Jack Dale c.1922

Top 200 Australian Aboriginal Artists Special Feature

Jack Dale
Jack and Biddy Dale, Wandjina 2004, courtesy Aboriginal Art Online.

Country: Kimberley WA
Language: Ngarinyin
Community: Derby
Works Offered/Sold at Auction: 35/13
Total Sales at Auction to 2010: AUD$203,860.00
Highest result at Auction to 2010: AUD$45,600.00
Rank amongst Living Artists: 21
Rank amongst all artists of the movement: 59

Jack Dale c.1922

Referred to as the ‘Grand Old Man of the Kimberley’, tribal elder Jack Dale is highly respected as both a custodian of ceremonial ‘Law’ and for his skill as a bushman.

The son of a hard-living Scottish father and a Ngarinyin mother, Dale spent his earliest years wandering the bush tracks of the Kimberley. His life spanned the turbulent and bloody years of early white settlement, through to a life working cattle and traveling the north-west. Now in his late eighties he is part of the living history of the Kimberley region.

In the 1990’s the natural history recorder and photographer Neil McLeod took an interest in Dale. When asked if he would consider painting, the old man was excited that McLeod had come to him to record his knowledge and traditions. He had learnt about his country and the ancestral spirits that created it from his grandfather. As one of the last and dwindling generation of old men, he possessed a complete knowledge of the rituals, law and culture of his people and had become a vital link to the past.

In his late 70’s Dale started exploring historical themes in his art. Incidents that he had personally experienced or witnessed and later depicted in his art included hiding as police patrols forcibly took Aboriginal children from their families, watching chain gangs of Aboriginal men being marched away by white men on horseback, and the arrival of the Afghan camel drivers. Jack Dale’s most compelling works focus on the Wandjina and other important spirit beings that created the land and instituted the laws that govern human behaviour amongst his own people.

Wandjinas are powerful fertility spirits responsible for the life-giving monsoon rains. Dale depicts these spirits in a distinctive style; ghost like, with haloes, large dark pool-like eyes and with no mouth. “Whites have the bible. We have our Wandjinas. We have to go to these places else we are empty”, says Dale. These Wandjina sites, located throughout the Kimberley, are over 60,000 years old and are painted on rock overhangs, often marked by striking geological features like the Djalala or ‘marking stones’ that indicate their presence.

Despite his age, Jack Dale works with an untiring energy, documenting important beliefs and events of his life. He is often assisted by family members including his wife, artist Biddy Dale. Now a very old man, he works by drafting out the major story elements on to his canvases, which can at times be up to 2 metres or more in size. As he does so he relates the story while instructing and overseeing his wife and daughter Edna Dale as they complete the dotted outlines and decorative infill. The work illustrated is a lovely example. It was created in 2004 with earth pigments on canvas and measures 66 x 100 cm.

Interest in Dale’s work has increased exponentially through his many solo exhibitions since his works first appeared in 1998. Unfortunately, the first appearance of his works at auction in 2004 was disappointing. Every one of the three works offered failed to sell. During the following two years only minor works were offered so that by the end of 2006, Jack Dale was still not even on the radar in the secondary market. All this changed dramatically during the next two years.

In 2007, two works sold for what are the artist’s record and third highest price to date. The first of these appeared at Lawson~Menzies in May 2007 (Lot 25). Offered with an estimate of $30,000-35,000 the eye-catching, 180 x 231 cm image, Male Wandjinas - Baby Dreaming, created just 12 months earlier, sold for $31,200. At its next sale in November 2007, Lawson~Menzies featured another major work, this time measuring 143 x 199 cm. Wandjinas at Iondra 2006 was an even more impressive painting than the former lot and sold above its high estimate for $45,600.

As a direct result of these two sales Jack Dale shot to 120th amongst the most successful artist on the Indigenous Art Market Index (AIAM100). Further success in 2008 when two works sold for $38,400 and $13,200 respectively saw his ranking jump further to be the 66th most successful Aboriginal artist of all time. In the beginning of 2010 he was ranked at 59th.

Jack Dale lived a life that was precariously balanced at the crossroads of change. His paintings evoke the powerful imagery and experience of a life writ large across the history of Australia’s unique Kimberley region.

This review is by Adrian Newstead, a leading Aboriginal art consultant.

As part of this informative series, Adrian profiles a selection of Australia's 200 highest selling and most successful living and deceased Aboriginal artists. Each profile contains the artist's primary and secondary market results. They have been written to assist collectors in learning more about the artists behind the paintings, and the place of each artist in the history of the development of specific regional styles.

Adrian Newstead is the owner of Cooee Gallery in Bondi, Sydney. Statistics supplied by the AASD (Australian Art Sales Digest) which ranks artists according to performance indicators relating to secondary market sales.

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