With great sadness, we acknowledge the recent passing of Kumantje (Michael Nelson) Jagamara AM (b.c.1946-2020). One of the foremost champions of the Western Desert painting movement, Kumantje was a dynamic innovator of Papunya’s second wave of painters, known for creating evocative newforms to portray his ancestral inheritance, He was also a deeply respected Warlpiri/Luritja Elder and senior cultural leader of the broader Papunya community.
Born at Pikilyi (Vaughan Springs) in the Northern Territory, Kumantje lived a traditional life in his early years. As a young boy, he was taught sand, body and shield paintings by his grandfather. After initiation, he had a varied career — buffalo shooting, driving trucks, droving cattle, and in the military — before returning to Papunya, where he married Marjorie Napaltjarri in 1976. There, Kumantje observed the older artists painting for several years. He began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in 1983, guided by his uncle, Jack Tjupurrula.
Kumantje’s most celebrated painting, Five Stories 1984, is an iconic image of contemporary Australian art and has featured in several important exhibitions in Australia and abroad, including the 1986 Biennale of Sydney and the South Australian Museum’s ‘Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia’ which toured to the New York’s Asia Society Galleries in 1988. In 1985, Imants Tillers appropriated Five Stories in his own painting, The Nine Shots, prompting a passionate debate about the ethics of non-Indigenous artists working with traditional imagery. In 2001, Tillers and Kumantje struck up a lasting friendship and the artists collaborated on many paintings, including the QAGOMA Collection work Metafisica Australe 2017 (illustrated).
Kumantje received high-profile commissions for the Sydney Opera House, BMW and, most notably, the impressive 196-square-metre mosaic of Possum and Wallaby Dreaming 1986–87 for the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra. In 1993, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. Three years later, after working in the collaborative atmosphere of Brisbane’s Campfire Group, Kumantje participated in ‘The 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT2) 1996 along with Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi.
In both life and art, Kumantje held true to his jukurrpa: his Warlpiri law, its interconnected cultural knowledge system and dreamings. His Country, Pikilyi, is an important ceremonial site at the intersection of a number of the dreamings represented in his works — Possum, Snake, Two Kangaroos, Flying Ant and Yam — alongside lightning, rain, shields and sacred sites. His transformative practice paved the way for subsequent generations of Indigenous Australian artists and his legacy will be remembered for generations to come.
Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country.
It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name of the deceased. All such mentions are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.
Featured image detail: Kumantje Jagamara, Warlpiri/Luritja people, Australia, b.c.1946-2020 and Imants Tillers, Australia, b.1950 Metafisica Australe 2017