Women dominate in best Indigenous art sale in a decade

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 29 March 2023

Glamour artworks by women dominated Deutscher and Hackett’s Important Australian Indigenous Art auction in Melbourne last week, propelling the overall result to a decade-high total of $3.262 million.

Women artists scored four of the evening’s top five prices, and set most of the new artist auction price records.

Interest in their works helped drive the highest result for a mixed-vendor Indigenous art auction in Australia for over 10 years, Deutscher and Hackett said.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Untitled, 1995, was the second-highest price of the night at $288,409; all Deutscher and Hackett prices include a 25 per cent buyer’s premium unless otherwise stated. The only picture that sold for more was Lin Onus’s Deep Water (Matong), 1995, which went for $343,636.

Along with Kngwarreye, the auction’s undoubted standouts were Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori and Nonggirrna Marawili, both recording new auction highs for their work.

The late Sally Gabori is the subject of a major retrospective by the Cartier Foundation which opened in Paris and is now in Milan. As for Marawili, she was afforded a large exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2018-19.

Gabori’s emphatic canvas, Ninjilki, 2018, with black, white and pink shapes dancing along its three-metre length, made a mockery of Deutscher and Hackett’s estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. Auctioneer Scott Livesey knocked the painting down to a Sydney buyer for $205,000 ($251,591 including premium). Gabori’s previous auction record was $79,773, set in 2021.

Nonggirrnga Marawili’s abstract bark painting, Baratjala, 2018, sold for $153,409 (including buyer’s premium) on an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. This set an auction record for the artist.

At the auction’s Sydney and Melbourne viewings, Deutscher and Hackett head of Aboriginal art, Crispin Gutteridge, noticed women were particularly attracted to Baratjala, which features seductive pinks (ink from recycled printer cartridges). Sure enough, Baratjala was purchased by a Sydney woman.

“She’s very pleased to have the painting,” Mr Gutteridge told Saleroom.

Unusually, local buyers saw off many of the international bidders. This perhaps indicates that Australians are catching up with overseas collectors and connoisseurs in appreciating Indigenous art.

“About 25 per cent of the works were bid on by international (interests), but only about 10 per cent went overseas, which is less than normal and shows the strength in the local market, I guess,” Mr Gutteridge said.

“The prices were very strong, and possibly over some people’s expectations. Competition is stronger across the board. We had bidders on the telephones, lots of absentees, we had the internet participating strongly and people in the room bidding as well. There was just lots of action.”

The market had obviously noted the achievements of many of the women artists.

Nonggirrnga Marawili, for example, who was born in 1938 and lives in coastal Yirrkala in the Northern Territory, has won national art awards. In 2019 she also won the Roberts Family Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prize, funded by AFR Rich Lister Andrew Roberts as part of the Art Gallery of NSW’s Wynne Prize for landscape.

Marawili was honoured with a solo exhibition called From My Heart and Mind, at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2018-19. She was hung in the ground-breaking Know My Name exhibition of women’s art at the National Gallery of Australia.

One of Marawili’s barks was jointly acquired by Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia last year. These honours were reflected in last week’s auction.

“There was quite a significant crossover from clients who normally purchase non-Indigenous art who, for the first time, came to the exhibition and got very excited and participated”, Mr Gutteridge said.

“I think prices are getting up to equivalent to non-Indigenous artists, which is where it always should have been.”

It wouldn’t have hurt that the Art Gallery of NSW relocated its Yiribana gallery from the basement to the ground floor as part of its Sydney Modern building project which opened in December last year.

Malaluba Gumana was another record-breaker on the night. Another Yirrkala artist, Gumana’s resoundingly confident hollow log work, Gurrimala (Larrakitj), fetched $40,500. Gumana’s previous auction high was $19,520, set in 2020.

Tjunkiya Napaltjarri’s Women at the Rockhole Site of Umari, 2004, fetched the artist’s highest auction price. It sold for $24,545. Napaltjarri’s previous high was $7200 in 2010.

Other top-five results for women’s art at the auction include two Emily Kame Kngwarreye pictures. Untitled, 1995, mentioned above, and Alalguara Landscape II, 1994, sold for $184,091 on an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.