Lot 60
  • 60

Michael Nelson Jagamara born 1948

150,000 - 200,000 GBP
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  • Michael Nelson Jagamara
  • Five Stories
  • Bears artist’s name and Papunya Tula number MN841129 on the reverse
  • Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
  • 121cm by 182 cm


Painted at Papunya in October and November in 1984

Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Melbourne


The Face of the Centre, Papunya Tula Paintings 1971-84, National Gallery of Victoria, 7 September 1985 – 27 January 1986

State of the Arts, Ideas and images in the 1980’s, Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, May 1987 and touring.

Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, Asia Society Galleries, New York, 6 October – 31 December, 1988, and at three other museums

Crossroads – Towards a New Reality: Aboriginal Art from Australia, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, September 22-November 8 1992.The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, November 17-December 20 1992.

Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Cologne, 1993

Papunya Tula, Genesis and Genius, AGNSW, Sydney, 2000 Dates

Aborigena: Arte australiana contemporanea, Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin, 29 June-26 August 2001

Desert Art, Aboriginal Art Museum, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 2002

Mythology and Reality: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Desert Art from the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, The Jerusalem Centre for the Performing Arts, 21 October-19 December 2003

Mythology and Reality, Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Desert Art From the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2 October 2004 - 30 January 2005

SHOOSH! The History of The Campfire Group, Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, 2005

The Loaded Ground: Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra 2012, p.4, cat. No. 14, illus. p.13, (Catalogue illustration P4 as well as exhibition)

Mapping our world: Terra Incognita to Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 7 November 2013 - 10 March 2014


Annemarie Brody, The Face of the Centre, Papunya Tula Paintings 1971-84, National Gallery of Victoria, 1985, p.44, pl.32, illus.

Sandy Nairne et al., State of the Arts, Ideas and images in the 1980’s, Chatto & Windus Ltd in collaboration with Channel Four Television Company Limited, 1987, cover, illus.

Peter Sutton, Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, George Braziller in association with Asia Society Galleries, New York, USA, 1988, cover and p.103, fig.143, cat.43

Hideo Tomiyama et al., Crossroads – Towards a New Reality: Aboriginal Art from Australia, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1992, p.89, fig 61, illus.

Bernhard Lüthi et al., Aratjara: Art of the First Australians, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Cologne, 1993, p.256, fig 101, illus.

Johnson, V., Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert, A Biographical Dictionary, Craftsman House, Roseville, NSW, 1994, pp.151-2

Vivien Johnson, Michael Jagamara Nelson, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1997 pp. 62-3, pl.18

Perkins, Hetti and Fink, Hannah, Papunya Tula, Genesis and Genius, AGNSW, Sydney, 2000, p.82.

Wally Caruana, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson World of Art Series, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003, p.130, illus.

Achille Bonito Oliva, Aborigena, Electa, Milano, 2001, p 71, pl.57, illus.

Achille Bonito Olivia, Desert Art, Electa, Milano, 2002, p.71., pl.57, illus.

Achille Bonito Oliva and Gabrielle Pizzi, Mythology and Reality: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Desert Art from the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Australia Israel Cultural Exchange, Jerusalem, 2003, p.53, illus.

Geoffrey Bardon, Judith Ryan, Gabrielle Pizzi, Zara Stanhope, Contemporary Aboriginal Desert Art From the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Mythology and Reality, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p.46

Stephen Farthing (ed.), Art: The Whole Story, Thames and Hudson, London, 2010

The Loaded Ground: Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra 2012, pp.12-15, p.4, cat. no. 14, illus.

McLean, I., Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art, London: Reaktion Books, 2016, p.157, plate 76, illus.

Throughout its exhibition history Five Stories has been exhibited and referred to with various titles including Possum Dreaming, Five Dreamings, Five Tjukurrpas, and Five Stories. The artist’s preferred title is Five Stories.


The work is unframed and unglazed and has museum backing boards for protection. No apparent repairs or restorations. In excellent and stable condition overall
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Michael Jagamara Nelson’s painting Five Stories of 1984 is one of the iconic images of modern Aboriginal art. It has been published and exhibited widely, possibly more so than any other work by an Indigenous Australian artist. During the 1980s and 1990s Five Stories featured in several landmark exhibitions in Australia and abroad at a time when Aboriginal artists were breaking through the barriers that had consigned their art to the ethnographic domain to emerge as part of the discourse that is the world of contemporary art. Five Stories was among three works by Jagamara selected for the 1986 Biennale of Sydney, origins, originality + beyond. This was the first time Aboriginal artists were represented in the Biennale. It featured on the cover of the seminal exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia organised by the South Australian Museum and shown at the Asia Society Galleries in New York in 1988. The high profile of this exhibition introduced a new set of international collectors to Aboriginal art and initiated a debate as to its place in the continuum of contemporary art worldwide. Similarly, the exhibition Crossroads–Towards a new reality mounted at the Museums of Modern Art in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1992 established a place for modern Aboriginal art in Japan. Five Stories was one of the key works in the highly acclaimed exhibition Aratjara: Art of the first Australians, that opened at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Cologne, and toured to the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark, and the Hayward Gallery in London in 1993-94; the exhibition introduced western Europe to contemporary developments in Aboriginal art. In 2000, the painting featured in Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, a watershed exhibition that traced the evolution of the acrylic painting movement that had originated at the settlement of Papunya in 1971: the exhibition was staged at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney during the Olympic Games. Five Stories was shown again in Europe in Desert Art at the AAMU Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2002. 

Michael Nelson was born at Pikilyi (Vaughan Springs) west of Alice Springs in the lands of the Warlpiri people. The area is a crossroads for several major ancestral song lines that Jagamara has the inherited rights to paint. Five of these are depicted in Five Stories: Pamapardu Jukurrpa (Flying Ant Dreaming) at Yuwinji is represented by the horizontal line bisecting the composition; the E-shaped tracks of the Possum ancestors travelling from Jangankurlangu to Mawarriji traverse the canvas diagonally from the lower left to the upper right, and then divide into two tracks that continue in a ‘westerly’ direction; the image of Wanampi the Rainbow Serpent at Yilkirdi meanders between sets of double bars that represent rain, indicating the Serpent’s association with rain-making; circles representing the Rain Dreaming at Mirawarri appear in the lower right of the painting adjacent to the tracks which the artist variously describes as Marlujarra (Two Kangaroo Men) at Yintarramurru or the Wallaby ancestor who witnessed a battle between Rainbow Serpents at Yilkirdi. The inherent complexity of depicting several narratives in one resolved composition owes much, according to the artist, to another Western Desert painter who was also at Papunya, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c.1932-2002).1 Between 1976 and 1979 Tjapaltjarri painted a series of monumental canvases that aimed to map his ancestral lands by integrating the sacred diagrams of Aboriginal ground paintings and the topographic conventions of European maps. This group includes Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong, 1977, in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

In Five Stories, Michael Nelson Jagamara has introduced a number of pictorial innovations that distinguish the work from other, more conventional Western Desert acrylic paintings of the time. The graphic elements in the picture were outlined in yellow dots as opposed to the usual white to produce a scintillating visual effect akin to that of body painting in ceremony. In fact the black ground of the picture suggests black skin. The infill is constructed of dappled patches of colour as well as the usual arrays of dots. Yellow cloud-like forms contrast starkly against an even black ground in a triangular space in the lower left, reflected above in a blue wash covering the dotted field between the two meandering lines of possum tracks. In her monograph on Michael Nelson Jagamara, Vivien Johnson argues that such painterly devices render Five Stories ‘utterly original in relation to western [European] painting and the Papunya movement itself.’2

Michael Nelson first began to paint for the Papunya Tula Artists cooperative in 1983 after he had moved to the community on account of his wife Marjorie Napaljarri Nelson who became his painting assistant, preparing paints and infilling areas of colour. His career had a meteoric rise. In the year Five Stories was painted, Jagamara won the prestigious National Aboriginal Art Award after which one of his designs was selected from those submitted by a group of five Papunya artists for a mosaic to be installed in the forecourt of the new Parliament House that opened in Canberra in 1988. The design was based on a painting, Possum and Wallaby Dreaming, about the convergence of different ancestors in one place, a fitting analogy for the Australian seat of government. In 1987 Jagamara was commissioned to paint an 18 metre long mural, Possum Dreaming, for the Sydney Opera House, and in 1989 he was engaged by the BMW motor company to paint an M3 Le Mans racing car as part of the BMW Art Car Project. The project commenced in the 1970s with cars painted by Alexander Calder, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and later Robert Rauschenberg amongst others. Warhol and Jagamara were the only two artists to physically hand-paint the cars and they both featured in the television documentary series on contemporary art, State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s produced by Channel Four in Britain. An exhibition drawn from works shown in the series, including Five Stories, opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1987 and toured England.


Johnson, V., Michael Jagamara Nelson, Sydney: Craftsman House, 1997, pp. 61, 64.

2 ibid. 65.