James (Jimmy) Donegan, 64 St Killian’s Crescent and formerly 27 Barrack St. Carlow, passed away unexpectedly, on January 23rd, 2023, at his home.

That’s what you learn when Googling Jimmy Donegan. The death of an Irishman! For, amazingly, the great Ngaanyatjarra artist of the same name died last June, but no one seems to know.

For instance, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair had him alive in August last year on their website. The APY Art Centre Collective website makes no reference currently to his passing in his daughter’s CV. And the Papalungkutja Art Centre at Blackstone in WA – where he lived and worked until 2005, still has him living and pictured.

In fact, he moved across the South Australian border from WA to Ninuku Arts at Kalka that year when his wife died – his kids were living there. As a result, he switched loyalties from ACHWAA, the West Australian art centre organisation to Desart, appearing at the Desert Mob Show. How crazy to impose such silly boundaries on a man of the great, borderless inland deserts of Australia!

Now I discover that the then recently appointed art coordinator at Ninuku, Eila Vinwynn, did her best to inform the world of its loss, using a contacts list passed on by her predecessor. It certainly didn’t include me, or one of Donegan’s keenest dealers, Euan Hills of Hobart’s Art Mob gallery. But then Mr Donegan had departed Kalka for Mutijulu aged care in 2021. It is the sad fate of desert people to have to depart their desert Country, art centre and family for health reasons – though I wonder why he didn’t go to Wanarn, which seems to be such a successful aged care situation, with many residents continuing to paint.

So, why should we care?

This what I wrote in the Australian Art Review magazine when Mr Donegan won both the Big Telstra and the General Painting Awards at the 2010 NATSIAAs:
The case for the arguments in Diana James’ recent book ‘Painting the Song’, that the artists of the Anangu Pitjanjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in Central Australia were about to take off stratospherically thanks to their belated decision to share their Tjukurpa Pulkatjura (The Power of the Law) with us, is more than confirmed at this year’s NATSIAAs in Darwin. Of the forty-eight acceptances in the General Painting category, sixteen – one might almost say the best sixteen – are from these remote communities.

In what must have been a tight finish, the two judges – Sylvia Kleinert, Associate Professor of Art History at both the ANU and Charles Darwin Universities, and the great artist Djambawa Marawili from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhemland – picked the wild painting from Kalka, ‘Papa Tjukurpa munu Pukara’ by Jimmy Donegan from Ninuku Artists, as both the best canvas and, from all ninety-six finalists, the winner of the Big Telstra: the $40,000 top prize.

The painting reveals two stories: ‘Papa Tjukurpa’, his father’s Dingo Dreaming and ‘Pukara’, the Water Snake Dreaming story from his grandfather’s country. “Jimmy Donegan’s painting therefore required consummate composition to weave together its multiple layers of story, and it achieves this”, said Kleinert, by using “a diversity of painting styles from intricate skeins of dots to gestural mark-making”.

“Like much of Donegan’s work over the past decade”, Nicolas Rothwell amplified in ‘The Weekend Australian’, “the award winning painting is solemn and emphatic in its design, but dazzlingly illuminated. The artist’s technique is to compose the colour lines of his canvases from thousands of large dots in different hues, which blend into a whole”.

Mr Donegan was also a skilled wood craftsman – his spears, spear throwers and boomerangs are prized and much sought after. He was a strong cultural man, involved in traditional law and ceremony.

According to Wikipedia, Mr Donegan was born about 1940 at Yanpan, a rock hole near Ngatuntjarra bore in outback Western Australia. He grew up living a traditional, nomadic way of life in the Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra country around what is now the communities of Papulankutja and Mantamaru

Before he began painting, Mr Donegan worked as a stockman. He was also a hunter and a craftsman well known for making traditional hunting tools. During the early 1970s, he helped to set up outstations in the south-western Pitjantjatjara lands. He also lived at Warburton, where elements of his painting style probably originated.

At one time, Mr Donegan explained why he frequently painting ‘Pukara’. “Pukara is [my] grandfather’s country. It is a story about a sacred men’s site in Western Australia, south of Wingelina. It is a Watersnake Dreaming story. This is where the Watersnake fell down and his elbow makes an indent in the landscape. Birds are really scared of this water at Pukara. It is like a “big boss”, this water and a dangerous place, Pukara. There is a wanampi here (water snake). Wanampi kutjara (two water snakes), father and son. The father left his son at there to live, but the anangu there did not want him to stay. They did not share their food, made it awkward for him to get water and were cruel to him. When the father heard how they were treating his son he was furious and went back and took the son away. The son grew up hurt, angry and wanting revenge. When he was a man he went back to the rockhole and ate all the anangu there – men, women and children – killing everybody except one man who was hiding behind a rock. As he crawled away he was so full that he vomited blood, fat and hair. The wati that was hiding speared the snake in the side and it split open. The two men are embedded in the country and where the snake was sick and speared have become landmarks”.

Mr Donegan had three artist sisters, Pantjiti Mary McLean, Molly Nampitjin Miller (heavily involved in the famous Tjanpi Toyota) and Elaine Lane, with whom he shared a joint show called ‘Brother Sister’ in 2006 in Perth. Three of Mr Donegan’s daughters, Melissa Isabelle, Margaret and Phyllis are artists who all still work at Ninuku.