On the morning of Saturday 29 January, at the age of 63, Aboriginal artist Ian Abdulla passed away at the Berri Hospital, South Australia after a brief battle with cancer. His family was by his side.

Born under a gum tree at Swan Reach on the River Murray in 1947, Ian Abdulla’s life was intrinsically linked to the river. Growing up, the river was his family’s main source of both food and recreation. His father Jim Abdulla, part Afghan, was born in Hawker and his mother Jemima was a Ngarrindjeri woman from Raukkan (Point McLeay) on the Coorong. Ian had six brothers and five sisters.

Ian grew up at Winkie and later Cobdogla, then spent 10 years on the Gerard Aboriginal Mission near Winkie. As an adult, he moved to Adelaide to work for Community Welfare as a builder’s labourer. But after two years, he returned to the Riverland to work with the Parks and Wildlife Service.

In 1988 Ian attended a silk-screen printing course at the Jerry Mason Senior Memorial Centre in Glossop. A year later at the age of 41, he began his art career, and in 1991, he was awarded South Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year.

Ian painted stories about growing up along the River Murray in a naive style, using words and images. Ian used his artwork to depict his experiences of fishing, working in the fields, church-going and playing football in the Murray River region. Ian loved painting and his art celebrated his extraordinary journey through life.

It was a fulfilling life despite being surrounded by adversity, declares Franchesca Cubillo in the NGA’s Collection Highlights book. Cubillo first showed Ian at the Tandanya Institute in Adelaide in 1990.

Later, Ian appeared in eight NATSIA Awards, winning for Best Painting in 1996. He has also held 32 solo exhibitions and been part of 12 group exhibitions. His last two solo exhibitions, River Murray Me and Yarns were held at AP Bond, Contemporary and Aboriginal Art in Adelaide, the gallery that represents Ian’s estate nationally.

Ian’s work has been shown in Spain, France, The Netherlands, Japan, Canada and the United States and is included in all major public art collections around Australia – positioning him as one of Australia’s most important artists. He is one of only four Australian artists to be included in the British Museum’s collection. In 2010 Ian was invited to exhibit as part of a cultural exchange at the Mendel Art Gallery, one of the premier public art galleries in Canada.

A major publication on the artist, Elvis has entered the building, written by Ian, Stephen Fox and Janet Maughan, was published in 2003. And a year later, the power of his story-telling “ both visual and verbal – lead to a major play touring the Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane Festivals, RiverlanD. It bravely tackled the continuity of Aboriginal culture, going back to country from the cities, and finding the courage and appropriate routes to pass the old ways on to a disaffected younger generation whose dream country is Dreamworld. Far from po-faced, it featured the artist himself as The Great One who Creates “ he’ll give us a flood if his dealer tells him to! Not that it was the 1956 flooding of Abdulla’s beautifully realised backdrop of the Murray River but the irrigators who forced Ngarrindjeri families off their riparian lands.

I have always felt Ian holds a unique position in the history of Australian art – no one documented Mission life from within as he did in his paintings. These stories will live on thanks to Ian W Abdulla. This tribute came from Paul Greenaway, his dealer between 1993 and 2007. Sadly, money pressures persuaded Ian to try a couple of other galleries in his last few years; but Greenaway maintained his admiration.

Ian himself was more modest: Well, all I want to be seen as is a quiet lad, interesting and someone who knows about history along the river, the way I grew up and about family and things like that.

Ian Abdulla is survived by five of his seven children – Adam, Tracy, Joseph, Owen and Robert. Ian’s funeral will be held in Barmera on Friday 11 February before he is buried at the Gerard Mission cemetery with his two sons Emmanuel and William.