Rare Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri Masterpiece Returns

It is not every day that you discover an extraordinary new talent. In this article, Japingka's Ian Plunkett tells the story of how he came to see the first paintings by artist Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. He describes the return of this special work from Bill's 2007 exhibition. Ian shares the joy of seeing the painting again and how his search for its new home has begun.

The Return of a Masterpiece

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri Portrait

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri

A very special painting has come back into the gallery. It's had a rebirth. It was originally sold through Japingka at an exhibition opening back in 2007. It's by Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, a powerful artist and medicine man who was living around Mount Liebig at that time. His original country was off to the west of Uluru.

It was a real thrill to see this painting again - for opening night in 2007, it graced the cover of our exhibition invitation. We were so impressed by it.

An Instinctive Artist

Bill was a truly remarkable and instinctive artist. He was a late starter and didn't begin painting on canvas until he was nearly eighty.

He was married to the artist Colleen Whiskey. They lived out at Mount Liebig and worked through the Watiyawanu Artists Art Centre.

Most days, Bill would accompany Colleen to the Art Centre. She would go inside and paint and Bill would wait outside until she was finished for the day.

Invitation to A Career

A Co-ordinator approached Bill one day with a proposal. "Listen, Bill, why not come inside, and fill your time in and do some painting?" Bill took up the offer and that's how his painting career started. It was a major discovery because he was just such an amazing talent, a natural. His paintings are incredibly well defined. They deal so well with the aspect of surface tension on the painting. Like many Indigenous artists, he paints aerial views and maps of his country. You'll see his map includes water holes and rock holes in and around that region to the west of Uluru.

First Artwork Discovered

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri Working Portrait

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri at Work

I was very fortunate to see some of his first paintings. The Art Centre at the time wasn't 100% sure of the artworks. They liked them but weren't sure if they were the type of commercial works that would find a market. I went out there to look at some other art and the Co-ordinators asked for my opinion.

They told me, "We've got some work by this old man, what do you think?" I loved them straight away. They had something. They had power to them, real confidence. I bought all of them there and then. We set up an exhibition which took place in February of 2007. Little did I know that the exhibition would be the initial rush. I couldn't have guessed the level of acclaim that was subsequently achieved for Bill Whiskey. It was quite incredible,  every painting sold. The demand for his work quickly spread worldwide.

Sell Out Exhibition

Bill probably only painted for four or five years. Towards the end of his life, he had a sell-out exhibition in London. Six of his artworks went for over a quarter of a million dollars each.

This is for someone who's had no formal training, no real knowledge of the art scene at all. He didn't go to London for that exhibition but his artworks were just snapped up by all the glitterati in London. All the art people immediately recognised that Bill was a major talent.

A Major Loss

Tragically and sadly, Bill died in 2008. It wasn't long after his triumph that he passed away. It was a major loss, and even to this day, his artworks have maintained their value. Their worth remained consistent even through the global financial crisis. While other artworks have been up and down, there's just that steady demand and recognition for his outstanding work.

That's why it was really special to get this particular painting back into the gallery on consignment from the original purchaser. At the time, there were at least three or four people who wanted to buy it before it even went up on the wall.

The person who bought it is a local here in Perth. They are moving overseas for a considerable time. They really don't want to sell it. However in the circumstances, they feel that it's the right thing to do.

My Favourite Work

We're fortunate to have it on the premises again because we'll get to enjoy it while it's here. It's one of my favourite paintings by this major, talented artist.

In part it's his role as an elder and medicine man that informs his artwork. The way he sees things is so perceptive. He's got a natural touch. In the community, he was highly respected as a medicine man, and he had a lot of power.

A Good Home

My role in the gallery means I fall in love with artworks and then let them go. The letting go is made easier when a painting finds a good home.

The return of this artwork reminds me of the story of the joyful return of the prodigal son. Seeing this painting again lifted my heart and my spirits. The day it came in the door I thought, "Wow."

I am still in love with this painting after all these years. It's a good test of a major artist and a major painting - it still has the power to move me.

A Timeless Appeal

Tastes in art change and move along. Yet this painting by Bill Whiskey - in fact just about every painting I've seen by Bill Whiskey -  is an exceptional artwork of timeless appeal.

I'll love it while it's here.

And I am looking forward to finding it a new home with someone who will appreciate it as much as I do.

More information: