I’m saddened by the news overnight of the passing of Mr Jangala Robertson, a wonderful artist from Yuendumu and one of the diminishing core of senior artists based at Warlukurlangu Artists at Yuendumu, a small township 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs.
Jangala passed away peacefully at home last Saturday night surrounded by his family. I was fortunate to live at Yuendumu for a few years in the late 2000s and Jangala — and his group of fiercely loyal dogs — were a fixture at Warlukurlangu, where they would often arrive well before the art centre opened for the day. Jangala would sit waiting in the red dirt, surrounded by his dogs, singing up his country softly to himself.
At the end of the day they could all be seen walking through town — pausing at the Yuendumu Mining Store for supplies and a few yarns — then onward to west camp where he’d lived for the many years, until recently with his Nungarrayi wives and after the last of them passed away, with his extended family.
And always with his dogs like a four-legged gang around him.
Jangala was born around Jila in Warlpiri country to the west of Yuendumu — no-one knows quite when but it was sometime around the dreadful Coniston massacre east of Yuendumu in 1928 — and it was this country that he painted.
The Jukurrpa that Jangala painted most often was Ngapa (water) but he also painted Yankirri (emu) and Pamapardu (flying ant) and Wtiyawarnu (acacia). Like many Warlukurlangu artists he was comfortable with the characteristically bold palette that Yuendumu painters have made their own over the last twenty or so years.
Jangala came very late to his painting and would have been in his seventies when he held his first solo show at the Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne in 2003, the first of many solo and group exhibitions in Australia and across the world to follow. His work is held in all major Australian galleries and collections.
Little is known of Jangala’s early years but these snippets from the exhibition catalogue from his last solo show at the Kate Owen Gallery in Sydney give some insights into his life before he settled at Yuendumu in the late 1960s.
Jangala’s childhood memories consist of stories associated with the Coniston massacre of Aboriginal people and the shooting of families at Wantaparri, which is close to Jila. Jangala had virtually no contact with white fellas during his youth but remembers leaving Jila for Mt Theo ‘to hide’ from being shot.
After his father died at Mt Theo, Jangala moved with his mother to Mt Doreen Station, and subsequently the new settlement of Yuendumu.
During World War II, the army took people from Yuendumu to the other Warlpiri settlement at Lajamanu. Jangala was taken and separated from his mother however she came to get him on foot and together they traveled hundreds of miles back to Chilla Well.
Drought food and medical supplies forced Jangala and his family back to Yuendumu from time to time. His working life was full of adventure and hard work for different enterprises in the Alice Springs Yuendumu area. He finally settled at Yuendumu in 1967 after the Australian Citizen Referendum.
Jangala had a wicked sense of humour and I recall many moments at Warlukurlangu when a raucous cackle of laughter would erupt from the artists painting in the shade of the verandah. I’d look out the window and there would be Jangala, surrounded by his fellow artists — too many now passed — with his trademark cheeky grin shared by those around him.
Staff at Warlukurlangu told me last night that early on Monday morning this week Jangala’s dogs were waiting outside the gates for their best friend to turn up at work.
Hopefully someone will show them the love and devotion they shared with the old man for so many years.