The death was announced in Alice Springs last night of the leading Desert artist Michael Nelson Jagamara.

The Warlpiri man wasn’t amongst the first in Papunya to take to the canvas when the art movement took off there in 1972. He watched the older men closely 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 the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards or Telstra NATSIAAs) in 1984 with the complex work, ‘Three Ceremonies’.

By the end of that decade, Jagamara 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 in a series with Andy Warhol!

Jagamara’s ‘Possum and Wallaby Dreaming‘ mosaic at Parliament House was later the subject of the artist’s most political statement. In 1993, in protest at Native Title issues, he attempted to remove the central stone from the work, knowing that this would speak of his distress to fellow initiates.

Unlike many Papunya-based artists who moved west during the 80s to traditional Pintupi land, Jagamara stayed Papunya-side and in 2009 became the founding artist leader at the new Papunya Tjupi art centre. His painting then was no longer in the meticulous style he was famous for “ he’d 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 income flowing for the old man, his Brisbane dealer and friend, Michael Eather had the Lightning motif translated into three dimensions “ both small and large sculptures in steel and bronze from the local factory of Urban Art Projects.

In recognition of his senior status at Papunya in 2012, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority of the NT engaged him as a consultant in a five-man curatorium to determine which of the early Papunya boards held by the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT should be available for public display. This lead to his co-curation of the important ‘Tjungungutja : from having come together’ exhibition in Darwin and Alice Springs.

In 2016, Telstra paid respect to the first NAAA winner by using his art to publicise that year’s Telstra NATSIA Awards. A selection of car doors emblazoned with his art hit Martin Place in Sydney. His employment of car doors as a canvas could, of course be a reference to the iconic Yuendumu Doors “ full sized painted school doors that introduced young Warlpiri in that township to the ceremonial imagery that their elders hoped they would inherit. Jagamara was educated in Yuendumu himself to age 13, though was too young then to have benefited from those later 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.

In 2016, Sotheby’s set the sales record for an Aboriginal work of art by a living artist, when Jagamara’s ‘Five Stories’ (1984) brought £401,000 in London, doubling its top estimate. ‘Five Stories’ had also been a favourite subject for non-Indigenous artist Imants Tillers, who first appropriated it in 1985 without Jagamara’s knowledge. It seems that Tillers saw a certain destiny in Aboriginal art as an answer to the moral void in Western culture post World War II.

Subsequently, the two artists became friends “ exchanging some 20 ‘appropriations’ between Papunya and Cooma in the years 2001 to 17 with the encouragement of Jagamara’s dealer Michael Eather.

Some comfort in all this post-Modernism may be found in quotations from a book called ‘Art: The Whole Story’ from 2010. It would seem that Papunya’s Aboriginal art is the sole contribution from Australia in the history of the world’s art between 75,000BC and today, and Jagamara’s ‘Five Stories‘ is featured and analysed as a major subject of appropriation.

Michael Jagamara was busy to the last, only a week ago we wrote of his artwork being featured on a BMW in support of the Sunshine Coast Art Prize.