Mitjili Napurrula 1945

Top 200 Australian Aboriginal Artists Special Feature

Mitjili Napurrula
Mitjilli Napurrula, Watiya Tjuta, 25x90cm (2003). Courtesy Aboriginal Art Directory Gallery

Country: Western Desert
Language: Pintupi, Lurrija
Community: Haasts Bluff
Works Offered/Sold at Auction: 88/48
Total Sales at Auction to 2009: AUD$186,666.00
Highest result at Auction to 2009: AUD$26,400.00
Rank amongst Living Artists: 37
Rank amongst all artists of the movement: 87

Mitjili Napurrula 1945

Born at Haasts Bluff in 1945, after her mother’s Pintupi/Luritja family came in from the desert seeking refuge and rations, Mitjili Napurrula grew up in Papunya and later married the artist, Long Tom Tjapanangka. With their extended family, they returned to Haasts Bluff as part of the 1980’s outstation movement and both artists, often in conjunction, proceeded to contribute significantly to the emerging art community there. Under the guidance of art coordinator Marina Strocchi, Ikuntji Art Centre rapidly developed an exciting style of its own, propelled in part by the older women who had been assistants to Geoffrey Bardon’s first painting men at Papunya.

Mitjili Napurrula began painting in 1992, encouraged by the opening of the Ikuntji Women’s Centre, the social and artistic hub of Haasts Bluff and nearby desert communities. Coming from a family of distinguished artists, including her mother Tjunkiya Napaltjarri and her brother Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, she grew up watching artists paint during the formative period of the western desert art movement. Tjunkiya, who became one of the foundation group of female artists to take up painting following the joint Kintore/Haasts Bluff painting project in 1994, passed on the Pintupi symbolic language of her father’s tradition to her daughter Mitjili, by relating stories to her as she drew in the sand. While it took a few years before she developed her own distinctive painting style Mitjili gained an international following after winning the Alice Springs Art Prize in 1999. By then she had developed her own naturalistic approach to painting.

In the process of gradually reducing the complexity of her imagery she worked toward creating a tapestry of repeated shapes and symbols that convey a personal vision and individual style. Her singularly distinctive iconography may be highlighted through the dazzling combination of strong complimentary tones or, alternatively, as in this striking example, may just as easily be depicted in the stark juxtaposition of two contrasting colors.

This image is based on her father’s country at Uwalki, where red sandhills, native grasses and wiry trees stretch to the horizon’s edge. The beautiful desert oak, Watiya Tjuta, one of the artist’s more familiar motifs creates a vibratory pattern that appeals to a modern sensibility when realized in such startling contrast.

Like her famous brother Turkey Tolson, Mitjili inherited the right to paint Ilyingaungau, a site in the Gibson Desert where the ancestors prepared their spears (kulata). Turkey’s iconic Spear Straightening paintings should be seen as the complimentary balance with his sister’s feminine rendition of the plants and places associated with the cutting of wood and assembling of spears.

Mitjili’s record price at auction was achieved in November 2006 when a large 3-metre canvas originally commissioned by Mason Gallery in Darwin sold for $26,400. Entitled Uwalki: Watiya Tjuta, 2004 it had justified the $25,000 to 30,000 presale estimate placed on it by Lawson~Menzies specialists. Interestingly not one single work in the artist’s top 10 results has been achieved by market leader Sotheby’s. In fact Sotheby’s have offered only two minor works of the 88 that have appeared for sale and these both failed to find a buyer. This is doubtless due to the fact that since the mid 1990’s Mitjili has increasingly painted for dealers outside of art centre patronage.

Mitjili’s results at auction are dominated by small and minor works and this has resulted in an average price at auction of just $4,130 for works on canvas and $1,235 for works on paper. Nevertheless, Mitjili’s Aboriginal Art Market Rating ranks her amongst the top 50 living artists and collectors should seek out good works, with a preference for larger pieces with a strong contemporary aesthetic. These should continue to satisfy and find a ready market when offered for resale in the future.

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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