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Jagamara photographed in black and white sitting on carpeted steps in front of the mural 'Possum Dreaming'.

Michael Nelson Jagamara

Michael Eather

Born in Pikilyi, a remote Northern Territory outstation, in 1946, Michael Nelson Jagamara spent the early part of his life at Yuendumu, a larger community about 290km northwest of Alice Springs. He embarked on his painting journey in the early 1980s in the Central Australia community of Papunya. As a second-wave artist in the internationally renowned Western Desert art movement, he depicted stories that had been passed down to him by his grandfather, Minjina Jakamarra, for Papunya Tula Artists. He maintained his shareholding in this company throughout his life. Much of Jagamara’s artistic focus centered on the Mt Singleton area, encompassing Dreaming narratives such as Kangaroo, Yam, Possum, Bush Turkey, Goanna, Flying Ant, Rainbow Serpent, Rain and Lightning. In 1993, five years after his 196-metre mosaic was installed in the forecourt of the new Parliament House in Canberra, he was honoured with an Order of Australia medal for services to Aboriginal art.

As Vivien Johnson recounted in her comprehensive monograph on the artist, Jagamara left school in Yuendumu at 13 after his initiation into Warlpiri law. He travelled north, droving cattle, shooting buffaloes on the Alligator Rivers, and spent a short time in the army before heading back to Warlpiri country and settling in Papunya.

Seeing him operate with effortless command of the English language and Western cultural mores,” she wrote, “few realised that Jagamara’s life journey had begun ‘foot walking’ across his ancestral lands with his extended family

Vivien Johnson

Jagamara’s first major achievement came in 1984, when he won the inaugural National Aboriginal Art Award (now the Telstra Prize) with the painting Three Ceremonies. His reputation skyrocketed. His body of work encapsulated a “two worlds” philosophy that resulted in international recognition, public and corporate commissions and even celebrity status. Jagamara's confidence in communicating directly with audiences about his work and ideas offered new insights in art education and cultural politics. One of his most celebrated works was his mosaic installed in front of Parliament House, where the 90,000 individual granite pieces were based on his earlier painting Possum and Wallaby Dreaming.

His astonishing list of achievements during the 1980s was further illustrated by Johnson: “His inclusion in the 1986 Biennale of Sydney made him the first Australian Indigenous artist to break through into contemporary international art circles and achieve individual recognition. His 1984 painting Five Stories was one of the most reproduced works of Australian art in the 1980s – and remains so. It featured on the cover of the catalogue of the landmark 1988-89 Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, the first major exhibition of Indigenous Australian art in the United States since the 1950s. Central to his legacy is the Parliament House Forecourt Mosaic, now a national icon, featuring on the $5 note. Jagamara stood beside the Queen and then Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the 1988 opening ceremony, explaining this gift from his people to all Australians, most especially his fellow Aboriginal Australians.”

As we trace his journey until his passing in 2020, Jagamara consolidated his role as a leader through his vast body of work across various mediums beyond conventional acrylic paintings, including designs translated into bronze and steel sculptures, hand-woven woollen rugs and limited-edition screen prints. Jagamara continued to explain to eager audiences that although his style continually developed and the materials altered, his stories never changed: “With my ideas, the same story, just different. Do it both ways. Do it other way.”

In 1988, Jagamara’s monumental 10-metre painting Possum Dreaming was installed at the Opera House, in the Northern Foyer of the Joan Sutherland Theatre. This intricately crafted work references the Possum Love Story, an epic narrative he revisited in numerous major works throughout his career. This traditional Warlpiri narrative lends itself to an operatic setting, portraying a tale of forbidden love and retribution. Jagamara explained the Possum ancestors’ dire messages for those who transgressed traditional law. In this story, a young Possum man and woman fell in love, but their different skin groups prohibited their union and strict tribal laws and moiety responsibilities prevented such intermarriage. One fateful night, the young couple fled in defiance, pursued by angry Possum elders. Ultimately, the lovers were captured and faced a death sentence, a lesson to all who defied tribal protocols. In the painting we see the recurring “E” shape to represent the possum paw print, along with roundels as sacred sites and sinuous lines symbolising marks in the sand created by the dragging of their tails. These elements appear and disappear across the surface as the chase unfolds from day to night and from site to site, moving east to west. With its composed symmetry, the painting transports us to a timeless space, reminding audiences that such stories might continue forever.

In 1989, Jagamara followed in the footsteps of art legends such as Frank Stella, Jenny Holzer, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg by participating in BMW's Art Car Project, painting a handcrafted M3 Group A race car that became an instant pop icon of Aboriginal Dreaming. “The car,” he said, “is like a landscape seen from a plane. I included the water dreaming, the kangaroo, and the possum.”

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Jagamara remained willing to push boundaries, travel and experiment. He often broke custom and local artistic norms, using pastel colours and brighter combinations resulting in what became known as his “gelati period.” Simultaneously, he engaged in cross-cultural projects around Australia, including Balance 1990 at the Queensland Art Gallery. In 1996, he embarked on the first of many trips to Brisbane to collaborate with a culturally diverse range of artists at the Campfire Group Studios. This allowed him to further experiment with new compositions and media. Alongside Paddy Carrol Tjungurrayi, Jagamara featured with Campfire Group in All Stock Must Go! for the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT2) in 1996 at the Queensland Art Gallery, as well as Powerful Medicine, a cultural exchange between Papunya and Brisbane indigenous groups staged at King George Square in the heart of Brisbane two years later. He returned to the QAG in 1999 as a solo artist for APT3, showcasing paintings he described as “New Expressions”. Repeated visits to Sydney, Canberra and especially Brisbane over the years were crucial for his professional development.

Jagamara’s diplomacy and mentoring spirit played a critical role in supporting local arts initiatives at Papunya, including the establishment of Warumpi Arts and later Papunya Tjupi Arts. Ultimately these experiences cemented his determination to better understand and participate within the nexus of professional creative and cross-cultural relationships both at home in the community and museum spaces across the world.

As the 21st century dawned, Jagamara continued to be a trailblazer, zealously creating artworks for numerous exhibitions. This included a remarkable collaborative series with the veteran NSW artist Imants Tillers, which began in 2001. Jagamara and Tillers had first met in 1986 in Sydney when they were both exhibiting at the Art Gallery of NSW, and where Tillers’ work The Nine Shots featured recontextualised elements of Jagamara’s Five Stories.

Tillers had quoted Jagamara without permission, but the two artists later embarked on a process of “reconciliation through collaboration”, as critic Sasha Grishin put it, becoming both friends and collaborators. Tillers later reflected on that auspicious experience: “… what was maybe a ‘mistake’ on my part in 1985 led later to the long and fruitful process of collaboration with Michael Nelson Jagamara, which continued until his passing.”

In 2012, Jagamara and Tillers presented an important exhibition and accompanying catalogue of commissioned essays, The Loaded Ground, at the ANU’s Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra, featuring solo and collaborative works. In 2017, they were invited back to Canberra to exhibit at Parliament House in a special exhibition called Meeting Place, which showcased solo and collaborative works, including the major artwork The Messenger (2014), which was ultimately acquired for the Parliament House collection. This unique partnership resulted in further collaborations, widely acclaimed and purchased by major institutions, including Metafisica Australe (2017) acquired by the QAGOMA Foundation in 2019, and The Call from Papunya (2018), acquired by the Tate Modern in 2020.

Jagamara’s contributions to the arts garnered a host of accolades. His work is held in many regional galleries and all Australian state galleries, plus the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, museums in Seoul, Korea, Vienna, Austria and major public and private collections in United States. In 2002, he won the Gold Coast Art Prize and in 2006 the Tattersall’s Club Landscape Art Prize. Shortly afterwards, he received an honorary doctorate from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. At a Sotheby’s auction in London, in 2016, Five Stories (1984) was offered for sale for the first time since being first exhibited in Melbourne in 1984. International bidding was fierce and the work was ultimately purchased by a private collector in America for AUD$687,877, establishing what was at the time the highest price achieved for a living Indigenous artist.

Jagamara’s artistic journey spans one of the most remarkable periods in Australian art, contributing to a creative movement that captivated audiences on an international scale. In Dreaming the Land: Aboriginal Art from Remote Australia, Dr Marie Geissler wrote that his parliamentary mosaic had exemplified the artist’s role “in driving forward reconciliation between black and white Australia.” For those fortunate enough to meet him, he embodied the qualities of the quintessential bush gentleman. Dressed in his jacket and distinctive Akubra hat, he exuded a dignified presence, often sharing humorous anecdotes and stories. Whether in Papunya or New York, Alice Springs or Brisbane, Sydney or Vienna, Jagamara often struck up conversations with new friends and passers-by alike, introducing himself with a warm smile and a handshake, announcing, “Hello, I'm a famous artist!”

Michael Eather, the owner of Brisbane’s FireWorks gallery, worked with Michael Jagamara for more than two decades.

Read more about Michael Nelson Jagamara and Possum Dreaming.