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New Chapters to Old Stories

Art Lovers | 2 November 2019

New Chapters to Old Stories

Aboriginal Art, Michael Nelson Jagamara and FireWorks Gallery


Australian Aboriginal culture has a sacred lore that is considered out of reach to most people. Utilizing very particular symbols, materials and ceremonies, the knowledge of the human spirit is maintained as it is and always has been – the place of humankind in The Creation – as we are and as we have been.

Stemming from Aboriginal cave, ground and body painting designs, the symbolism and the ‘direct drawing’ approach to ‘painting a story’ presents us with ideas and images corresponding to our perceptions, experiences and beliefs and at the same time confronting them.

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Lolly Tree Site – MICHAEL NELSON JAGAMARA (75 x 75cm, Acrylic on canvas)

Stories can be told and retold

For many Aboriginal artists painting with culturally new materials has opened up a myriad of possibilities. Stories can be told and retold, gathering strength in their retelling and in their reception by both old and new audiences.

The collision of cultures and development of new stylistically distinct modes of traditional story telling is beautifully demonstrated through the practice of Michael Nelson Jagamara (MNJ), arguably one of Australia’s most prominent living Indigenous artists. Michael Nelson began painting in the early 1980s in Papunya, Central Australia, in the classic dot and circle tradition of desert sand painting.This style of painting was inspired by sand drawing and body paint designs used in traditional ceremonies. These ephemeral and sacred markings would normally be washed away with the rain, hidden from those forbidden by lore to view them. In order for these stories to be told to the uninitiated, Aboriginal artists abstracted the symbols, adding dots and lines as if obscuring a map that one familiar with the landscape would have no problem reading.

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Michael Nelson Jagamara

Whilst the paintings are abstract in style they still tell traditional dreaming stories. For Jagamara these stories center on the country in the Mt Singleton area and tell of traditional Dreamings including Possum, Kangaroo, Emu, Lightning and other sacred stories and sites.

Jagamara’s standing as an artist grew rapidly from 1984 when he was awarded the inaugural Northern Territory Art Award which became The Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award. In 1987 he was commissioned to paint the Bicentennial Mural for the Sydney Opera House (Possum Dreaming) and in 1988 he designed the Mosaic Forecourt at New Parliament House, Canberra (Emu and Kangaroo Dreaming)opened by HRM The Queen. His work in the 80s and 90s helped to define how we think about Aboriginal art in Australia, with patient dot and line work in muted tones.

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Lightning Storm – MICHAEL NELSON JAGAMARA (51 x 41cm, Acrylic on canvas)

During the late 1990s Michael Nelson Jagamara (MNJ) reinvented his approach to painting with a more expressionistic style. His colour palette became brighter and his lines bold and energetic. In 1996 he travelled to Brisbane as part of Campfire Group and FireWorks Gallery’s inclusion in the second Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA. Several experimental works were made that started a new chapter for Jagamara.

His stories have never changed

MNJ’s Brisbane paintings are unashamedly more experimental than his Papunya style. Many embrace a larger scale often with heightened colours and amplified formats, which sets them apart from his painting techniques practiced at his hometown. In Papunya the paintings are essentially constructed with dots; in Brisbane they are simplified, but still recognizable insignias…more like logos! However, this duality remains vitally connected, the themes and stories still being derived from traditional ground painting ceremonies. Story telling is a vital aspect of Aboriginal art and Jagamara continues to make the salient point that although his choice of colours, materials and appearance of works are continually being reformatted, his stories have never changed.The importance of story over colour, material and even form separates Australian Aboriginal art from many other contemporary art styles. Jagamara is by no means the only Aboriginal artist to combine tradition and innovation. Lockhart River artists Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo and Samantha Hobson are all inspired by their country, ancestry and dreamings and approach their practice with novelty, energy and respect.

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Mt. Singleton Stories – MICHAEL NELSON JAGAMARA (109 x 88cm, Ltd. Edition print of 99)

Jagamara’s Five Stories broke the record at auction for the most expensive artwork by a living indigenous artist

Michael Nelson’s significant contribution to Aboriginal Art was recognised in 2008, when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of New South Wales. More recently in 2016 Jagamara’s 1984 work, Five Stories broke the record at auction for the most expensive artwork by a living indigenous artist and the fifth most for a living Australian artist when it sold for $687,877 AUD at Sotheby’s in London. Many claimed that the sale  signaled that the future of Indigenous art lies in such International market appeal and it is clear that certain international collectors and enthusiasts, particularly in the USA and Europe, still view it as an absolutely unique product and often undervalued in the current Australian market.  In celebration of this achievement Jagamara and FireWorks Gallery have produced signed limited edition prints of this stunning work.

Michael Nelson Jagamara Five Stories Low Res

Five Stories 1984 – MICHAEL NELSON JAGAMARA (70 x 56cm, Ltd. Edition print of 25)

FireWorks Gallery is proud to present a selection of work by Michael Nelson Jagamara alongside younger Queensland based Indigenous Artists Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo, and Ian Waldron through Art Lovers Australia and to introduce his significant work to new audiences.

View more Aboriginal art at FireWorks Gallery

Michael Nelson Jagamara Five Stories Low Res


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