Painter, printmaker and draughtsman James Wigley is most renowned for his sensitive portrayal of remote Indigenous communities. His friendship with the noted anthropologist Ronald Berndt brought him to Indigenous settlements in South Australia in the late 1930s and in the Northern Territory in the mid-1940s, during which he drew assiduously.
From the mid-1950s, he spent prolonged periods in Western Australia’s Port Hedland and Pilbara regions, where he helped establish local schools, sheep stations, and other business ventures. Drawings and studies from this period became a foundation for a significant body of work, which featured in sell-out exhibitions from the late 1950s onwards.
Wigley’s portrayal of Australia’s Indigenous people is touched by social realism, an art movement which examined the realities of oppressed minorities and outsiders. Wigley was close with prominent social realists including Noel Counihan, Vic O’Connor and Yosl Bergner, with whom he worked and exhibited. In contrast to these artists however, Wigley’s work contains a singular romance and poetry.
The artist enjoyed collector and curatorial followings during his lifetime and was the subject of at least two retrospective exhibitions. Today his works reside at the National Gallery of Australia; National Gallery of Victoria, a number of regional and tertiary institutions, and notable private and corporate collections in Australia and abroad.
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