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The fact of our collaboration in an ongoing series of canvas board works since 2001 is remarkable, and it is indeed a great privilege for me to continue to be a part of it. For us, ‘the miracle’ is not over yet.1
Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers are two of Australia’s most celebrated living artists. Both have international profiles and have accumulated numerous accolades over long careers. Their individual achievements and collaborative work has been celebrated by Australian Parliament House since the 1980s, beginning with the commissioning of Jagamara’s design for the Forecourt Mosaic in 1985. Meeting Place uses important works from the Parliament House Art Collection, the artists’ own collections and FireWorks Gallery (Jagamara’s representing gallery) to illustrate how integral Parliament House has been to their collaboration and national visibility.
The collaboration began in 2001 at the prompting of their mutual friend Michael Eather who, as a facilitator and trusted mediator, has been integral to the relationship. Eather’s Brisbane gallery has been a meeting place for the artists to assemble and examine work, and to talk about future plans. Tillers expressed his appreciation of Eather’s role in bringing him together with Jagamara in the catalogue for the Loaded Ground exhibition (2012, Drill Hall, ANU),
None of these collaborations with Michael Nelson Jagamara could have taken place without the involvement of Michael Eather. To him I am very grateful. His understanding of and engagement with Aboriginal people has allowed him to create a truly experimental situation in Brisbane, particularly with the Campfire Group but now with FireWorks Gallery.2
Launched on 17 August 2017, Meeting Place was two years in the planning. Justine van Mourik, Director of the Parliament House Art Collection, explains that,
The exhibition originated from a conversation with Michael Eather back in 2015. We had just discussed the potential acquisition of The Messenger  for our collection and were reflecting on the relationships that both Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers had with each other and with Parliament House and its collection dating back to the early 1980s… With the acquisition of The Messenger in late 2016, and the upcoming anniversary of the 1967 referendum, the timing for an exhibition about collaboration and reconciliation through art seemed almost miraculous.3
Historical (including the Forecourt Mosaic) and new works were selected by Parliament House curatorial team van Mourik and Program Manager Aimee Frodsham, Michael Eather and both exhibiting artists. Van Mourik recounts,
The most difficult part was trying to encapsulate the story of Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers in a way that is accessible to a wide audience, as we have more than 700,000 visitors per year and the vast majority of them are not here for an exhibition experience. The emphasis was on sharing the artists’ journey with a wider public through the history of the Forecourt Mosaic design in all its iterations.4
Parliament House has acted as a meeting place for Jagamara and Tillers long before their working relationship began. In 1985 Jagamara’s painting Possum and Wallaby Dreaming (1985) was selected as the basis for the design of the Parliament House Forecourt Mosaic. Tillers’s keen awareness of what his Indigenous contemporaries were doing meant that Jagamara was a significant figure in his sights and thoughts, and inevitably referenced in his paintings. Eather recalls, ‘Imants quoted the mosaic work not long after it had been unveiled and it was, I guess, used without permission but it did signify the importance of this work’.5 Tillers quoted the dreaming site/meeting place iconography his 1986 work After Civilisation (for Geoff Bardon), which features in Meeting Place. The vista of crumbling Classical European ruins, the lack of a horizon in favour of an aerial perspective, and the dominance of Jagamara’s quoted iconography spells out Tillers’s recognition of Indigenous art’s domination of the Australian art landscape and its growing international recognition.
Tillers’s Meeting Place (1985) has uncannily strong ties to other works in the exhibition. Not only is its title ‘a happy coincidence’,6 but the tones, shape and texture of the broken rocks in the painting echo the natural granite colours used in the mosaic. The use of canvas boards serves to further mimic the mosaic form and its dotted forebear, Jagamara’s Possum and Wallaby Dreaming (1984). The sharply split stones in Tillers’s painting could easily be napped stones knives, even sharing the same dark and light colour as Jagamara’s black and white stone knife arrangement in The Messenger. Tillers could not have known that such close relations between works would be evident twenty years on. Or could he? Reflecting on the thematic markers that have punctuated his career, Tillers wrote in 2012, ‘I describe the way, and meanwhile, perhaps, I am proceeding along it’.7
The single sculptural piece in the exhibition, The Loaded Ground Revisited 2017 (2017) is attributed to all three men at Tillers’s suggestion. This work, very much like the alchemy of their relationship, is mysterious. A stack of canvas boards plays host to three of Jagamara’s cast bronze and stainless steel Lightning Strikes. The source of the supporting stack was the title painting for Jagamara and Tillers’ 2012 collaborative exhibition The Loaded Ground. An image of the 2012 work is hard to come by, and with only the top panel teasingly visible in the 2017 incarnation, the intrigue compounds. Added to this is the listing of artists’ blood and red earth from Papunya among the work’s media, which, incidentally, was applied to Tillers’s now underlying markings.
Not least among the seventeen works is the newly acquired collaborative painting The Messenger (2014), unveiled by the artists at the opening event. The seamless amalgamation of iconic motifs and text betrays nothing of its dual authorship and everything about Jagamara and Tillers’s extraordinary simpatico. Unlike other of their epic joint works, such as Hymn to the night (2011-12), that posit questions and inevitably stimulate search for meaning, The Messenger’s seductive embrace demands nothing. ‘The title refers to both the Greek god Hermes, the winged messenger and to Michael Nelson who Imants describes as “a kind of messenger from another world”’.7 Tillers references Giorgio de Chirico, recreating the image of Hermes who looks into the painting from behind, as if caught between it and his own realm of being.
The artists’ involvement in the development of the exhibition gave them opportunities to recall highlights of past projects at Parliament House. Van Mourik recalls Jagamara’s delight in reliving past experiences,
One of the most powerful things about the process was bringing Michael Nelson Jagamara to Canberra to talk about the forecourt mosaic and hearing his recollections of the process. We had recently digitised our slide archive which included images of Michael Nelson Jagamara at Papunya in the early 1980s as well as him visiting Canberra during construction and at the opening of the building with the Queen in 1988. His reaction to these images was so powerful and I think we all got a bit emotional at that point.9
Jagamara takes his public appearances very seriously. Speaking at the exhibition launch, he recounted words of encouragement to children on the Forecourt Mosaic that morning, ‘Be like me. You will be travelling around the world and everybody will love you. You have young lives. Work hard. One day you could be Prime Minister’.10 Tillers, too, was mindful of the gravity of the occasion, taking only a short turn at the podium ensuring plenty of time and space was available to his revered collaborator. Though few words pass between them, their mutual respect and admiration is evident. Aware of Jagamara’s firm and regular assertion of seniority in the relationship, Tillers is clearly happy to support this view. Speaking about The Messenger to the assembled crowd at the launch, Michael Eather explained, ‘In terms of ownership, Michael thought he would sign off on the whole work and you see his signature at the bottom which says something about post-modernism that perhaps Imants is also reflecting upon with much humour’.11 In a similar vein, the author asked Jagamara if the collaborative works were Aboriginal art. The artist said, ‘I don’t know’, and, after giving it a few minutes thought, responded further, ‘You know Tillers, he just does a bit, a bit on my painting. I think it is Aboriginal art’.12
Meeting Place shows how the New Australian Parliament House, by building great contemporary art into the fabric of its structure from inception and acquiring and exhibiting important new works, has been instrumental in forging an exceptional and unique artistic collaboration. Just as it is now impossible to think about Jagamara or Tillers without thinking about the other, so too is it impossible to tell their story without reference to their important meeting place, Australian Parliament House.
Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, The Messenger, 2014. Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT, Courtesy of the artists.
1. Imants Tillers, ‘An Auspicious Entanglement’, The Loaded Ground: Michael Nelson Jagamara & Imants Tillers, ex. cat., Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 2012, p.24.
2. Imants Tillers, ibid., p.22.
3. Justine van Mourik, interview with the author, 25 October, 2017.
4. Justine van Mourik, ibid.
5. Michael Eather, opening address for Meeting Place launch, Australian Parliament House, Canberra, 17 August 2017.
6. Justine van Mourik, op. cit.
7. Imants Tillers, op. cit.
8. Justine van Mourik, Meeting Place, ex. cat., Australian Parliament House, Canberra, 2017, p.2.
9. Justine van Mourik, op. cit.
10. Michael Nelson Jagamara, opening address for Meeting Place launch, Australian Parliament House, Canberra, 17 August 2017.
11. Michael Eather, op. cit.
12. Michael Nelson Jagamara, personal communication, 18 August 2017.