Vale Kunmanara Williams

Known for repurposing Australian Post mailbags as political artworks, Kunmanara Williams leaves an incredible legacy as a Land Rights activist, Aboriginal elder, pastor and celebrated artist.
Vale Kunmanara Williams

Kunmanara Williams, Kamantaku Tjukurpa wiya. (The Government doesn’t have Tjukurpa), 2018; Installation view The National 2019: New Australian Art at MCA; image courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts © the artist/Copyright Agency, 2019, photograph: Jacquie Manning

One of the most spectacular artworks in The National 2019: New Australian Art, unveiled this weekend at the Museum of contemporary Art Australia (MCA), is an expansive six-meter painting on Australian Post Mail Bags stretched on traditional spears, by the late Kunmanara Williams (1952-2019).

ADVERTISEMENT

For many, it was sad news to learn of Mr Williams passing just two weeks prior to the exhibition. He was just 56.

Anna Wattler, Manager of Mimili Maku Arts where Mr Williams worked, wrote in a formal statement: ‘Despite the fact he spent much of the past twelve months in hospital, he continued to fervently work towards his biggest projects to date. Mr Williams realised his largest and most political artwork, reflecting his resolute desire to be heard. This desire equally manifested in Kulinmaya!, a book project that continued to grow with his ambitions and deep knowledge. Mr Williams had much to say, and we better all listen up.

‘Sadly, he will not be witness to the unveiling of his work as part of The National at the MCA, or the launch of his book Kulinmaya! later this year. However, his powerful voice and legacy remain for us to heed.’

The 240-page bilingual book will be published by Allen & Unwin and is scheduled for release in August.

Among the tributes rolling out, Mr Williams has been described as an ‘extraordinary artist and thinker, a fiercely resilient leader with ardent passion, devotion and creativity.’

Wattler continued in her tribute: ‘Mr Williams was many things to us, amongst them a brave leader, a political activist, the pastor of the Mimili Community church, a skilled orator, a ngankari (traditional healer), an extraordinary contemporary artists, and last but not least – a dear friend.’

His work with the church took him around the world in 1970, visiting Israel, England, India, Europe and America. After returning to the APY lands Williams worked as a carpenter building houses in Ernabella.

While for most in the art world Kunmanara Williams has been long celebrated for his incredible talent as an artist, for Mr Williams a political conscience and art making were inseparable. He was active in the APY Land Rights movement that led to the signing of the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 and the return of land to Anangu.  

Indeed the very painting that has been celebrated this week at the MCA, Kamantaku Tjukurpa wiya. (The Government doesn’t have Tjukurp) (2018), is emblazoned with the text:

Maruku Tjukurpa titutjara alatjitu ngaranyi tjitji malatja malatja tjutaku kulu Tjukurpa kunpu alatjitu Kamanta ngunti walytjaringanyi munu manta Tjukurpa kurani. Kunta wiyangku alatjitu.Manta nyanga miilmiilpa tjara wantima tjawantja wiyangku. Kulinma, munuya pitjala nyangama wati tjilpi tjutangku atunytju kanyilpai. Ruta palyantja wiyangku manta miilmiilpa wanungku nganampa Tjukurpa kurani. Kamantaku Tjukurpa wiya. Nganampa manta. Nganampa Tjukurpa. Nganampa ara. Tjukurpa miilmiilpa tjara.

Black skinned Aboriginal people have always had powerful Tjukurpa Dreaming law and have passed it down through generations since time began. The government simply cannot claim ownership of this land and must never destroy cultural heritage sites. The shame of it. Do not destroy sacred sites or dig up the land around them. Listen, if you come here, you must accept that the law of our land is under the control of our senior men. Do not plan to build roads in the vicinity of sacred sites, because of the risk of destroying Tjukurpa. The government doesn’t have Tjukurpa. This is our land. Our Tjukurpa. Our cultural heritage. Our Tjukurpa is sacred. (1)

MCA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibition, Clothilde Bullen: 'I had the privilege of working with Kunmanara Williams and the Mimili Maku community for many years. When I was told that he had passed I was truly devastated at the loss of this significant human and senior Tjilpie with enormous cultural knowledge.  His leadership throughout the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands was critical to the success of the return of native title to the Anangu people and the ongoing success of the Mimili Maku community art centre.

'His last, most significant work, is currently on display as part of The National 2019 exhibition at the MCA. The staggering 6-metre-long painting is his most direct political statement yet ... Kunmanara Williams was a stalwart in speaking plainly and honestly about the history of this country, and in doing so utilised his practice and art for both activism and advocacy.'

It was a sentiment shared by Nici Cumpston, Artistic Director TARNANTHI and Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Art Gallery of South Australia who has also worked closely with Mr Williams for a number of years.

Cumpston said of Mr Williams’ early passing: ‘Kunmanara Williams was deeply respected for his strength of character and his ability to convey important political statements through his subversive works of art. His formidable work Tjukurpa Kunpu Malapa (Strong Law and Culture) was a highlight in TARNANTHI 2017 and was subsequently acquired by the Gallery.

‘Claiming his rightful ownership over his manta (land), he painted and wrote in Pitjantjatjara across Australia Post canvas mail bags which are suspended and hung from kulata (spear), an ongoing cultural practice and sign of defence for Anangu.’

Leading in to that Tarnanthi work, Mr Williams had an incredible year professionally in 2016, which was a turning point in his career. He was a finalist in the 33rd Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and at the Vincent Lingiari Art Award at Tangentyere Artists Gallery, Alice Springs. He also featured in the major survey exhibition Nganampa Kililpil – Our Stars at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, Gymea, New South Wales later that year in October (2016).

Last year, he was a finalised in the 2018 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, with a collaborative work made with Willy Muntjantji Martin and Sammy Dodd.

Alongside his own work in that Hazelhurst show, Mr Williams also contributed to a major collaborative painting that was presented in the exhibition  the first time that men from across the APY Lands came together to paint a collaborative work.

From Country, visiting Amata, Skye O'Meara, manager of the APY Art Centre Collective in Sydney sent her tribute: ‘Kunmanara William's leadership encompassed the entire APY region.’

She said that until the very end of his life, Mr Williams was a leader and driver of the APY Arts Movement – a director of Mimili Maku Arts and a founding member and director of the APY Art Centre Collective, and driver of the regional Kulata Tjuta project (Many Spears Project).

O’Meara continued: ‘Mr Williams was a devoted teacher, he was relentless in his commitment to provide the younger generations of Anangu across the lands with a future of better health and opportunities. Mr Williams believed Art Centres will be the vehicle to end disadvantage in APY communities. His legacy is his politically potent and powerful artwork that has been acquired by Museums in Australia and abroad. His spirit will live on in his country and in the younger generations who will take on his work.’

Williams was instrumental in the incorporation of Mimili Maku Arts in 2010 as an independent Aboriginal-owned and governed organisation.

Nyunmiti Burton, one of the Directors alongside Mr Williams for APY Art Centre Collective added: ‘He was a strong man, with a strong political vision and voice. He represented our people, holding and protecting our culture strong for future generations. It is their turn now to carry his story and Mr Williams has taught them well. He was a man who worked hard for everyone else his whole life and now it is his time to rest. Rest in peace Tjilipe (old man).’  

Kunmanara Williams was born in 1952 between Kenmore Park and Pukatja in South Australia. He learnt to read and write in Pitjantjatjara and English at the Ernabella Mission School, before working as a cattle stockman.

Alcaston Gallery has supported Mr Williams with commercial exhibitions during his late career. He is survived by his widow, fellow-artist Tuppy Goodwin.

1. Pitjantjatjara text (translated by Linda Rive) from Mumu Mike William’s Kamantaku Tjukurpa wiya. (The Government doesn’t have Tjukurpa.) (2018), included in The National 2019.

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
Instagram: fairleygina