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Sotheby's to offer masterworks of Aboriginal art in London
Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara (Tjipungaleialumi), Purukapali. Estimate: £15,000-30,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

LONDON.- This March, Sotheby’s ground-breaking sale of Aboriginal Art will return to London for its third consecutive season.

Following strong results in 2015 and 2016, the sale will feature magnificent works which transcend the material and spiritual realms: rare artefacts including shields and ceremonial figures dating from the 18th century onwards will be shown alongside the works of Indigenous masters including Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri, Australia’s best-known Aboriginal artist, and Janangoo Butcher Cherel, who was proclaimed a Living Treasure by the state government of Western Australia in 2004. These will stand alongside seven monumental canvases from Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who shattered the world record for a work by an Australian female artist just last year.

Sotheby’s is the only international auction house outside Australia to hold regular sales of Aboriginal Art. Since its inauguration in 2015, the series has established a swathe of new benchmarks, with new auction records for Aboriginal sculpture, artefacts, bark paintings, and work by a living Aboriginal artist.

Ahead of the sale on March 14, all 77 works will be exhibited at Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries from March 10-13, providing a unique opportunity for visitors to see Indigenous art and artefacts first-hand.

Informed by a lifetime of learning, the extraordinary array of works are steeped in Indigenous knowledge, illustrating the ancestral narratives of the Dreaming - stories owned by different tribes that explain the creation of life, people and animals - and communicating the value of Aboriginal culture to the wider world.

Sotheby’s Senior Consultant Tim Klingender says: ‘This year’s auction offers an outstanding selection of works of high importance and calibre, bringing together rare artefacts and monumental canvases from three major international collections, including that of collectors and philanthropists Dennis and Debra Scholl. With the energetic masterworks of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, to the ceremonial figures steeped in ancestral history, we expect this year’s sale to be the strongest so far and to capture the interest of collectors from across the globe.’

From the Swiss collection of Stefano Spaccapietra come six magnificent works spanning the short but prolific career of Australia’s most famous female artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, the most important collection of her work ever to come to auction.

Kngwarreye’s professional career began at the age of 80, and followed a lifetime of making art in the private confines of women’s ceremonies, decorating the bodies of participants in ritual designs and creating sand mosaics on the ground. Her journey towards the final stage of her life as an extraordinary painter was no mean feat – she had been a goatherd, domestic servant, Wolfram miner and cameleer, as well as a matriarch and leading advocate for land rights for the Anmatyerre people.

When she took up a brush and acrylic in 1988, her paintings amazed an art world that was largely ignorant of her past life. Here was a woman who spoke practically no English, who had no experience of the world of art, yet was creating paintings which appeared modernist. Kngwarreye’s rise to prominence was instant and meteoric – in 1992 she was awarded an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship and in 1997 she was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye Fertile Desert, 1992 Synthetic polymer paint on canvas Estimate: £60,000-80,000
Spaccapietra’s infatuation with Kngwarreye’s work began in 1993 with the striking Fertile Desert, which he purchased directly from the Gallerie Dettinger-Mayer in Lyon. This charming and vibrant initial purchase inspired Spaccapietra to travel to Australia in search of the very finest examples of her art.

Fertile Desert is of both spiritual and material significance. Kngwarreye’s traditional lands were governed by two Emu ancestors who acted as guardians of the Anmatyerre law, but emu also provides an essential source of protein to desert people. Ceremonies performed in the late Australian spring guarantee the profusion of the bush plum intekwe and consequently the animal’s crucial abundance. Subsequently, many of Kngwarreye’s works represent the food on which emus thrive. In this instance, Fertile Desert refers to emus scuttling between their nests in search of plants, bush fruit, berries and seeds – a notable theme which recurs throughout the artist’s works.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye Kame – Summer Awelye II, 1991 Synthetic paint on canvas Estimate: £300,000-500,000
Kngawarreye’s Kame – Summer Awelye II is one of four magisterial works painted on a monumental scale in the heat of the Australian desert summer in 1991, another of which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.

These are among the first which Kngwarreye painted on such a vast scale, emphasising the broad expanse of her country, and celebrating the seasonal cycle of the ever flourishing landscape. The yellow and pink palette mimics remarkably the flowers and seeds of the atnulare tuber (seen right), a staple of the desert diet, and a plant after which Kngwarreye was also named; ‘kame’ is the Eastern Anmatyere word for the seed and small flowers of the plant. This work is thus a remarkable incarnation of the intrinsic connection of the Alhalkere people to their fertile ancestral landscape.

Anatjari Tjakamarra Ngaminya, Grandfather’s Country, 1989 Synthetic polymer paint on Belgian Linen Estimate: £100,000-150,000

Ngaminya, Grandfather’s Country is a late masterwork by the acclaimed artist Anatjari Tjakamarra. Tjakamarra’s influence on Contemporary Aboriginal art began as a member of the very first group of artists at the government settlement of Papunya, a small Indigenous Australian community, to take up painting in synthetic paints in 1971. With the use of dots, lines and circular motifs painted broadly across canvases in acrylic, the group initiated a painting movement that not only revolutionized the art of the Western Desert and in turn Australian art history, but which is now widely recognized throughout the world of contemporary art.

This visually spellbinding work refers to an area of land in Tjakamarra’s grandfather’s country to which he inherited ritual responsibility. Through the use of concentric patterns, the artist aims to create a surface which represents the spiritual ancestral forces pulsating throughout the sacred landscape.

Ngaminya, Grandfather’s Country was exhibited at the John Weber Gallery in New York in 1989 – the first solo exhibition of any Indigenous Australian artist at a private gallery in the city. This landmark moment was further crystallized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s acquisition of Tjakamarra’s Tingari Cycle Dreaming at Paratjakutti from the same exhibition, which would become the first painting by a living Australian Aboriginal artist and by any Indigenous artist to enter the Museum’s prestigious collection.

This year’s sale will also feature 30 contemporary paintings from the Miami based collection of Dennis and Debra Scholl, the majority of which have been exhibited widely in art museums throughout the USA to great acclaim. The Scholl’s have been dedicated collectors of Australian Indigenous Art for more than a decade, and recently donated more than 200 Aboriginal artworks to three American museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Paddy Bedford Ngarrmaliny-Cockatoo at Police Hole, 2003 Natural earth pigments and synthetic binder on canvas Estimate: £120,000-150,000
Despite taking up painting on canvas and board much later in his life, Paddy Bedford is widely recognised as a vanguard of the contemporary East Kimberley painting movement. Bedford’s talents as an Aboriginal artist were revealed in the mid 1990s, when an art dealer stumbled upon and salvaged a series of the artist’s work made on odd scraps of wood and boards from a rubbish tip bound for the town dump. In 2007, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney opened a major retrospective exhibition of his work, which was a world away from Bedford’s beginnings on Bedford Downs cattle station – a scene of tragic frontier wars which would later inform Bedford’s artistic output.

Bedford painted only the land that he had inherited rights to. Beneath the abstract surface of his works, Bedford intertwines the rich ancestral and recent histories of his mother’s, father’s and grandparents country; features such as rocky outcrops, hill tops, sweeping plains, freshwater springs and rivers, even signs of European presence, are translated into a personal visual language of forms in a sparing, map-like composition. Ngarrmaliny-Cockatoo at Police Hole presents an exquisite example of these recurring themes, and has been widely exhibited across institutions throughout the US, and is frequently referenced in publications on the culture of Australian Art.

Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri Mamultjunkunya Synthetic polymer paint on linen Estimate: £80,000-120,000
Mamultjunkunya is a monumental work by Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri, which draws inspiration from the vast salt lake of Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay), located in the very heart of the Australian continent, and an area that the artist called home for nearly three decades. This powerful work takes the viewer on an elusive journey across the canvas, transporting them into an ethereal desert landscape that flows with the rhythm of the winds and glowering mirages of the distant horizons.

From his life as a semi-nomadic hunter and gatherer in one of the most remote deserts in the world, beyond contact with European society, to selection in the 2012 dOCUMENTA (13), where Mamultjunkunya was exhibited, Tjapaltjarri’s works unite the ancestral traditions of Pintupi life, with the power of the art world.

Tjumpo Tjapanangka Wati Kutjarra at the Water Side of Mamara, 2000 Synthetic polymer paint on canvas Estimate: £40,000-60,000
Wati Kutjarra at the Water Site of Mamara is an immersive late work by Tjumpo Tjapanangka. In addition to his talents as a painter, Tjapanangka was also an elder of the Kukatja people, a ceremonial leader, a hunter, a warrior and a traditional healer, who played a fundamental role in bringing artists from Balgo, a small Aboriginal community in Western Australia, into the public domain in the 1980s.

Throughout his career, Tjapanangka preferred the four basic colours of the traditional palette – red and yellow ochres, white lililpa and black maru, and used sequences of alternating coloured stripes which refer directly to patterns painted onto people’s bodies in Aboriginal ceremonies. Wati Kutjarra at the Water Side of Mamara is an exceptional example of this stylistic direction, creating a canvas alight with the power of the element of fire and radiating ancestral energy. The fields of parallel lines and large geometric forms act to pull the viewer into the picture evoking the vision of the expanses of the Australian desert.

A Tobacco Crop Guardian Figure, Sokop Madub, Torres Strait Islands, circa 1888 Carved wood with natural earth pigments Estimate: £70,000-100,000

From an important European collection comes a fascinating and incredibly rare figure of a ‘Tobacco God’, once charged with protecting the treasured tobacco gardens of the Torres Strait Islands, located off the shores of northern Australia.

One of only a handful of such figures known today, the figure is not only solely for its use in the tobacco field, but demonstrates the incredible ability of the sculptors within the Torres Straits to create characteristic contours, meaningful expression and pleasing form, heightened by the black, red and white pigments which dissect the relief, seamlessly uniting function and beauty.

The welcome reappearance of this figure at Sotheby’s after 50 years is accompanied by fresh attribution to the collection of missionary Reverend Henry Moore Dauncey, who collected indigenous artefacts throughout his 40 year missionary service in the region. Upon his death in 1932 Dauncey bequeathed part of his collection, including this figure, to the Walsall Public Library, who later consigned it to Sotheby’s major Tribal Art sale of 1967. Here, it sold for £18 alongside three other artefacts including a magnificent Torres Strait Island Drum, now in the collection of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva.

Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara (Tjipungaleialumi) Purukapali and Tarpara. Estimates range from £15,000-30,000
In the mid-1950s, Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara was at the forefront of a new development in sculpture, creating naturalistic painted figure carvings to be placed on a grave to ward off malicious spirits - a practice renowned amongst the Tiwi people of Bathurst Island and Melville Island.

Munkara’s exceptional figure sculptures are particularly distinctive; with hunched shoulders and detached expressions, the sculptures are believed to encapsulate the grief of bereaved ancestors. The figure’s arms hang in a pose that imitates a choreographed passage in Pukumani funeral dances, whilst the negative space created between the pelvis is reference to the ‘windows’ cut into the painted posts which surround the grave of the deceased.

Figures like the Purukapali and Tarpara very rarely come to the market, and have attracted attention of major collectors and anthropologists around the world. For most of the early 20th century, a ban imposed on Tiwi ceremonial practice in 1911 meant that only a rare few of these figures were made.

The sale will also feature an exceptional and rare Female Mokoy Figure (pictured left, est. £10,000-15,000) from the Yolgnu of eastern Arnhem Land, decorated with paint and incised clan patterns. This particular spirit figure appears to represent an elderly female. The pointed legs, with the ochre worn away below the knee, suggest that this figure may have been placed in the ground during ceremony.

A Selection of Indigenous Shields Early - Late 19th century Estimates range from £10,000 - 35,000

From a French private collection comes a formidable collection of shields and artefacts, dating from the early to late 19th century.

Each uniquely carved and painted, these shields bear testament to the combat in which they were used, dented by the powerful blows of spears, clubs, and boomerangs. One particularly eye-catching example, the Rainforest Shield from North East Queensland (est. £10,000-15,000), is adorned with geometric contours heightened in red, orange and green pigment. Designs such as this were thought to possess protective qualities when used in battle alongside large, single-handed sword clubs, and were also used in the initiation ceremonies of young men.

Charlie Numbulmore Wanjina, 1970 Natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark Estimates range from £12,000-35,000

This remarkable pair of ‘Wanjina figures’, or spirits of the rain and clouds, were painted onto eucalyptus bark by Charlie Numbulmore. With large eyes, solid black heart and tripartite halo thought to represent the lightning, the rain and the cloud, these examples are instantly identifiable to both collectors and students of Aboriginal Art.

Each executed in 1970, the present Wanjina figures are incredibly significant, not only for their execution on bark rather than on paper or cardboard, but because they lack the mouths which appear in Numbulmore’s later works, and which appear on the market far more frequently.

Each of these figures was gifted, on a separate occasion, by Numbulmore to an individual working at the Gibb River Station. The first was gifted to Geoffrey Shafer, an electrical engineer who was presented the work by an Aborigine while installing beacons for commercial aircraft. The second comes directly from the collection of geological technician Simon Knight, who was similarly gifted the work, this time by Numbulmore himself after the pair became friendly during his stay.

That two such works from very similar periods will now appear in the same sale, is a truly serendipitous circumstance.

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