Michael Nelson Tjakamarra (also spelled Jagamara, Jakamara and Djakamara) is one of the most successful indigenous Australian artists of modern times, having acquired many accolades and enjoying international renown. The child of two Warlpiri people (one, his father, a highly respected ‘medicine man’), he was born in 1949 (or thereabouts) in Pikilyi (Vaughan Springs) and spent much of his early life (as he describes it) “without clothes.” Nonetheless, he received a European-style education in Yuendumu (east of Pikilyi), although he speaks both Warlpiri and Luritja languages. He left at the age of thirteen and undertook a number of jobs in the cattle industry on the East and South Alligator Rivers, then moved to driving trucks and droving cattle. After a stint in the army, he returned to Yuendumu in 1976 and then moved to Papunya where he married his wife, Marjorie.
After seven years spent in observation of the work of older artists (especially his uncle, Jack Tjupurrula), he finally began a painting career of his own in 1983. Tjakamarra’s work is considered distinctive primarily because it often incorporates several Dreamtime stories in a single piece and secondarily because he exhibits fine brushstrokes and subtle infilling of multicoloured dots. He has sold 31 works over the past ten years (two oil paintings and twenty-nine works of other kinds, primarily drawings). His accomplishments and the accolades bestowed upon him are numerous. Michael Nelson Tjakamarra… …Won the National Aboriginal Art Award, held in the Northern Territory Museum of Arts and Sciences (1984).
…Had work incorporated into an exhibit at the Biennale of Sydney, his first public exhibit (1986).
…Was included in the British art documentary ‘The State of the Art’.
…Has a painting installed in the Sydney Opera House (1987).
…Was introduced to Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of the new national Parliament House (1988); he designed the 196 square metre mosaic in the forecourt (which is composed of 90,000 hand-guillotined granite pieces, displaying a ‘Possum and Wallaby Dreaming’ in a traditional central desert dot-painting style).
…Painted ‘Five Stories’ (1988-1990), one of the most frequently reproduced works of Australian art in the 1980s. It appears on the cover of the Asia Society’s ‘Dreamings’ exhibition catalogue (1988-1989).
…Enjoyed his first solo exhibition at the Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne (1989). This created numerous offers and many other exhibitions (many also solo). The most notable include the following: Utopia Art, Sydney; the Australian National Gallery, Melbourne; the Institute of Contemporary Art, London and the John Webber Gallery, New York.
…Hand-painted an M3 racing car for the BMW Art Car Project (1989).
…Was granted custodianship of the countryside around Mount Singleton.
…Received the Australia Medal for services to Aboriginal Art and an Artist’s Fellowship (1993).
Tjakamarra’s view of his art, however, does not seem to match these prizes and platitudes at all. While the creation of the Parliament House mosaic was an acknowledgement of the spirit of Reconciliation (perhaps the greatest source of shame for White Australia), his selection is attributed by many to the fact that he has never had a particularly active political life and has consistently maintained a moderate stance. Amidst bitter land rights struggles, though, Tjakamarra removed the central stone of the mosaic and addressed the gathering crowd by saying:
“White people, you don’t seem to understand. [They] look at my work [and] all they see is a pretty painting. You, the white people, took this country from us… white people must understand [that] this country is Aboriginal peoples’ country… we want to keep our culture strongly for our children’s children. We cannot do this without our land because it is our land, Dreamings, stories, paintings - all tied to our land. This has all been changed… The government of Australia has not recognised our people and our culture and it is abusing my painting and my people. I want to take this painting back to my people.”
Images of Tjakamarra’s work:http://www.kantrowitz.com/abart/tjakamarra.html (‘Five Dreamings’).
http://pm.appstate.edu/%7Ebentore/oldworld/Tjakamarra.htm (‘Possum and Wallaby Dreaming’ Parliament House mosaic).
http://homepages.which.net/~mark.roots/michael_nelson_images_1.html (‘Snake and Possum Dreaming’, ‘Kangaroo Dreaming’, ‘Goanna and Possum Dreaming’, ‘Three Dreamings’, ‘Snake and Storm Dreaming’, ‘Snake Dreaming’, ‘Yam Dreaming’, ‘Men Dreaming’, ‘Snake and Kangaroo Dreaming’, ‘Snake, Goanna and Kangaroo Dreaming’).
http://members.ozemail.com.au/~aaia/michnel.html (a more complete exhibition listing).