Tribute to Mr Nelson Tjakamarra, an artist at the forefront of the Western Desert art movement

Tribute to Mr Nelson Tjakamarra, an artist at the forefront of the Western Desert art movement Main Image

30 November 2020

SENATE ADJOURNMENT (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (21:59): I rise to pay tribute to one of our country's leading artists, who died recently. One of his many pieces of work actually sits out the front of Parliament House as the mosaic that we all see and which certainly visitors from across the country and overseas see when they visit here. I thank the Warlpiri families for your permission to pay tribute to Mr Nelson Tjakamarra. His work is an integral part of this building and, indeed, of this country. Mr Nelson Tjakamarra was a senior Warlpiri man, an elder of the Papunya community in Central Australia. He was born in the bush and lived at Haasts Bluff until his parents took him to Yuendumu for European education at the mission school. His father was a senior Warlpiri law man and Tjakamarra grew up with traditional knowledge and stories that later informed his artworks.

Like many young men of the time, he left school at 13 and worked at buffalo shooting, driving trucks, droving cattle and in the Army, before returning to Yuendumu and then to Papunya to settle in 1976. Tjakamarra learned to paint at Papunya, observing the senior men who were the early trailblazers of the Western Desert art movement. He was originally tutored by his uncle, Tjupurrula, but he quickly developed his own style and began painting in earnest from 1983. Tjakamarra became known as the master of depicting several Dreamings in one work. His works were the stories. To him, that was what was important—using the medium of painting to tell and preserve the Dreaming stories. Without the stories, his paintings would mean nothing as far as he was concerned.

In 1984, Tjakamarra won the inaugural National Aboriginal Art Award with his painting Three Dreamings. This was only a year or so after he started painting, on his own account, and cemented his reputation as one of the leading talents in the second generation of Western Desert artists. His work was selected to appear in the 1986 Biennale of Sydney, making him one of the first Australian Indigenous artists to gain recognition in contemporary international art circles. In 1987, he was asked to paint a major work to decorate the foyer of Sydney's Opera House and he chose to paint his Possum Dreaming, a story that took more than 18 metres in length to tell.

The Opera House is not the only iconic building to feature Tjakamarra's works. A great highlight in his career was in 1988, when he was commissioned to design a 196-square-metre mosaic—and where did that go? Yes, out the front of the forecourt of our Parliament House here in Canberra. The work was based on his Kangaroo and Emu Dreaming. The mosaic is still as stunning today as it was when Tjakamarra designed it. He was presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth when she officially opened Parliament House.

During 1988 and 1989, one of Tjakamarra's major works, Five Stories, was reproduced on the catalogue cover for the Asia Society's exhibition 'Dreamings, The Art of Aboriginal Australia' in New York. His participation in this exhibition included traditional ground painting and ceremonial dance, which he executed with Papunya elder Mr Stockman. From the traditional to the modern, Tjakamarra was commissioned in 1989 to paint a BMW M3 racing car.

During what was seen as a golden period of development and recognition of the Western Desert art movement, Tjakamarra was at the forefront. He played a visible role promoting the movement, patiently answering questions about the Dreaming stories he painted and sharing his knowledge. At almost any landmark occasion in Aboriginal art during the golden years of the mid- to late-1980s, he was to be found patiently giving the same eloquent, heartfelt answers to the media's questions about why he painted this or that picture and what the Dreaming story was. Not only was he a talented painter but he generously shared his culture with the world, breaking down barriers and promoting the richness and beauty of First Nations culture, particularly from his Western Desert home. He was an articulate exponent of Western Desert viewpoints on the internationally famous art movement in which he played such a key role.

In 1993, Tjakamarra was awarded the Australian Medal for his services to Aboriginal art. He continued to paint, developing and refining his style while telling his Dreaming story, often in collaboration with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. In 2017, a collaboration with non-Indigenous artist Imants Tillers was unveiled here at Parliament House, where Tjakamarra was happy to see his mosaic work still had pride of place—and, of course, it also features on our $5 note. Tjakamarra said of his work at the time that it was fitting and it was in a place:

… where all people come and meet together, just like we do in our ceremonies to discuss and works things out together.

May you rest in peace, Tjakamarra. Our sincere condolences go to his family and friends and to all those who've been greatly influenced by this incredible artist.