Jimmy Donegan: The dazzling deserts of Mr D - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

After 10 short years of painting, Jimmy Donegan has triumphed at the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Maurice O’Riordan surveys his work and discovers a painter in the midst of an exciting transformation.

There was a genuine element of surprise when Jimmy Donegan was announced as the winner of this year’s 27th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. While images of this Ngaanyatjarra/ Pitjantjatjara artist’s broad-brimmed cowboy hat and almost broader smile graced numerous electronic and print media reports – leaving a strong impression – many wondered from which stretch of desert this particular prophet had come.

Hailing from the small community of Kalka, in the tri-border area of South Australia belonging to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, Donegan was born around 1940 near Ngatuntjarra Bore and grew up in country around Blackstone (Papulankutja) and Jameson (Mantamaru) in Western Australia. After a long working life as a stockman, Donegan took to painting around 10 years ago, initially through the Papulankutja Artists art centre which was established in 2001. By this time he had already forged a reputation as a skilled maker of spears, spearthrowers and boomerangs in addition to his status as an active, senior lawman.

Around 2005, Donegan relocated to Kalka from Blackstone for family reasons. Here he continued his practice at Ninuku Arts Centre, more recently established in 2006 to represent Anangu artists from Kalka and the nearby community of Pipalyatjara. According to Ninuku’s current manager Claire Eltringham, Donegan (also known as Mr D) is one of the community’s most dedicated artists, putting in a full day’s painting each day at the centre. His subjects, as with his NATSIAA-winning work, focus on the Papa (Dingo) Dreaming, and his paternal country of Pukara to the west of Kalka (near Wingellina).

Donegan’s early paintings of Pukara are essentially comprised of lines of dotting which form a pattern of multicoloured seams. His depictions of Papa Tjukurrpa are generally more complex in denoting this country’s spread of rockholes and the movement of its resident dingoes. Earlier this year, Eltringham noticed a significant shift in Donegan’s approach to composition. Coupled with his “unique way of putting down his dots” was a bolder, busier and much less formulaic style of painting; tracts of pure, scumbled colour and longer meandering line-paths were incorporated where before the often black undercoat of paint may have been left bare or the paths were less detailed. “Artists here are always exploring what they do,” says Eltringham, “how to best express their Dreamings,” contrary to the presumption that remote area artists are often content to fix on a single style.

Donegan’s NATSIAA win may not have come as a surprise to all. In 2005, he was selected for a group show with Perth’s Randell Lane Fine Art and was part of an exhibition of senior artists from Blackstone and Patjarr at Sydney’s Aboriginal & Pacific Art. The latter continues to show his work along with others such as Canberra’s Chapman Gallery, Broome’s Short St Gallery, Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery and Adelaide’s Bond Aboriginal Art (now AP Bond Aboriginal & Contemporary Art) also now representing Donegan alongside other Ninuku and Papulankutja artists. Early in his career, Donegan exhibited in the prestigious annual Desert Mob exhibition at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs, and has been included each year during his time at Ninuku. For this year’s 20th anniversary Desert Mob exhibition, he is represented by an equally commanding work which further evidences his exciting shift in style.

Though Donegan’s work has entered notable private collections including the Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands and the Peter Klein Collection, Germany, his work is yet to be picked up by the nation’s major public galleries with the exception of the National Gallery of Victoria which acquired work subsequent to his triumph at the NATSIAAs. Fellow Ninuku artist Harry Tjutjuna has generally garnered more attention and collecting focus in this regard, as demonstrated by his inclusion in this year’s Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards with a characteristic selection of his graphically vigorous and often figurative paintings. Tjutjuna, unlike Donegan, has also been represented by a solo exhibition which is not the easiest model for remote art centre artists, explains Eltringham, as keeping work aside for lengthy periods can be too financially constraining for the artists.

Donegan’s recent win marks a high point in a relatively short but committed career. It echoes a shift in the Western Desert art movement towards the more recently established Ngaanyatjarra and APY art centres, as signalled by Judith Ryan in the exhibition catalogue for Tjukurpa Pulkatjara: The Power of the Law which premiered at this year’s Adelaide Festival. Ryan herself is in the throes of curating a major APY show for the National Gallery of Victoria, to follow on from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s Desert Country, opening 29 October 2010, which will also significantly feature artists from APY Lands. For Donegan, the “humble, quiet achiever,” this national accolade “applies on the ground,” enthuses Eltringham. It has become a motivating force for the centre and his fellow Ninuku artists. •

Jimmy Donegan’s work will be on view in the 27th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin until 7 November 2010, and in Desert Mob at Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs until 24 October 2010. This quarter his work will also be exhibited at Aboriginal & Pacific Art, Sydney until 9 October 2010 and Chapman Gallery, Canberra from 5 to 25 November 2010.

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