Michael Nelson Tjakamarra: Unmasked - Art Collector

Issue 13, July - September 2000

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From BMWs to Parliament House, Michael Tjakamarra has found ways to fly his art in the most unexpected places. And, as Sally Butler reports, he's not done yet...

The reputation of Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s (also spelt Jagamara) is set in stone at the entry to Canberra’s Parliament House. Nelson was commissioned to design the paved mosaic forecourt to our new ‘big house’, and since then his artwork has represented Australia on perhaps more occasions than any other contemporary Australian artist. During the 1980s his work spear•headed market recognition of Western Desert acrylic painting as a definable ‘style’, and his involvement in the broader spectrum of contemporary art lifted the tempo of cross-cultural engagement in Australia’s visual arts. The best news is that his recent series of paint•ings suggest ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet’.

Twenty years ago Nelson arrived at the Papunya community (west of Alice Springs) where the Desert acrylic painting movement began in the early 1970s. He saw elders transforming their traditional stories into brightly coloured ‘take-away’ ground paintings and (according to legend) said to himself “I can do that”. Taking his own right of tradi•tional lore as the basis for his art, Nelson painted the stories and Dreamings that identify him as a Warlpiri man, and brought a new level of complexity to the dot and circle iconography of Desert paint•ing. Part of this complexity stemmed from Nelson’s tendency to draw several stories into the one image, such as with Five Stories (1986) and The Eight Dreamings (1991). Nelson’s ability to juggle ambivalent symbols and work the infill patches into a flux of movement and colour gave an overall impression of one story holding the many stories in place. This skilled manipulation of form, colour, and composition marks the innovative edge of Nelson’s style during the two decades since he took up painting in 1979.

Nelson’s reputation grew in stature during this time. Significant achievements included first prize in the 1984 inaugural National Aboriginal Art Award and inclusion in the 1986 Sydney Biennale. He also followed Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg into the car-painting business when commissioned by the prestigious BMW Art Car Project to hand paint an M3 racer. The publicity surrounding this car-painting commission did much to alter misinformed attitudes about Aboriginal visual culture as static and unyielding, and established Nelson as a ground-breaker who was prepared to take risks.

In 1998 Nelson radically altered his method of painting to a more rapidly-applied expressionistic style. The meticulous precision of the early stages of his career submerged under a flood of poured, pulled and flung paint, giving ancient symbols yet another new life. There is a twenty-first century spirituality about these paintings that make the future look bright, and just a little crazy. Three of these new paintings were selected as part of Australia’s contribution to the Queensland Art Gallery’s 1999 Asia-Pacific Triennial, and several solo exhibitions of the recent work have been very successful.

To a certain degree, Nelson has attained the urban fantasy of having the best of both worlds. He lives with his wife, Marjorie, and family in remote country surrounding Papunya, whilst maintaining a high pro•file and lucrative career as a professional artist. Nelson visits metropolitan centres regularly to attend exhibition openings and par•ticipate in various arts events and projects. A tall slim man in a stockman’s hat is hard to miss in the city, yet Nelson seems to have developed a certain knack for staying artistically pervasive, yet person•ally inconspicuous at these events.

This is perhaps the result of controversies that arose in response to several of Nelson’s projects in the past. In 1988 he and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri (one of the original Papunya painters) were criticised for cultural indiscretion by a number of their countrymen. The two artists created a traditional ground painting in New York to commemorate the opening of the Dreamings: Art of Aboriginal Australia exhibition. Disagreement centred on whether Nelson and Stockman had the right to reproduce these designs for uninitiated spectators. The Parliament House mosaic project attracted criticism for cultural indiscretion of another nature, and Nelson became embroiled in the highly charged national turmoil over the Mabo Land Claim. Following the latter inci•dent Nelson threatened to never step foot beyond the Northern Territory borders again, but fortunately he did.

Galleries representing Michael Nelson Tjakamarra include Fire-Works Gallery in Brisbane; Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Sydney; Japingka Gallery in Perth; and Warumpi Arts in Alice Springs. Works on paper in the medium of charcoal and felt pen, as well as acrylics, are a recent addition to Nelson’s neo-expressionist series. Prices for these works on paper range between $750 and $2,000 while recent canvas paintings are between $1,500 and $15,000.

It will be interesting to observe if Nelson’s recent shift in style has any effect on the prices of his more conventional paintings at auction sales. His works do not change hands frequently, with only one being on offer at the Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art auction held in Sydney in June this year. This painting was a 1984 work entitled Flying Ant Dreaming at Wantangurru and was estimated to sell for between $4,000 to $6,000. (Sales results were not available prior to print.) A smaller painting dated circa 1990 failed to sell at Lawson’s Auctioneer’s sale in May this year, having an esti•mated range of $2,000 to $4,000.

Nelson is still only in his mid-fifties and the trend of Central Australian artists painting well into their eighties suggests that he has many years of painting available to him yet. This self-styled “Warlpiri philosopher” has obviously not lost the passion to get the story straight, so stay tuned.

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