The Fascinating World of Aboriginal Art Dot Painting

We take a look at the fascinating world of Australian Aboriginal Dot Art in this Expert Interview with Tim Klingender and find out what investors and collectors need to know in order to navigate this often misunderstood field.

Picture of Carla Pohli, President - ArtRatio

Carla Pohli, President - ArtRatio

ArtRatio was delighted to speak with Aboriginal Art expert Tim Klingender, of Tim Klingender Fine Art.

Welcome and thank you so much for talking with us today Tim.

Jumping straight in, what ultimately launched Australian Aboriginal Painting onto the global market radar?

Although there were some quite major museum exhibitions of Western Desert Painting that toured North America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it wasn’t until the exhibition “Dreamings – The Art of Aboriginal Australia” was held at the Asia Society in New York that the market began to really take off internationally.

This landmark exhibition was the most highly attended exhibition ever held at the Asia Society’s Park Avenue galleries and inspired a number of major art collectors, the most well-known of which was the billionaire John Kluge, to start acquiring in depth.

The exhibition also inspired leading New York galleries John Weber to represent the Papunya Tula Artists, which led to sell out exhibitions and the placement of important artworks in major contemporary art collections and museums such as The Metropolitan, in New York. 

aboriginal dot art

Lot 40. Emily Kame Kngwarreye Alhalkere Old Man Emu with Babies, est. 500,000 – 800,000 USD.

Is Australian Aboriginal Art considered traditional or contemporary, or perhaps both?

Australian Indigenous art stems from the world’s oldest continuous culture, and is an extremely broad and dynamic field.

For example, Sotheby’s most recent May 2022 auction in New York included artworks ranging from a 19th C. painting, through to bark paintings and sculptures from the 1950s, through to large scale ‘abstracted’ contemporary canvases, light sculptures and politically charged protest artworks.

The broad range of artworks produced today are exhibited in major Contemporary spaces such as dOCUMENTA, and the Tate Modern.

CP: You noted there had been “a major paradigm shift” among collectors, now more open to contemporary artwork falling “outside the Western canon” when you began overseeing Sotheby’s contemporary art sales in Australia in the mid 1990s. I’ve followed with interest how pervasive Australian Aboriginal Art has been in the international spotlight over the last 30 years— with champions such as Steve Martin and Beyonce, and a series of high profile exhibitions around the world, while you yourself are now the advisor to Sotheby’s NY for Australian Art.

Could you share your experience on the emergence of Australian Aboriginal Painting as a market and where you see it going?

International awareness and interest in the broad field of Australian Indigenous Art has been on an upwards trajectory over the decades, and is currently experiencing a new level of global appreciation.

Steve Martin is an enthusiastic and sophisticated collector who helped introduce his friend Larry Gagosian to the field, and Gagosian Gallery have now held exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Paris.

Salon 94, one of New York’s leading Contemporary galleries, have held a number of solo exhibitions and included paintings in major art fairs, which has introduced the field to their collectors such as Beyonce.

There are currently major international exhibitions taking place such as the solo show of Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori – at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and the Kluge-Ruhe’s Madayin exhibition which is touring major museums across America for the next three years.

At Sotheby’s, we first exhibited highlights from the Aboriginal art sales to New York in 1997 and continually exhibited in New York, and sometimes London and Paris until 2009. In 2015 Sotheby’s established a stand-alone Aboriginal Art sale in London, which I oversaw as a consultant, and we moved the annual auction to New York in 2019. The next sale will be held in May 2023 in New York.

Painting by Nonggirrnga Marawili (on bark)

Painting by Nonggirrnga Marawili (on bark)

Would it be true to say that the mainstream understanding of Indigenous art is still somewhat lacking and perhaps beset by misconceptions?

Very much so, though sophisticated museum exhibitions, scholarly publications, and exposure of the field through art fairs, biennales and the international auction presence, all continue to raise awareness and enhance further understanding.

CP: It seems that prior to colonisation, Indigenous artists used nature and the world around them as their canvas, but were quick to adapt to new mediums and materials. Apparently a washing detergent called “Reckitt’s Blue” was popular in the 1920s as a way of creating a blue pigment to decorate things like shields and boomerangs.

Are any interesting and different pigments or materials being used today?

Interesting that you mention ‘Reckitt’s Blue’ which is a stunning ultramarine blue pigment, similar to Yves Klein’s ‘International Klein Blue’.

It was used by Indigenous artists in rock ark and to decorate artefacts, and is currently being embraced by a new generation of artists such as Dale Harding, who had work acquired by the Tate Modern.

International art critic Robert Hughes once labelled the Papunya Tula Art Movement as the last great art movement of the 20th century. Could you share your thoughts on this?

Indigenous Australian art saw a spectacular renaissance in the late 20th Century, especially from 1971 when the Western Desert Painters first started painting their traditional ancestral designs onto canvas, their success rejuvenating artists across the country to express themselves through art. Robert Hughes ultimately grasped the significance of this unique and explosive national art movement and it’s international appeal.

As this relatively young art form on canvas matures, what are you seeing evolve in newer, younger artists versus the older generation?

For decades now Indigenous contemporary artists have embraced and been part of the broader International zeitgeist.

Artists such as Gordon Bennett were at the forefront of PostModernism in the late 1980s, Tracy Moffatt had a solo exhibition of her photography, video and film making at DIA in 1998 in New York, and Richard Bell’s current ‘Art as Revolution’ at dOCUMENTA fifteen continues the trajectory, and amazingly these artists could now be considered as part of the ‘older generation’.

At the present time there is so much diversity in contemporary indigenous practice, the field is evolving and expanding in continuously inventive ways.

What are some of the most exciting paintings artistically in your opinion?

In my opinion the greatest of Rover Thomas’ paintings can hold their own against any of the world’s most sublime artworks. However, sadly, owing to their minimalist nature, there are more problematic paintings in circulation than genuine examples, so buyers must be extremely careful.

The contemporary desert paintings of Patju Presley and the recently deceased Pepai Carroll can also be truly exceptional, and the paintings by the ‘barkladies’ of Yirrkala Noŋgirrŋa Marawili and the recently deceased Nyapanyapa Yunupingu are both extraordinary.

CP: In 2007, Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s painting Earth’s Creation I (1994) sold for $1,056,000, the most expensive piece of art by an Australian woman ever sold.

Ten years later it sold for double that price at a Sydney auction. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s acclaimed work ‘Warlugulong “map series” reached $2.4 million in 2007.

What do benchmark sales such as this owe the massive increase to?

The very best of Australian Indigenous Art tends to rise exponentially in value over time, like the greatest art in any field.

Telstra Aboriginal Art Award - Patju Presley

A painting in this year’s Telstra Aboriginal Art Award by Patju Presley

Are there ethics to consider when buying ADA?

When buying art that comes from the remote indigenous communities of Australia, being the Central Desert regions, Arnhem Land, the Kimberley, Cape York and so on, if an artist is represented by an Aboriginal-owned art centre, it is important to acquire work with the art centre provenance.

This ensures that the artwork is correctly recorded/documented and the artist is remunerated properly. When an artist is represented by an Aboriginal-owned art centre, leading auctions houses, national and state galleries and respected secondary market dealers, will only accept artworks with art centre provenance.

These policies are in place to ensure that Aboriginal artists from remote regions are not exploited. There are around 100 or so Aboriginal-owned art centres operating in Australia and they are ethically sound.

Any advice for collectors?

Follow artists that are being exhibited by national and state galleries, or leading commercial art galleries in Australia, Asia, Europe or North America.

Beware of artworks from remote regions that do not have art centre provenance. The field can be a minefield for new collectors, so tread carefully.

We are always happy to give advice via

In the secondary market smaller works by major artists from their best periods can be acquired at very affordable levels.

What‘s in your own collection and what do you have your eye on?

Some of the artists I collect in depth include Rover Thomas (with Mary Macha provenance), Butcher Cherel (Mangkaja Arts), Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri (Papunya Tula Artists), George Tjungurrayi (Papunya Tula Artists), Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Papunya Tula Artists), Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (Papunya Tula Artists), Pepai Carroll (Ernabella Arts), Patju Presley (Spinifex Arts), and Alec Mingelmanganu, Vernon Ah Kee (Milani Gallery).

I am looking to acquire a Dale Harding (Milani Gallery) and would like to buy another artwork by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala).

About Tim Klingender

Tim Klingender

Located in Sydney, Australia, Tim Klingender Fine Art is an international business providing a range of services to the high end of the art market.

Located in Sydney, Australia, Tim Klingender Fine Art is an international business providing a range of services to the high end of the art market. Tim Klingender, a graduate in Fine Art from the University of Melbourne, is widely recognised and respected for establishing an ethical international market in the field of Australian Indigenous Art.

Working with Sotheby’s for over twenty years, Tim established a Contemporary Art Department for Sotheby’s Australia in 1994, founded Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art Department in 1996, and served as an International Director between 1998 and 2009. Tim established Tim Klingender Fine Art in 2009, continuing his interest in fine art auctioneering in his role as Senior Consultant to Bonhams auction house from 2011 to 2013.

In 2015 Tim was appointed Senior Consultant for Australian Art to Sotheby’s internationally, and he established annual Aboriginal Art auctions in London before relocating them to New York, and he now oversees these annual Aboriginal Art sales in the capacity of a consultant with the next sale taking place in May 2023, the week following the Contemporary Art sales. A core part of Tim Klingender Fine Art is the sale of major artworks and collections by private treaty, the sale in 2021 of ten paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye from the Collection of Thomas Vroom for an undisclosed figure being a recent highlight.

Tim has assisted in developing some of the finest collections of Australian Indigenous Art and continues to act as an advisor to some of the world’s most significant private collections. In addition to trading in the secondary market, the business offers advice relating to purchasing, both privately and at auction, appraisal for both sale and insurance, conservation, and assistance in the sale of artworks.

Since their commencement in 2015, Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art sales have set consecutive record auction totals in the field outside Australia and are now established as the market leader internationally.

Tim is approved to value for the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program under the following categories: Australian art of all periods including prints, drawings, textiles, painting, sculpture, new media, weapons, implements, ceremonial objects and decorations; Oceanic, Polynesian, Melanesian and African Art; International Modern and Contemporary Art.

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