Lot No. 96
Alec Mingelmanganu, circa 1905-1981, WANDJINA
natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
cane frame bound with bush string
91 BY 50CM Provenance:
Acquired by the vendor Arthur Beau Palmer in 1975 at Kalumburu, North Western Australia. The Wandjina paintings created by Wunambal artist Alec Mingelmanganu are acknowledged as among the finest renditions of these quintessential icons of the north and central Kimberley.
Mingelmanganu's work first hit the public eye in 1975. A Wandjina figure on bark was entered in the West Kimberley town of Derby's Boab Festival art competition, on Alec's behalf under the title Austral Gothic - partly in relation to the window effect produced by the cane-bound frame of the bark. The painting however, was deemed to have been an original ethnographic work from an earlier period and disqualified. After the judges were informed of the recent age and provenance of the piece, Mingelmanganu was belatedly awarded a prize commensurate to that offered as first prize in the competition.
Recognised by Perth art dealer, Mary Macha, as an artist of outstanding calibre, Mingelmanganu began, with the help of the late Father Seraphim Sanz of Kalumburu, marketing all his work through the agency Aboriginal Traditional Arts. A year or so later, Mingelmanganu, Manila Kutwit, Waigan Djanghara, Geoffrey Mangalomarra (composer of the Cyclone Tracy palga) and the Karadadas, Jack and Lily and Rose and Louis were shown, in their own Wanjina-focussed exhibition in Perth, by Macha and Aboriginal Traditional Arts.
In 1979 Mingelmanganu and the other Kalumburu artists were introduced to painting on canvas and Alec, inspired by the size achievable on canvas went on to produce a small but celebrated series of paintings of large Wandjina figures of cyclopian mein.
From the time Mingelmanganu was first exhibited in 1975 until his introduction to canvas all his work was on sheets of bark, usually reinforced with a length of cane sewn to it with bush string. Initially these works were exceptionally fragile as Mingelmanganu, in keeping with other Kimberley artists, either did not use a fixative or, if a eucalyptus resin (kino) base was applied, it was hygroscopic and relatively unstable. Consequently few of these barks survive today. Although painting on a grand scale at the end of his life Mingelmanganu continued to paint smaller Wandjina figures on plaques of soft wood, or engrave them on overpainted slabs of wood or soft stone.
The bark painting under consideration must certainly be considered one of the finest of Mingelmanganu's earlier works. The close-set eyes that abut the long narrow nose are typical of his Wandjina images as are the high angled shoulders that run around the halo that almost encloses the entire head. Unusually, there is a second line that lies below the primary thoracic division that separates the chest and shoulder region. On the lower line can be seen a sub-oval icon, that encloses the same careful hatching that fills the torso and limbs of the figure. The lower line runs beneath the armpits and across the upper arms of the figure. It may possibly represent an initial drafting line produced when the artist originally laid out the figure. The halo consists of a broad, arced band from which very short, stubbled lines radiate. Comparison with Mingelmanganu's earlier bark as well as later canvases show considerable variation in the manner in which the halo is depicted and highlights the need to be aware of the flexiblity exercised by some Wandjina artists.
Beneath the hands are two figures, Under the right hand a figure with a fuller body may represent a bush sprite such as a Narra-narra Honey spirit, or a Wurala-wurala, a spirit of fruits and other vegetable foods which are often similarly depicted in rock art of the region. The stick-like figure beneath the left-hand may represent a human Baby-spirit, yayalla. Baby-spirits are said to inhabit areas of permanent freshwater places usually associated also with both Wanjina beings and rainbow serpents. Symbols of life or of life renewed, these little figures do not bear the pointed ears and other features of the malevolent argula ‘evil spirits or ‘devil-devils'.
Finally the irregular surface of the bark, the few areas where pigment has flaked from the textured surface imbue in this work all the qualities of a Wandjina painting such as those that grace the rock walls and ceilings of many caves and overhangs in the north and central Kimberley.
This work, bearing all the hallmarks of a master Wandjina artist, a person who was intimately connected to Wanjinas in both his country and his soul, makes it clear why the judges in Derby in 1975, dismissed a similar work as a painting from a much earlier period of Kimberley history.
Sotheby's Australia wishes to thank Kim Akerman for this catalogue entry