At our private exhibition in New York earlier this year one of the art world’s most influential people stood spellbound in front of this painting by Bill Whiskey and described it as “powerful and majestic…”
Throughout the viewing, too, I noticed people congregating around the same painting and discussing it - like they were drawn to its energy.
It was so interesting to watch an international audience react to artworks which were clearly out of their comfort zone. Though all were ensconced in the contemporary art ‘scene’, very few had seen such important examples of Australian Indigenous art in the flesh before.
Their reaction to Bill Whiskey’s work in particular made clear to me why his pictures are so highly sought-after (and in my view under-valued) in the marketplace today.
Whiskey has frequently found his way onto my Top 10 Most Collectable lists over the years, but over the last 12 months I’ve noticed a strong surge in demand for his work – particularly in the private international market.
Here are a few thoughts on why that may be.
Bill Whiskey – Healer & Leader
To truly understand Bill Whiskey’s work you need to know about the man he was and the extraordinary life he led.
He was a leader from Pitjantjatjara, a group of Anangu people from the Central Australian desert. He was born in the 1920s west of Uluru (Ayres Rock) at Pirupa Alka - near the impressive rock formations of the Olgas at Kata Juta.
He lived a nomadic lifestyle during his childhood, moving to Uluru in search of food, and returning to his homelands when first contact with the white frontier ended in conflict.
As a young man, Whiskey moved his family to Haasts Bluff mission, where he worked, married Colleen Nampitjinpa, and had five children. They eventually moved to the outstation of Amunturungu at Mt. Liebig during the 1980s where he came to be called Whiskey – owing to his long bushy beard.
Whiskey was an important and highly respected figure in his community. He was a ‘ngangkari’ or traditional healer and tribal elder – responsible for the physical, emotional and social well-being of his people and those who travelled from afar to be treated by him.
Bill Whiskey – The Artist
Remarkably, Whiskey only began painting during the final four years of his life - from the age of 85 until his passing at 88 years.
He was aware of the Papunya painting movement from the 70s, but there was some reluctance to paint in this forum until he attacked the medium with great vigour in 2004, producing an impressive oeuvre of approximately 200 works.
This seems to be a common thread with many significant Australian Indigenous artists – their best work comes during the end stages of life (on this earth). After a life-time of being derided and oppressed, a last ditch and supreme effort by leaders to keep their culture alive and strong for generations to come - this is my culture, these are my people, we are important.
What makes a great painting by Bill Whiskey?
First of all, I think there really isn’t a bad picture by the artist. But what stands out for me is his natural talent for composition on a large scale – he knew how to make an impact.
It’s his larger-scale works that have been in particularly high demand over the last 12 months – especially with international collectors. With only an estimated 30-40 of these large canvases in circulation they are becoming rare things indeed.
Regardless of scale, his best works have a lyrical quality – they are poetic, they shimmer and they soothe. Whether in white, muted tones or flirting with deep blue, orange, yellow and red, Whiskey’s paintings exude strength, wisdom and a healing power.
I vividly remember the moment I hung Whiskey’s Rockholes Near the Olgas for my 2017 exhibition at William Mora Galleries.
Until that moment I’d been worried that I wasn’t going to fit everything in the space, and that the paintings weren’t sitting quite right – like they were fighting each other, grasping for attention.
When I finally hung the Whiskey, prominently positioned on the back wall, the space suddenly felt quiet. Everything calmed down, the exhibition fell into place and began to sing.
There’s got to be a little magic in there somewhere. And for me that perfectly sums up Bill Whiskey; his life, his innate ability, and the wonderful pictures he left behind.
If you are looking for something particular or have an Indigenous artwork you’d like to sell, contact me for confidential and obligation-free advice.