Pioneering Indigenous artist Kumantje Nelson Jagamara remembered in Alice Springs

Kumantje Jagamara's Possum and Wallaby Dreaming out the front of Parliament House.

Kumantje Jagamara's Possum and Wallaby Dreaming out the front of Parliament House. Photo: Parliament House Art Collection

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and names of people who have died. Images have been used with permission of the deceased’s family.

You might not have heard of Kumantje Jagamara from Pupunya (c.1949-November 9, 2020), but you have probably seen his artwork.

The Warlpiri artist from Central Australia passed away in November, and was remembered at a funeral in Alice Springs on Wednesday.

Hundreds gathered to pay tribute to a giant of the Indigenous art world, and listened to a letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of his passing.

Senior law man and prolific artist, Kumantje Nelson Jagamara was from the community of Papunya. Photo: Michael Eather Fireworks Gallery

Kumantje Jagamara was the inaugural winner of the 1984 National Aboriginal Art Award, now known as the Telstra Award, and went on to an illustrious art career.

He was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his service to the arts in 1993.

On show at Parliament House and the Opera House

His most recognisable work is the Possum and Wallaby Dreaming mosaic that sits outside Parliament House in Canberra.

The 196-square-metre mosaic in the forecourt of Parliament House is the first artwork you will encounter on a visit to Parliament.

It also features on the Australian $5 note, and an 8.2 metre painting by him also hangs on the walls of the Sydney Opera House.

The new Australian $5 banknote, released in 2016, features Jagamara’s Parliament House and the Forecourt Mosaic, Possum and Wallaby Dreaming. Photo: RBA

The mosaic was referenced in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s letter, which was read out by family at the funeral.

“Every time I look at the Possum and Wallaby Dreaming mosaic at the entry to Parliament House I will be reminded of the important relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their land, and of the man behind the work,” the letter read.

From Papunya to New York

Despite his fame and success, long-time friend to Kumantje Jagamara, UNSW Adjunct Art and Design Professor Vivien Johnson, remembered him on Wednesday as a kind and caring person who lived an extraordinary life.

“He was a quiet man, really, in spite of his illustrious career,” she said.

“[He was a] person who traversed an incredible span, from the first eight or nine years of his life, walking in the bush with his family, never having seen white fellas – to New York, and being celebrated there for the Dreamings exhibition.

“[Then to] to the Parliament House Mosaic, which he always regarded as his greatest achievement.”

Kumantje Jagamara Nelson in Papunya, circa 1986. Photo: Michael Eather, image courtesy of Neil McLeod

At the funeral on Wednesday, loved ones spoke of his commitment to the remote Central Australian community.

“My dad was an inspirational person for art,” his daughter Marie Elena Ellis said.

She said she was proud of what he achieved in his life, and thinks people will remember both the man and his art.

“For him and his artistic style. Of who he was, what he painted about country, where he belongs – his father’s, his grandfather’s country,” Ms Ellis said.

“He’ll be most remembered for being a great artist of the west.”

Kumantje Jagamara was one of the foremost proponents of Western Desert painting, one of the first contemporary Indigenous art movements.

In 1987, his work was installed in the foyer of the Sydney Opera House, and later he worked with car manufacturer BMW to create Aboriginal Art Cars.

He passed away on November 9, 2020 after a long illness.

Due to cultural considerations, it is not unusual for funerals to take place months after someone dies.


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