Michael Jagamara Nelson is an artist who love - maybe even needs - a challenge. As Johnson examines, he has had his fair share. With his first painting, a piece he did for his uncle Jack Wayuta (a senior custodian for the Flying Ant Dreaming for Yuwinji) going unrecognised as one of his own for fifteen years, Michael Nelson made his mark in the indigenous art scene after his big break from Daphne Williams of Papunya Tula Arts.
Michael Jagamara Nelson is an artist who loves – maybe even needs - a challenge. His first painting came about in late 1979 when his uncle Jack Wayuta Tjupurrula told him to 'give it a go' and paint their Flying Ant Dreaming on the 180 x 120 cm canvas Papunya Tula Artists had just given him: 'Hey my young fella, you do this painting for me with Flying Ants one.' As a senior custodian for the Flying Ant Dreaming for Yuwinji, Old Jack had a perfect right under Warlpiri law to direct his nephew to paint it for him – and also to claim ownership of the finished painting. It was not discovered for another fifteen years whose hand had held the brush. Michael Nelson continued watching the 'old artists' at work on his way to and from his job at the Papunya Council office and assisting his uncle on his paintings. Then in 1983, he asked Daphne Williams of Papunya Tula Artists to 'give a try for Michael Nelson' . She agreed, and within a year, he was setting his sights on the first National Aboriginal Art Award in Darwin:
I have done that painting there, in that bush humpy round those old homes. That's where I painted it. Sitting down doing it, quietly, myself. That's why I won that Art Award. First time. I'm only just a young fella. That was really good for me. Gradually got more better, you know? I thought, I'll get some more money. I'll have to do more, better colouring, everything. Hard thinking, you know? Got me in.
His win was a stepping stone to what would turn out to be one of his greatest challenges: the design of the 196 square metre mosaic for the forecourt of the new Parliament House in Canberra. 'I thought to myself, I gotta do that one.' His bold simple composition of one large concentric circle placed dead centre with the enlarged tracks of a variety of Dreaming ancestors leading into it from the edges showed his keen grasp of the requirements of the commission. As Michael Nelson explained the multiple meanings of the symbolism: 'This circle in the middle is one of my Dreamings, a place back home. But it also stand for this place where all the Aboriginal people come and meet together, just like we do in ceremony, to discuss and work together.' During the controversy that erupted in 1988 over Indigenous activist Kevin Gilbert's claims that the mosaic placed a curse on white Australia until justice was done for Aboriginal people, Michael Nelson insisted that his symbolic meeting place was 'there for both. For white people and for black' , but it was his fellow Indigenous Australians with whom he initially sought reconciliation through this work. He was hurt and bewildered by Gilbert's intervention, but these claims had invested the mosaic with an energy and significance for all Indigenous Australians. In late 1993 it became the focus of large Indigenous demonstrations in Canberra over the terms of the Federal Labor Government's proposed Native Title legislation. Michael Nelson travelled to the national capital with the other protestors:
'I was just trying to help them a little bit. Yuwai. All Aboriginal people. Not only from my own people here in the Centre, but all over Australia – Aboriginal people from Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia.'
But reflecting later on these events and the trouble that his much publicised threat to damage the mosaic had caused for him back home with the lawmen of Central Australia, his tone was anything but conciliatory: 'I should've stopped home and do my work painting. Not interfering with all them troublemakers. They want to do it South African way? They wouldn't win!' From now on, he determined, 'I want to be just artist. I want to do some great paintings while I'm still strong. Because in a couple more years – maybe ten – I will be like that – see? Hands shakin'. Can't stay young forever.'
The emergence of Michael Nelson's new painting style can be directly traced to his exposure to the artistic milieu of a loose coalition of Murri and non-Murri artists calling themselves the Campfire Group, based around Michael Eather's Fire-works Gallery in Brisbane. For someone who wanted to turn their back on militant forms of Indigenous politics, the Brisbane Aboriginal art scene of the mid to late 1990s was a most unlikely destination of choice for Michael Nelson. But in leaving behind the art world to find some peace of mind back in Papunya, Michael Nelson had also left behind part of himself as an artist: the side of him that had blossomed with his exposure to the world of contemporary art beyond the Western Desert. When the hand of artistic friendship was extended, he took it immediately. He went to Brisbane originally with the same impulse that had driven him to create the mosaic: to give the 'city Aborigines' access through his own deep involvement with the Dreaming they had 'lost a long time ago', but the ensuing interactions with Brisbane's vibrant and heavily politicised Indigenous art scene gave him the energy and inspiration to re-invent himself as an artist.
In the lead up to All Stock Must Go!, Campfire's entry in the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial, members of the group had visited Western Desert communities including Papunya to invite participation in a characteristically 'in ya face' commentary on the Indigenous arts industry which involved selling Aboriginal art off the back of a cattle truck parked outside the Queensland Art Gallery. Michael Nelson and Paddy Carroll Tjungarrayi flew to Brisbane for the occasion. It was the first time in a long while Michael Nelson had travelled outside Central Australia. Contrary to his 1994 assertion that 'I don't want to be sitting up there President of the Council. No good for me' (but consistent with his love of personal challenge) Michael Nelson has repeatedly assumed that role over the past decade, immersing himself in the day-to-day politics of the troubled Papunya community - and the ceremonial life of a senior Warlpiri man. There had been dramatic shifts in the market for contemporary Indigenous art, which had embraced the bold expressionist approach of Emily Kngwarreye and the austere minimalism of the 'striped' style exemplified by the 1990 works of Turkey Tolson and Mick Namarari. The classical 'dot and circle' style of Western Desert art in which Michael Nelson had always worked was considered passé in contemporary art circles. His fame still ensured a steady market for smaller canvases in his old style in Alice Springs, where Warumpi Arts, the painting company established by the Papunya Council in 1993, was the main outlet for his work. But there was little interest from the cities or the burgeoning secondary market in Aboriginal art. Michael Nelson was confronting the twin crises of relevance and motivation which any mid career contemporary artist must one day face.
In 1997 Warumpi Arts helped organise Michael Nelson's Mt Singleton Stories solo show at Fire-works Gallery. It was his first since 1990 and included a large 200 x 300 cm canvas Nine Stories which had been commissioned by a Brisbane collector of his work. This same collector went on to issue Michael Nelson with his next artistic challenge: to paint him a painting without dots: 'I don't care if he throws the paint brush at the canvas like a spear, so long as he doesn't do dots' . During a three month stay in Papunya as Michael Nelson's house guest, Simon Turner, then a member of the Campfire group, often conversed with his host about the commission. Turner emphasised what he saw as the strong points of the artist's work: bold colour and a powerful sense of composition and story, encouraging him to break out of classical strictures in his painting by increasing the scale of the design elements. The first of Michael Nelson's new 'expressionist' canvases was a rough purple Yam Dreaming brushed quickly onto a brilliant yellow background with bold muscular gestures. In two minutes of concentrated activity he created his own version of over-the-top expressive painterliness which also re-Aboriginalised the imagery, using calligraphic brushwork to inscribe huge marks of the ancestors, the sites and symbols of their creative passage through the landscape, across the entire surface of his paintings. These depictions of the marks of the ancestral beings are continuous with his earlier paintings' depictions of the Dreaming stories of the ancestral exploits - as recorded in the markings they have left on the landscape itself. Michael Nelson's identification with these beings through the Dreaming connects him spiritually to his land - and to his reasons for making art, which have remained constant through the vicissitudes of his career:
'We want to tell people that this is a most important place to us. This is land! They have taken it away from us and they didn't even think about it! This is the reason why we want to show the world our Dreamtime culture, so that they can understand our way of life.'
Michael Nelson put the experiment away to think about it some more, uncertain how so radical a change in his style would be received, not only by the Brisbane audiences but also by his own community. During his next visit to Brisbane for the Powerful Medicine project he and seven other Papunya artists produced a ground painting in the City Square, the first Michael Nelson had been involved with since he and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri had made ground paintings for the opening of the Dreamings exhibition in New York in 1988. Michael Nelson participated in a series of 'drawing' workshops with Campfire artists which introduced him to the medium of Chinese ink and encouraged him to regard the copious spills and splashes produced by working rapidly as an integral part of the finished work. In these works, the artist restricted himself to the stark traditionalism of the red and white Warlpiri palette which also characterised his earliest works on canvas. These experiments in Brisbane were soon followed by more paintings in this manner at Papunya, the artist reportedly issuing strong warnings to curious onlookers not to laugh at him, insisting (with his authority as President of Papunya Council) that he was still painting the Dreaming designs, but 'different way'. Indeed the design elements in Western Desert art have been getting steadily larger ever since the movement started; Michael Nelson was just the first to take it to this degree of enlargement, which is similar to the scale of the ground paintings themselves. In subsequent works, Michael Nelson made the ground painting connection explicitly, likening the white spills to feathers from a sand painting blowing in the wind. He took the opportunities offered to continue his expressionist experiments out the back of the Fire-works Gallery - and every time Eather came through Papunya with enough canvas and paint for him to work in this style. The selection of three of these works for inclusion in the next Asia Pacific Triennal at the Queensland Art Gallery was a catalyst for further experimentation, and the abandonment of classical black, red ochre and white. He returned with a vengeance to his controversial 1990 'gelato palette': bright pink, blues, yellow, orange and purple splashes sing out from the later works in this style. The wheel came full circle for Michael Nelson: he has recovered the momentum of his early painting career by going back to his original starting point, devising an original personal style within the parameters of Western Desert art as it is currently practised.
A chain of allusions as convoluted as one of Imants Tillers' odes to synchronicity also connects these Pollockesque splashes and dribbles with the luminous landscapes in the classical Papunya style, every dot painted gently and carefully, which back in the early eighties launched Michael Nelson into one of the most brilliant careers of that decade in Aboriginal art. His Five Dreamings was the most reproduced Australian painting of the 1980s - a circumstance calculated to attract the attention of Tillers himself. The latter's incorporation of elements of it into his The Nine Shots propelled the reclusive Tillers to centre stage as the object of bitter recriminations of cultural theft from Aboriginal activists opposed to appropriations of Indigenous art imagery. Gordon Bennett's retaliatory counter-appropriation of Tillers in his Nine Ricochets (Fall Down Black Fella, Jump Up White Fella) in turn placed him at the centre of post-modern ruminations on this topic in the early 1990s. The way the artist whose work had provided the meeting place for Tillers and Bennett in the first place was sidelined in these discussions always irritated me – until I saw Michael Nelson's new work in the 1999 Asia Pacific Triennal. Bennett's later series of works in which he appropriated Jackson Pollock, who had himself appropriated from Native American art, instantly sprang to mind. Michael Nelson's new painting style effectively inserted him as a protagonist in this stellar artistic exchange: counter-appropriating the counter-appropriator of his appropriator counter-appropriating Pollock. A stubborn adherence to the intentionalist fallacy that an artist's work is limited to the meanings he or she intended it to convey deprives us of this additional layer of significance in these works. But there is a delicious irony in it, which Michael Nelson would probably appreciate if it could be explained to him. No doubt so would his Campfire collaborators, who specialise in artistic counter-attack. Michael Nelson enacted his own when Imants Tillers took up a residency at the Campfire studios which coincided with one of his visits. This time Tillers followed the protocols explained to him by Michael Eather for collaboration to take place on Western Desert terms. The artist's permission was respectfully sought and a suitable fee arranged and pre-paid before Michael Nelson's brush hit the canvas. As Michael Nelson has said on so many occasions, 'the style has changed but not the message'.