Sydney received a ‘royal’ visit yesterday as significant as the coincidental coming of the US Vice-President, as Michael Nelson Jagamara left his Desert home to attend the launch of a Telstra installation of his art in Martin Place. It will be there for just 4 days. The almost-70 year old chowed down with an equally aged local, but was proud as punch when the car doors that had been brilliantly coated with six of his paintings over the years were officially launched “ with dances “ by a junior State minister.
The Warlpiri artist wasn’t amongst the first in Papunya to take to the canvas. He watched and waited until 1983 to start painting in his own name. But, almost immediately he was a star, winning the first National Aboriginal Art Award (now called the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards or NATSIAAs) in 1984 with the complex work, ‘Three Ceremonies’. By the end of that decade, Michael Nelson had supplied a major work for the Sydney Opera House northern foyer, designed the mosaic forecourt for the new Parliament House in Canberra, appeared in both the Sydney Biennale and the seminal ‘Dreamings‘ show in New York (supplying the cover art for the catalogue), and spent a month hand-painting a BMW racing car beside Andy Warhol!
Unlike many Papunya Tula artists who moved West during the 80s to traditional Pintupi land, Michael Nelson stayed in Papunya and has now become a founding artist leader at the new Papunya Tjupi art centre. But he’s hardly painting any longer “ hence the use of plastic decals of his work on the very urban car doors “ not a broken window or bullet-hole in sight! But his 1997 work, ‘Nine Dreamings at Mt Singelton’ retains its pastel delicacy and a complexity that he hasn’t attempted in works like the 2006 ‘Stone Knife Arrangements (Men’s Ceremony)’. In between those two years, the artist radically simplified his imagery to produce bold, single image canvases in strongly contrasting colours (including black and white) of his Lightning motif or a Kangaroo footprint.
And, in a splendid project to keep the income flowing for the old man, his Brisbane dealer Michael Eather has had the Lightning motif translated into three dimensions “ both small and large sculptures in steel and bronze from the fabulous factory of Urban Art Projects.
Michael Nelson’s car doors could, of course, be a reference to the iconic Yuendumu Doors “ full sized painted school doors that introduced the young Warlpiri in that township to the ceremonial imagery that their elders hoped they would inherit. Michael Nelson was educated in Yuendumu himself, though was too young to have benefited from those artworks. But his subsequent initiation certainly gave him an understanding of the transmission role of his tribal elders.
In the ‘Dreamings‘ catalogue, he’s quoted as saying: You gotta canvas, paint and brush ready. Well, first you gotta ask your father (who owns the Dreaming for a particular piece of Country) and kurdungurlu (its guardian) and they’ll say, ‘You do that Dreamin’ there, which is belonging to your father and grandfather’. They’ll give you a clue, they’ll show you a drawing on the ground first. You’ve got it in your brain now. You know it because you’ve seen your father (in a ceremony) with that painting on his body and one on the ground. You’ll see it, then you’ll know it.
And ceremony is the word of the moment relating to this year’s NATSIA Awards next month in Darwin. For Telstra has employed the estimable Rhoda Roberts, she who invented the Olympic Dreaming Festival in 1997, to mastermind both the national installations like Michael Nelson’s and the August 5th Awards ceremony by the Arafura Sea in Darwin. Around the country, then, people have seen Laurie Nilson’s Emus in Perth, Yirrkala Larrikitj poles in Brisbane, Brook Andrew’s pseudo-Wiradjuri inflatables in Melbourne and now the car doors in Sydney. As you will note “ they’re a politically correct tour of the Aboriginal art scene from Queensland, Arnhemland, the South East and the Central Deserts in that order. As Roberts was only approached to curate this project at the beginning of this year, she realised that all artworks had to pre-exist “ and she wished she’d had a space for the Torres Strait.
In Darwin, Roberts hopes she’ll return a sense of ceremony to the Awards that seems to have gone missing in recent years as a series of senior white figures handed out these peak Indigenous awards. She promises me that there’ll be genuine bunguls in 2016 reflecting Honouring, Celebrating and Farewelling and involving senior songmen and dancers from Yirrkala.
Roll on the Telstras.