AKA Tolsen, Malka Malka, Taarki
16 Career Overall Rank
36 2016 Market Rank
While Turkey Tolson was present during the early painting years at Papunya and later was to go on to become the Chairman of Papunya Tula in the late 1980s, his early works have never been valued highly. Despite being extremely pleasing and well rendered small images only two appear in the best 50 results for this artist at auction. For example Napaltjarri Dreaming’ created by the artist in 1973 was valued by Sotheby’s for just $5,000-8,000 and sold for $6,000 in 2005. The best sales result achieved for an early career work occurred as early as 1996 when a very attractive untitled painting measuring 46 x 15 cm sold for $8,625. Why Sotheby’s failed to increase the estimate and stand by his early board in 2005 remains a mystery. This may be partially explained by the failure of an extraordinary canvas thought to have been painted by the artist in 1974/5, which appeared in Christie's Modern Aboriginal Art auction (Lot 51) just the year before. The very large canvas, measuring 203 x 174 cm, was thoroughly documented by Dr. Vivien Johnson and had an estimate of $60,000-80,000.
While Tolson painted continuously throughout the 1970s and into the late 1990s exploring many themes throughout his career as an artist, none of these works have achieved the success of his most emblematic image, that of the Spear Straightening associated with the site Illingaungau. Paintings of this story occupy every one of his ten highest results, and 17 of his best 20. Moreover five of his top ten paintings were produced for Papunya Tula between 1996 and 2000, two years before his death. The increase in value of these Spear Straightening paintings can be clearly illustrated by comparing the price paid for very good Papunya Tula provenanced works of a standard measurement, 152 x 183 cm. One such work, created in 1997, was estimated to sell by Sotheby’s in 1999 for between $8,000-12,000 and sold for $16,000. Subsequently three works created in 1996, 1998 and 2000 sold in Sotheby’s auctions held in 2005, 2004 and 2003 for $82,000, $75,000 and $82,000 respectively, establishing the best three results for this artist until two monumental works commissioned by Steve Nibbs of Yapa Art sold at Lawson~Menzies during 2006 for $180,000 and $144,000 respectively and another achieved $168,000 in 2008. This latter work resold at Menzies in 2010 for $180,000 (Lot 68), matching his top selling work. Increasingly, during his final years, Tolson painted for independent dealers and a number of these paintings have sold well, especially at auction.
Turkey Tolson was a highly gifted, innovative artist whose range of imagery sets him amongst the finest exponents of desert painting. In comparison to the Spear Straightening works of his later years, his 1980s paintings have been mysteriously overlooked and would seem to represent great value in the current market for an artist of this stature. Many of these works explore a range of stories with imagery that is more varied and complex in structure than those created late in his life. While the telltale signs of his subsequent imagery are present, he was yet to pare down his imagery to its most essential elements at this earlier stage of his career. An iconic painting of this period is a Papunya Tula work titled, Two Travelling Women at Pultja, 1983 which measured 194 x 274 cm. Offered for sale in 2003 by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $10,000-15,000 it sold for the modest sum of $9,200. Sotheby’s put up another very nice example in 2004 (Lot 491) with an estimate of $12,000-18,000 yet this work failed to sell until the following year when Lawson~Menzies (May 2005) achieved $15,600 (Lot 63). In 2015 a very interesting 120 x 180 cm untitled work created in 1985 featuring a Perente Dreaming story was offered at Mossgreen auctions with a presale estimate of just $6,000-$8,000. It sold for $15,860 (Alan Boxer Collection of Australian Indigenous Art, Melbourne, 17/03/2015, Lot No. 14).
By the end of 2016, 312 paintings by Tolson had appeared at auction of which 173 sold giving Tolson a success rate of 55%. Yet only 30 have achieved prices higher than $20,000. Paintings created during the 1980s, with a wider artistic range and good provenance would seem to represent fantastic value and canny collectors would be well advised to seek them out. Tolson is a much better artist than he is given credit for. Gathered togather his 1980s works would make a fascinating exhibition, and herald a major reappraisal of his career.
Turkey Tolson was born under a tree beside a creek bed about eight kilometres east of Haasts Bluff. After years working in the Haasts Bluff stock camp, droving cattle to Mount Leibig he underwent initiation in to manhood and the family moved in to the Papunya settlement where Turkey worked as a construction labourer and in the communal kitchen. In 1961 he married and moved with his young family to an outstation west of Papunya. After his first wife’s untimely death he remarried at Papunya where he lived during the early years of the painting movement. He joined the Papunya Tula artists as one of its youngest members, and painted his earliest artwork for Geoff Bardon in 1972. Other early paintings date from 1973 onwards.
Tolson’s unassuming leadership style and commitment to the community led him to remain focused on the more anonymous collective meaning of his work to the detriment of any personal ambition throughout the 1980’s. He was, in fact, the artist Chris Anderson of the South Australian Museum had in mind when he stated ‘Andy Warhol didn’t have a CV either. I mean- they’re not artists on the make. They’re not part of the whole career structure’ (cited in Johnson 1996: 98). Yet Tolson’s individual approach and quiet creative momentum were the hallmarks of, and informed, what became an enduring career.
During his early period Turkey Tolson was one of the most innovative and figurative artists of the Papunya Tula movement. In the 1980’s he travelled to Paris with Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri to create a sand painting as part of the Peintres Aborigines d’Australie exhibition. He collaborated with renowned artist Tim Johnson, supervising Johnson’s use of sacred designs in Emu, Porcupine and Bandicoot Dreaming 1983. Throughout his distinguished career Tolson’s desire to experiment and his versatility were abundantly manifest as he embraced new, less traditional mediums including the prints he created for the Utopia Suite and multicolour woodblocks which were, according to Stephen Rainbird, 'a bold expression of his individual sensibility and creativity, his artistic maturity and outstanding carving skill' (1994: 182). His prints were included in the comprehensive survey of Aboriginal printmaking New Tracks, Old Land, which was shown to international acclaim in America, and toured 25 venues throughout Australia during the early 1990’s.
Turkey Tolson was elected Chairman of Papunya Tula in 1985 and held this role until 1995 despite painting for a variety of outside dealers from the early 1990’s onward. He became one of the company’s best-known artists, and seemingly had no problem in marrying this status with his desire to act independently as and when the circumstances seemed propitious.
His paintings were invariably included in landmark exhibitions from the early 1980’s onward. These included the exhibition of works from the Richard Kelton collection, Contemporary Australian Art 1981 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles, The Face of the Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1985, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians which toured Germany and the UK in 1993-1994 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000.
Tolson’s versatility in medium and practice was firmly grounded in his superb command of the more traditional painting techniques. His most emblematic and famous images are of Straightening of Spears at Ilyingaungau. Mick Namarari, in fact, was at Kirdungurlu for many of Turkey Tolson’s Dreamings and this in part accounts for the striking resonance between their paintings of the period. Turkey’s Spear Straightening images depict spears lying in the desert. The subtle modulations of line and tone evoke the quintessential desert landscape. This, according to Johnson (1994), was one of the most influential artworks of the Papunya Tula movement. Mindful of the profusion of major abstracted canvases produced by artists like Mick Namarari, George Tjungurayai, Willy Tjungurayai, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, and a number of other senior Pintupi men from the late 1990’s onward Turkey Tolson becomes the pre-eminent figure in the last decade of the Central Desert art movement and the importance of his work can not be overstated.
Bardon, G. 2004. Papunya: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of Western Desert Painting Movement. Victoria. Melbourne University Publishing.
Johnson, Vivien. Mar-May 2002. Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula c. 1938-2001. Australia. Art and Australia 39(3).
Johnson, Vivien. 1994. The Dictionary of Western Desert Artists. New South Wales. Craftsman House.
Johnson, Vivien. 1996. â€˜Into the Nineties,â€™ Dreamings of The Desert, Aboriginal Dot Paintings of the Western Desert. Adelaide. Art Gallery of South Australia.
Johnson, Vivien. 2008. Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists. Australia. IAD Press.
McCulloch-Uehlin. 17 Apr 1999. Dealers Trade on Grey Areas in Red Centre Art. Australia. The Australian.
Perkins, H. 1993. Beyond the Year of Indigenous Peoples. Australia. Art and Australia 31(1).
Rainbird, S. 1994. Contemporary Aboriginal Prints in the Queensland University of Technology Collection. Australia. Australian Folklore 9.
Perkins, H & Fink, H. 2000. Papunya Tula, Genesis and Genius. Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Zurbrugg, N. 1991. Tim Johnson Interviewed. Australia. Art and Australia 29(1).
Willinya Rockhole, Yuwalki, Warrulunga, Tipunga, Tjilerulnga, Narwulkul, Mitakutjirri, Mankerinpirra, Putja, Illyingaugau
Straightening the Spears, Love Magic, Soak Waters, Tingari , Two Women (Kunga Kutjarra), Two Men (Wati Kutjara), Bushfire, Brown Snake, Carpet Snake
Synthetic Polymer Paint on Linen and Canvas