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BARKS: BEAUTIFUL, RAW, CHALLENGING... & UNDERVALUED


DICK NGULEINGULEI, 1920–1988 Mimi Killing Crocodile, 1965

DICK NGULEINGULEI, 1920–1988
Mimi Killing Crocodile, 1965

One of the first questions I get asked by people when they find out I sell art for a living is:

“How did you get into that?”

And for me it’s always the same, simple answer:

“Barks.”

One of the most affordable mediums in the Indigenous art market today is also one of the most important in terms of their cultural and historical significance.  For this reason I believe they are still largely under-valued and under-appreciated.  But I also believe that the recognition of the importance of bark paintings is gaining strength at a collector level.  I will explain why in this post.

What really drew me to barks was their inherent identity: this is a uniquely Australian art form. It’s also an incredibly diverse tradition as it is practiced in different regions that, in turn, each exhibit their own unique identity. 

Strangely enough, though, it was my time living in the US that prompted me to begin my collection.  I was commissioned by a prominent US collector, whom I had met while living there, to help him establish his bark collection once I returned to Australia.  This was the first time I’d ever looked into the art market from a collector’s perspective – until then I’d been working as an artist/illustrator so it was a complete role reversal!

DAVID MALANGI, 1927–1999 Gurrmirringu the Mighty Hunter, 1967

DAVID MALANGI, 1927–1999
Gurrmirringu the Mighty Hunter, 1967

When I began following the market and buying barks for my US client, I quickly found that this was not only an art form I found incredibly interesting and beautiful – but one that I could actually afford to buy.  And so my own collecting passion was born.

One common misconception with bark painting is that there are issues with conservation.   While it’s true that bark has a life of its own, the material inherently moves and changes with temperature and humidity levels, this is not a problem if they are kept in a fairly stable environment.  It is the rapid increase or decrease in temperature and environments with high humidity that are the main problems.  In the relatively temperate climates of Victoria, NSW, SA and much of WA, this shouldn’t be a concern for collectors.  In addition, there are many techniques employed by modern conservators that allow the bark to retain its overall integrity and its inherent need to shift.

Perhaps one of the other factors limiting their appreciation is the roughness of their raw, original form – they don’t have the clean lines of a neat canvas encased in a frame.  This is actually one of the things I love best about barks.  Particularly if you’re lucky enough to find an early piece that has retained its jagged edges after being cut from a shelter - that raw quality speaks directly back to its origins and, in my opinion, adds so much to their character.

I have observed a gradual shift in the perceptions in the bark market over recent years, reflected in both the prices realised at various auctions here and internationally and also in the prominence bark paintings have been given at major institutions.

ARTIST UNKNOWN, Rose River Region Stingrays, 1971

ARTIST UNKNOWN, Rose River Region
Stingrays, 1971

In 2013-14 the National Museum of Australia held a landmark exhibition showcasing the work of 40 master bark painters from its collection.  Old Masters: Australia’s Great Bark Artists worked to address the imbalance between bark painting and the meteoric rise of the Western Desert art movement that started in the 1970s.  This was one of the first exhibitions at a major institution to place bark paintings on the centre stage, and it did much to raise the profile of these important artists.

While the record price for a bark painting is AU$199,540, for a bark by Wandjina artist Jack Karadada at Sotheby's in London, June 2015, there are only several other results above the $100,000 mark and from there the prices fall away considerably.  Bark paintings rarely sell for over $20,000 and you can pick up exceptional works for well below $10,000.

Some of the top artists to look out for are:
1. Yirawala
2. John Mawurndjul
3. Alec Mingelmanganu
4. Wandjuk Marika
5. Mawalan Marika
7. Jimmy Midjaw Midjaw
8. Lofty Nadjamerek
9. David Malangi
10. Galumbu Yunupingu

All of these artists feature in the collections of our major national institutions. 

From my personal perspective, the earlier, pre 1970s barks are the barks to look out for.  Provenance is still important here, and if the barks have come via the missionaries or any of the early, pre-70s collectors then this is very helpful. Sandra Holmes, Dr Scougall and Dorothy Bennett are three of the most prominent early bark collectors who collected in the late 50s early 60s – so any barks that have spent time in their collections have added value through their provenance.

The results from last year’s Sotheby’s auction in London show that there is serious money out there internationally for this medium, but the good news is it’s still affordable to get into the market. The key is to be discerning – choose a desirable artist and go for barks with a strong aesthetic. Above all, and it almost goes without saying - you’ve got to love what you buy.

If you have any questions about barks and the current market, please do not hesitate to get in touch: 0421 122 023 or dlan@dlandavidson.com.au

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