As has been reported elsewhere on Aboriginal Art News, the May/June spate of auctions for Aboriginal art hit a highpoint as Mossgreen to watch auctioneer Paul Sumner sell every one of the 66 desert paintings from the estate of American media mogul John Kluge. From a very conservative $330,900 pre-auction low estimate for the Kluge collection, Mossgreen will invoice $787,485 including the 20 per cent buyer’s premium and GST.

Sumner enthused that his sale might signal a turnaround in what has been a flat market. “Hopefully, this is the beginning of a resurgence,” he said.

The Kluge sale was of particular interest to the Aboriginal art market because the collection of pictures were all sold with export certificates. This enabled what auctioneers described as a true test of the market because it included international buyers.

Among the better sellers was a mid-career collaboration – the 2m x 3m canvas Bush Tucker Dreaming in the Sandhills – commissioned by Papaunya teacher Geoff Bardon from Papunya Tula brothers, Clifford Possum and Tim Leura, which fetched $70,000, double its estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.

Sothebys Australia’s Important Aboriginal Art auction also saw solid sales of 96% by value and 59% by volume out of 105 lots for $1.4m, riding on the back of the sale of all 14 works formerly in the collection of American millionaire John W Kluge. Both Melbourne auctions achieved well above-estimate prices and were considered particularly successful in light of lacklustre sales by Bonhams in Sydney only a week earlier.

But track back six years to Sotheby’s July 2006 sale, and it was a vastly ­different story. At that sale, which ­celebrated the 10th anniversary of stand-alone indigenous art sales for the auction house, it was the big contemporary paintings that everyone wanted. The works that dragged that sale down were the older items. But that 2006 sale grossed $3.9 million against pre-sale hopes of $5 million.

The market has also changed. Gone are most of the traders and super fund investors who helped push up prices for the colourful, recently painted canvases. The impending tightened superannuation rules for the storage of art; the resale royalty on secondary art sales; the oversupply of contemporary Aboriginal art; and not least, a lot of very average work pumped out, have all taken their toll.

Gone too are many of the international collectors who accounted for 40 to 50 per cent of Sotheby’s buyers in the art movement’s heyday. Some are still there “ and those who are would have liked the fact that the Kluge works all had export permits “ but many have stopped buying and are dispersing their collections.

Back in the market are the connoisseurs who are interested in earlier, more historically significant works. And the public institutions have also returned, quietly buying up important early works, while the traders lick their dud-investment wounds.

We may be well past the heady days pre GFC, but we are still at least 6 years from the next market peak, assesses market analyst Adrian Newstead.

In the Sotheby’s Australia sale catalogue was a little bit of history which often makes collecting these illustrated tomes worthwhile. It’s not just the detailed pen-portrait of Shorty Lungkata Tjungarrayi and his work, Big Cave Story (1972) up for sale “ do please note Kean’s reference to the Stuart Arts Centre, which has a smart ring to it, then compare that with the second essay’s description of Lungkata’s art inthe foyer of the caravan park, which is precisely what the Art Centre was! But read on for the forgotten studies in Aboriginal educational psychology that crop up in gallerist Marie Geissler’s history of the work’s first buyer. His prescient purchase was sold for $180,000.

John Kean was the boss of Papunya Tula Artists for two and a half years form 1977 to 79, then worked in Kintore. He later moved into museums “ at Tandanya in Adelaide and the Melbourne Museum. I’m grateful to Sotheby’s Australia for allowing AAN to reproduce the two essays.

Despite his stature, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi stood out among his peers.  I first met Lungkata in 1977.  His goatee was formed into beads with red ochre and he was wearing a cobalt-blue satin ‘cowboy’ shirt, secured with mother of pearl press-studs. He had recently returned from exacting ceremonies in Pitjantjatjara country to the south.  Lungkata spoke softly and insistently in Pintupi, maintaining direct eye contact.  He never learned English despite having lived in contact with Europeans for more than 30 years. (1)  I later discovered that he was a powerful Ngangkari or traditional healer, esteemed as a ‘doctor’ by his countrymen.  However and in equal measure he was feared as a sorcerer by the Arrernte and Luritja of the MacDonnell Ranges on whose country the Pintupi were tenuously perched.

More than once I witnessed Lungkata stripped to his briefs, prancing on his toes in front of the Papunya general store; like an angered faun he rattled spears with one hand and waived a woomera threateningly with the other.  Although he was already in his early sixties he was fit and dangerous. Lungkata’s challenge was taken very seriously, for although his country lay far to the west, no one questioned his authority.  Unlike other Ngangkari, who rubbed and sucked their patients, Lungkata would draw sharp-ended elliptical boards from the bodies of those in his care.  Such was his confidence that he would conjure these objects in public.  One memorable occasion, while I was conducting the Annual General Meeting of Papunya Tula Artists, with 30 Indigenous shareholders and an Alice Springs accountant from in attendance, Lungkata operated at the back of the assembly, removing several small boards from the soft flesh above the collarbone of a fellow artist.  The contrast between the banal exercise of corporate governance and the super-natural was bizarre to say the least.

Lungkata’s paintings are instantly recognisable. While Western Desert artists are renowned for presenting a flattened out, ‘birds-eye view’ of country, Lungkata projects a convex almost parabolic perspective in which his lines and billowing curves tend towards infinity.  While his works refer to the land and its creation, they can also be read as ‘inscapes’ that map metaphysical contours of the artist’s experience.

The current painting, Big Cave Story 1972 is characteristic of Lungkata at his best-intense and focused, like the man himself.  Paradoxically Big Cave Story is a relatively small work and as with many pictures of the period it is painted with a mixture of traditional and European paints on recycled composition board.  Though it is a distinctive and unique creation, Big Cave Story shares many of its qualities with the first flush of paintings that emerged from Papunya in 1971-1972.

This extraordinary inflorescence of creativity from Papunya was the focus of Tjukurrtjanu:  Origins of Western Desert Art presented by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2011-2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the movement.  Tjukurrtjanu included 3 walls of Lungkata’s work offering an unprecedented opportunity to trace his development from ‘Law man’ and Ngangkari to become an accomplished artist with a distinctive and poetic voice. (2)

As is often the case with the documentation of early Papunya paintings, Geoff Bardon’s notes for a Big Cave Story 1972 are sparse. (3)  There is no mention of the name of the site or the Dreaming celebrated.  That deficiency aside, the documentation provides useful clues for a topographical reading of the work.

The original Stuart Arts Centre certificate reveals that the paintings dominant forms (the large U-shapes) refer to caves, arranged on either side of an ‘old corrobboree man lying down’.  Short sinuous lines denote ‘running water’ that moves from a ‘cave’ towards a series of connected waterholes.  A claypan is shown, embedded in the uppermost ‘U-shape.

So imagine the area depicted as a small rocky outcrop or escarpment set within a sea of dunes.  The faint smell of fresh water rises from a chain of small waterholes fed from the rock’s impervious surface.  The cool dark of a shallow cave punctuates the red stone.  Bleaching light floods a nearby claypan, its perfect flatness is known to fill with a shallow lens of sweet water for a few days after a downpour.

The convergence of such rare environments in an otherwise harsh environment offered a variety of life-giving resources within the vastness of Lungkata’s country.  To outsiders from wetter climates, such places seem harsh and forbidding, but to the Pintupi they are sites of abundance and meaning, the focus of life, particularly in the days and weeks after rain.
Lungkata lived in the desert through his youth and into manhood before contacting Europeans, so the unnamed site he portrays in Big Cave Story would have been redolent with memories of family. (4)  His father, grandfather and uncles would have revealed the mythic origins of each geological feature.  For it is through the actions of the Creative Ancestors of the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) that the land is believed to have been formed, and it is through the rock features, water holes and claypans of the contemporary environment that the actions of the ancestors can be read.

Tjukurrpa is celebrated in ceremony, and Lungkata was a famous dancer. So at another level Big Cave Story can be understood as an expression of the performance of ceremonies associated with this unnamed site.  The broad marks that encompass Big Cave Story evoke Pintupi body paint. The strength of gesture and the assurance of the infill approximate the decoration applied to the chest and abdomen of a dancer.  At their deepest level these symbols represent encoded secrets of the site and associated Tjukurrpa.

It is worth considering the possibility of another tier of meaning in which the ‘caves’ may refer to male figures, for U-shapes conventionally refer to a seated figure in Western Desert iconography, and Lungkata was the custodian of the Wati Kutjarra (Two Men) Tjukurrpa, a story that would be compatible with this reading (5).

The powerful but relaxed symmetry of Big Cave Story resembles one of Lungkata’s best-known paintings, Women’s Dreaming 1972, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.  The two boards have major iconographic elements in common, though they would seem to relate to separate realms.  Such comparisons reveal that in Western Desert art the same iconographic element can refer to more than one type of object/actor, according to context.  The U-shape symbol that refers to the women in Women’s Dreaming takes on a masculine reference when associated with the body of the ‘old corroboree man lying down’ in Big Cave Story 1972.

Allowing for a multi-leveled interpretation of is one means of appreciating the mercurial depth of the best Western Desert art.  While painting an artist such as Lungkata would glide from one level to another; at one moment recalling the topographic features of the site, overlaid with the recollection of family members with whom the place was experienced, then be propelled by verses associated with the songline that passed through the country, reliving the ceremony that celebrates the site.

The Papunya Men’s Painting Room of 1971-1972 reverberated with the songs of at least twenty Pintupi artists, who through the act of painting were able to conjure an intimate association with a particular place, while being physically distant from their ancestral land. Big Cave Story reverberates with the intensity of that moment 40 years ago at the genesis of contemporary Western Desert art.

(1) John Kean, “Getting back to country, Painting and the outstation movement 1977-79, in Papunya Tula, Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2000,
(2) Judith Ryan & Philip Batty (eds.), Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011.
(3) Fred Myers, Graceful Transfigurations of Person, Place, and Story: The Stylistic Evolution of Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, in Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya Cornell University Press, New York, 2009.
(4) Fred Myers, Pintupi country, Pintupi self: Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigine, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1986.
(5) Fred Myers, Graceful Transfigurations of Person, Place, and Story: The Stylistic Evolution of Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, in Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, op cit.

Marie Geissler now backgrounds the formation of the Gavin & Elspeth Seagrim Collection:

I first met Professor Gavin Seagrim as a science undergraduate studying psychology at the Australian National University, Canberra.  An inspirational lecturer, he was passionate about the nature of creativity and the ground breaking insights on child development that were formulated by visionary Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He was undertaking research for his publication Furnishing the Mind:  A Comparative Study of Cognitive Development in Central Australian Aborigines.

The research compared the development of reasoning on Piagetian tasks of Aranda and Loritja children raised at the Hermannsburg Mission with that of Aboriginal children raised in a variety of different backgrounds¦’ .  There were three groups of children, those traditionally raised, those educated in a mission environment and others in Alice Springs who attended a mixed race school.  The outcomes of the research were remarkable with those raised traditionally demonstrating results that had little resemblance to those of European children, but who as adults were completely competent human beings, having ˜used and created complex and sophisticated languages’ ¦and managing ˜ …to successfully live and thrive on every square metre of the difficult part of the continent of Australia,’ ¦ where ˜no one has since managed to do the latter without the application of significant modern technology’.

The conclusion of the study was that the learning problems experienced by Aboriginal children were caused by the inappropriate design of education programs by the European school system, and that the same children as adults achieved the same autonomy and competency as non Aboriginal individuals, but arrived there through different cognitive routes.  For his knowledge on the traditions of the Aranda people, Seagrim drew on the research of early anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen and in particular the investigations of Ted Strehlow, who had spent over 40 years studying the Aranda at Hermannsburg. For background to the Warlpiri people he drew on M.J. Meggitt’s work at Hooker Creek and Yuendumu.

For more general aspects on Aboriginal life he drew on the publications of Ronald and Catherine Berndt and other historical, educational, anthropological and psychological academic papers. Furnishing the Mind:  A Comparative Study of Cognitive Development in Central Australian Aborigines was dedicated to ˜the Aboriginal children of Central Australia in whose hands will largely rest the future of what remains of traditional Aboriginal life’.

That his love of Aboriginal art was initiated as a matter of curiosity is reflected in the correspondence of his former colleague Robyn Garnett who worked with him in the desert. She writes: ˜Professor Seagrim used to visit me to review my work once or twice a year. One year, I think it was 1973, he brought a Swiss colleague with him who was very interested in Aboriginal art. One evening we three walked round the corner to the caravan park on Larapinta Drive which was owned by Pat Hogan. In the foyer of the caravan park, we noticed paintings from Papunya that Pat had put on display for sale. Professor Seagrim and his colleague were fascinated by them and each bought several paintings¦Gavin took a great interest in the way that Aboriginal people represented reality.  He was fascinated by the aerial perspective shown in the Papunya paintings, and noted that even 5 year olds at Ernabella made crayon and sand drawings of their wiltjas as seen from above¦He was always very interested in the way that Aboriginal people portrayed their world through drawings.