bark was made well in the first place it should never have warped later. Thus the warped bark that requires flattening or repair has most likely been flawed since its creation.
Not so with cracking and water damage. These are generally the result of rapid changes in humidity during their lifetime, mistreatment or misadventure. Barks and wooden sculptures can be stabilised, cracks and holes filled and water damage over-painted transforming a once aesthetically challenged and damaged artwork into a lovely work of art once more. It costs, but the price may well be worthwhile. You would be surprised how undervalued old bark paintings are in the market, and how worthy they may be of restoration. Moreover, there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from bringing an old delicate culturally significant piece of art back to life.
If you are able to afford it, buy the major or most significant work possible from an artist’s exhibition. Always try to buy a larger work that is the equal aesthetically of something smaller.
A solo show is the single most important tool in promoting an artist’s career. Properly documented and well-advertised exhibitions in good galleries confer added value on the paintings that comprise them. In any exhibition, an artist will create no more than six major works of which one or two will be the largest and most prominent. Another 6 to 10 works of medium size and perhaps another ten smaller works will round out the show. If an artist’s work is worth collecting, and the market is aware of it, there will be no shortage of willing buyers for the most important pieces. These are by far the most collectable pieces that an artist is likely to produce during the year or two between each of their solo exhibitions.
That said, not all artists produce big works and many smaller pieces have great quality. You may not have a pocket deep enough for a major work or a wall big enough to accommodate it. On a limited budget, it is better to buy small works of high quality and good provenance by major artists than looking for large works of lesser quality and provenance. Collecting smaller works by successful artists is a fine thing to do, as long as you are aware that it will always be easier, when you eventually sell, to place a major piece in an auction. It will be displayed more prominently and to greater effect than a smaller work, no matter what the quality.