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BORN: c1926 – dec. 16 October 2009
REGION: Western Arnhem Land
COMMUNITY: Gunbalanya [Oenpelli]
OUTSTATION: Kurrukgurrh, Marlkawo, Mankungdjang
LOCAL GROUP: Mok
SOCIAL AFFILIATION: Dhuwa moiety, Nakodjok subsection
Bardayal "Lofty" Nadjamerrek AO (c. 1926–2009) was a Kunwinjku Aboriginal artist of the Mok clan. He belonged to the Duwa moiety and spoke the Kundedjnjenghmi language. He is currently referred to by his skin and clan as "Wamud Namok", following the Kunwinjku custom of avoiding use of the name of deceased persons.
Bardayal Nadjamerrek was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2004 Australia Day Honours for "service to the preservation of Indigenous culture as a Senior Traditional man and significant artist whose work documents the relationship of the land and its ancestral past via the Mimih Spirits of rock art". He is recognized as being very knowledgeable about country, environment, and the use of ochres. He helped map out places of "Aboriginal cultural significance, sacred sites that may have been lost had they not been documented."
Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek, who was otherwise known as Wamud Namok, was born around 1926 in the upper Mann River region of Western Arnhem Land to his father, Yanjorluk. When Bardayal was young, he and his family spent time traveling the plateau, “developing his detailed knowledge of the stone country.” Nadjamerrek spent much of his childhood on the plateau known as Stone Country where he lived a largely traditional hunter-gatherer life with occasional visits to missions and settlements to trade goods.
Nadjamerrek was first introduced to art, specifically rock art, by his father, Yanjorluk, in the early 1940s. His early rock art style learning was influenced by the traditional rock art style of Western Arnhem Land. This area of Australia contains some of the oldest evidence and remnants of rock art.
With the influence of his father’s teachings, Nadjamerrek translated his knowledge into the practice of bark paintings, beginning his work in the public domain in 1969. He spent years of his apprenticeship observing the craft of his father and other men in his community paint on the rocky shelters and outcrops with natural ochres and pigments.
During World War 2, Bardayal’s apprenticeship in art was put on hold as he was indentured to timber cutting service for the war effort. Years later he continued to work in the non-artistic sphere, taking jobs as “a miner, stockman, buffalo shooter and market gardener.” Even though his art career was put on hold, Bardayal remained increasingly active in the ceremonial activities of his clan, further strengthening his ties to traditional culture which will later be seen in his paintings.
Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek’s work included bark paintings, etchings, paper and print media works, as well as other reprographic techniques. His work investigates the connection between humans and nature, as well as ancient traditions while reflecting his Country and heritage and often illustrating stories which carry deep cultural significance. Through his art, Nadjamerrek strived to encourage people to develop a deeper understanding of and cultivate respect for Aboriginal cultures.
He created his first rock art painting around the age of 13, at a place called Kundjorlomdjorlom, under the close observance of his father, Nanjorluk, an accomplished rock-art artist. His father Nanjorluk taught him to paint in the upper Mann River region of western Arnhem Land in the 1940s. The rock art of the region contains some of the oldest evidence of replicated image-making known in the history of art.
Bardayal Nadjamerrek and community
In his later life, Bardayal came to be one of the most respected elders not only in his clan, but also in the Western Arnhem Land region. In the 1970s, he was a main contributor in helping Indigenous families return to their traditional lands and establishing six outstations.
After almost two decades, he was finally able to return back to his own clan estate. Unfortunately, during his time away the Australian government halted stage funding for outstations. With his prior experience with other clans, Nadjamerrek created the Kubulwarnamyo outstation by himself in the mid 1990s. Kubulwarnmyo is a part of the Ankung Djang estate which belonged to the Mok clan. This outstation attracted various kinds of people from other parts of Australia and the world, including anthropologists, linguists, botanists, ecologists, and art historians, who came to learn more about the vast landscape of Arnhem Land. Nadjamerrek served as an encyclopedia for all knowledge pertaining to his culture and Arnhem Land, promoting Indigenous land management, culture, and heritage to all new people traveling to the landscape. Out of this outstation also came community programs and research projects which promoted these three aspects as well.
Later artistic career
Bardayal Nadjamerrek is widely regarded as one of the greatest figurative Indigenous Artists by outsiders, but within his community he is highly recognized as a pioneering contemporary artist. In 1969, he formally began his artistic career painting at the Church Mission Society’s Oenpelli mission under the linguist Peter Carroll. While this was the beginning of his professional career, Bardayal had decades of experience observing rock-art galleries and his elders. He became one of the main artists as the mission expanded the art market.
In the late 1950s Najamerrek moved to the Western Arnhem Land community of Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), bringing along his young family. Here he began to paint on bark in the public domain in 1969. The area borders on Kakadu National Park, a world heritage reserve famous for the countless rock art sites that date back at least twenty thousand years. Nadjamerreks work aimed to draw out the connection between ancient rock art and modern bark painting and between the old way of living and the new. He established himself as a master painter, using a single parallel line hatching technique not commonly used by Western Arnhem Land artists.
Over his career, Bardayal Nadjamerrek has experimented with iconographic elements for maximum artistic and symbolic effect. For instance, one of his best-known pieces, Nygalod-The Rainbow Serpent, a large mural, depicts Ngalyod as a combination of animals with the body of a snake, the head of a crocodile, and the tail of a fish, with water Lillies on its back. This combination of animals holds much significance. On one hand, it pays reference to Ngalyod's status as the ‘mother of all species’, but in another sense, it references balancing the iconic with the transformative. In the Dreaming, Ngalyod was said to assume a range of different forms, morphing from one into another. Ngalyod is an example of Nadjamerrek's art style, with X-ray and rarrk styles as well as traits unique to his art such as triangle and diamond patterns formed from singular hatching.
Bardayal Nadjamerrek was awarded the Telstra Work on Paper Award in the 16th National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, 1999, for his work Ngalyangdoh.
Nadjamerrek continued his bark paintings through the latter half of his life, perfecting his craft and style with cultural ties before finally retiring from painting in the late 2000s.
Painting and style
He was highly influenced by various styles, including his father’s and relatives’ artworks and those more ancient from the Kunwinjku people rock art and “mimih” spirits. Many of Bardayal’s paintings are reminiscent or even replicas of art found on the rock walls from hundreds of years prior. His work, however, is incredibly original stylistically and in quality.
Bardayal painted using natural pigments and ochres, traditional stylistic elements of Aboriginal art, on a few different mediums, including Eucalyptus bark, paper, and canvas. His style resembled that of rock painting from the paintings of his ancestors found in the landscape. By the late 1980s, he had perfected his style both resembling his culture and his own personal take. Most of the work by Bardayal experiments with iconographic figures, such as the Ngalyod or Rainbow Serpent and other animals significant in Aboriginal culture. For example, he paints freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, rock possums, emus, sugar gliders, and frilled-necked lizards. These images painted are different from other Indigenous artists in the way that they are not just static. Bardayal’s style of painting portrays these images in a narrative way creating a dynamic tension and feeling of movement captured in time. For example, the way he paints makes it seem like people are singing or animals are leaping which makes his paintings very lively.
Lofty’s work is distinguished by high quality, intricacy, and fineness of his parallel line hatching. His medium involves rectangular bark with either a red or black background. Lofty Nadjamerrek does not use crosshatching but rather fine parallel line work. He is not allowed to do crosshatching because it is a sacred Mardayin hatching. He often uses the X-ray technique, which shows the internal organs and spines on his figures and animals. This is a traditional way of showing that these are not mere pictures but real beings. His depictions of animals often invoke a sense of movement. He paints animals, humans, and vegetation with great detail, including many small details on feet, paws, and leaping stances. Many of his bark paintings depict different animal species from western Arnhem Land, including crocodiles, birds, kangaroos, fish, and turtles.
Nadjamerrek’s art's single line rarrk style, unlike those that followed who relied on the more modern cross-hatching technique. His rejection of cross hatching solidified his distinction as one of the few great elder artists of Western Arnhem Land.
Bardayal’s work is still hung in dozens of galleries in Australia, continually teaching those about the culture and traditions of Aboriginal clans. Bardayal is regarded today as one of the greatest rock-art style painters of his time.
Well known paintings
One of Bardayal's best known paintings is Ngalyod — The Rainbow Serpent, a large mural in the Darwin International Airport where many travellers can view it. He portrays Ngalyod as having a body of a snake, crocodile head, and a fish tail. Ngalyod is not only the mother of all species but can transform forms.
Another well known painting is Yawk Yawk, a depiction of female water spirits. Bardayal illustrates the yawkyawk in a new way that is different from the traditional images. Instead of having legs on land and a fish tail in the water, he paints legs inside of the fish tail. He is creating dynamic tension, creating a sense of transformation.
Other paintings of his are Two Goannas painted in 1970 with ochres on bark, Ceremony with women taking part also painted in 1970 with ochres on bark, and 'Kabirriyalyolme painted in 2003 with natural pigments on paper.
Nadjamerrek spent the last few years of his life retired from formal painting, yet still active in his community and practicing his craft with younger members of his clan. He spent his days passing down information to future generations about their culture and rock art. Similar to many well-known western Arnhem Land artists, Nadjamerrek taught one of his son's how to paint by a traditional informal apprenticeship. He uses art as a basis for all his teachings. From his career documenting and painting rock art, he inspired many to travel to the region and formally document the paintings and culture of their ancestors to be preserved and taught to others in greater Australia. His legacy continues to be a source of inspiration for many people in the Western Arnhem Land region. Bardayal remained eager to share his knowledge to Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) and Bininj (young indigenous people) to ensure the safety and preservation of the stories of his ancestors and cultural traditions.
In 2008, Nadjamerrek had retired from painting, but his final works were included in the exhibition Continuity: Culture, Country and Family at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne. His pieces hung alongside those of his son Freddie Nadjamerrek, son-in-law Gabriel Maralngurra, and grandchildren Gavin Namarnyilk, Maath Maralngurra, Allan Nadjamerrek, Ray Nadjamerrek, and Simone Nadjamerrek.
Nadjamerrek passed away in 2009.