Artist to Know: Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra

Liz Catalano
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Bonhams to Present Major Work from Aboriginal Artist

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra in front of Making Spears. Image from ABC News.
Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra in front of Making Spears. Image from ABC News.

Contemporary Aboriginal art can be traced back to a small schoolhouse in 1971. However, the ongoing movement builds on over 80,000 years of Aboriginal artistic tradition, one of the oldest art forms still practiced today. 

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, known in the art world as “Long Jack,” was among the first Aboriginal men to revive and popularize Indigenous Australian art in the 1970s. One of Long Jack’s early works will come to auction in Bonhams’ upcoming sale of Aboriginal art from the Serra Collection. Held on July 22nd, 2020, at 6:00 PM EDT in Sydney, Australia, this auction will offer 43 lots. Learn more about Long Jack before bidding in this event. 

Long Jack grew up in the Australian bush and eventually worked as a stockman, school yardman, and council member. He later settled in Papunya, which is composed of several displaced Aboriginal groups resettled by the Australian government. While there, he met Geoffrey Bardon, an art teacher who is credited with catalyzing contemporary Aboriginal art. Bardon encouraged his students to break with tradition and paint their artwork on canvases rather than on the ground or on their bodies. The men of the community, including Long Jack, followed suit. 

These paintings are more than geometric or abstract designs, however. They convey stories and legends about the Dreaming, a period of creation that influences Aboriginal culture and spiritual practices. By putting these sacred stories on canvases and selling them for profit, Long Jack and his fellow painters at the Papunya Tula Artists group received some criticism from their communities. “We are not ‘turning our heritage into cash’— we want the whole world to know of our culture,” the group said in response.

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Untitled (Kalipinypa), 1972. Image from Bonhams.
Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Untitled (Kalipinypa), 1972. Image from Bonhams.

Long Jack worked as a broker between the artists and the broader community, encouraging a style that respected tribal law and Indigenous custody of stories. He often paints with acrylics to convey versions of the Water, Wallaby, Kingfisher, and other Dreaming stories in his art. Long Jack’s early work with Papunya Tula is considered his strongest, particularly given his role in launching an art movement that has continued to thrive for decades.

An untitled work from that time leads the upcoming Bonhams auction. Executed in 1972, this piece was made with musk pink and red powder paint that is associated with religious ceremonies. Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana, writing for the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, connect this work to designs for Water or Rain Dreamings: “The much needed rains [at Kalipinypa] fill the interconnecting creeks and rockholes. This abundant water in turn transforms the countryside, creating new growth across the lands and ensuing the ongoing cycle of life.” Untitled (Kalipinypa) has an estimate of USD 49,000 to $69,000.

As interest has grown in Aboriginal art, Long Jack’s work has gained in value. His auction record was set in 1998 with Kangaroo Story, a black and orange piece that sold for AUD 90,500 (USD 63,018). The success of this piece reflects the market’s support for Long Jack’s art from the early 1970s, as well as the comparative disinterest in the paintings that followed. “His later works fail to satisfy and have missed the market aesthetic which has driven sales of Papunya men’s art throughout the 1990s,” says Cooee Art, an Australian gallery specializing in Aboriginal works.

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Kangaroo Story, 1971. Image from Cooee Art.
Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Kangaroo Story, 1971. Image from Cooee Art.

Despite this trend, Long Jack remains popular among collectors. The average price for his paintings is AUD 14,360 (USD 9,997), with recent sales challenging that figure. Bonhams’ Important Australian Art auction of 2018 sold Bush Tucker Story for AUD 70,760 (USD 49,128). The painting offered in the upcoming sale is expected to pass that price: “It is extremely rare for a work of such importance by one of the founding members of the Papunya Tula Artists to come to market,” said Merryn Schriever, the Director of Bonhams Australia.

Long Jack still lives in Papunya and continues to produce art. His work is represented in museums across Australia and around the world, including the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and the Galeria R. Poznan in Poland. 

The Bonhams auction particularly features 16 items from the collection of Eudald Serra i Güell, an avant-garde sculptor and ethnologist from Barcelona. The Catalan artist traveled to Japan, Cambodia, India, and the Australian bush to study culture and collect art. Bidding for the available Long Jack piece, as well as works from Maggie Napangardi Watson, Yirawala, and Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, will begin at 6:00 PM EDT on July 22nd, 2020. Visit Bonhams for the complete catalog and to place a bid.