Born April 1958, Boddington, W.A. Died 25 February 2017, Ceduna, S.A.
It is with great sadness that we must inform you of the sudden death of Kunmanara (Pungkai) Bertani. I'm still trying to come to terms with this and it is difficult to write these words. Only two weeks ago, he and I had been exchanging photos and comments about new pieces he was working on. One of his messages was tinged with sadness about the pressures the old people were experiencing with modern bush life, that many were getting frail and dying and he was missing WA. After working closely with him for 9 years, his death is heartbreaking news.
Kunmanara was born Peter Bertani to an Italian father and a Balladong Nyoongar mother. He was the eldest of five children.
Kunmanara grew up in Boddington, W.A. This sacred place was a subject of some of his works; it is now the site of one of the largest gold mines in Australia. His Boddington paintings represent the open cut mine, at the centre of which is the sacred men's stone that has not been seen since the miners moved in.
Boddington as a subject perhaps encapsulates best the uneasy relationship he had with mining. As a young man, he worked at the mine and assisted the surveyors. He said to me once that he understands that we need mining, so in that sense he was not anti-mining. But he was angry and sad at the destruction of Country that mining brought, and the toxic rubbish that is left behind when a mine closes. More recently, he was resentful of the way mining companies used money to divide the young and old within communities. He believed it was how the miners "divided and conquered".
In the early 1980s, he moved for a period of time to Nyapari and was adopted by the Stevens family. Back then, there were no buildings and the founding of Tjungu Palya, where he started his painting career, was still about 20 years away. Kunmanara E. Stevens took him under her wing and gave him his Pitjantjatjara name, which became his artist name too. Kunmanara's brother, senior Law man and Tjungu Palya artist Keith Stevens, took him through the Law and remained an important influence in his life.
Kunmanara Bertani was again living at Nyapari for a short period when Kunmanara E. Stevens died. Feeling that the community had become too sad, he left Nyaparyi and settled in Ceduna. He began painting for Ceduna Aboriginal Arts & Cultural Centre in 2008 until early 2014, at which point he decided to work independently. He continued to express his Aboriginal culture through tjukurrpa paintings relating to Piltadi, Tali Tjuta and Nyoongar stories.
From 2013, he started becoming more overtly political in paintings such as One Land One Law, Colour My Country, Longa Longa Time, I bin Mine My Business, Now Everyone Cummin Mine My Business, and El Dorado, "I know it's here, somewhere?" He had expressed many times in recent years the need to speak more openly through his art about the dire political, social and economic situations still faced by many Aboriginal people. He really wanted to see a united Australia.
Kunmanara's paintings possess the power to transfix and amaze people. In all the years we exhibited his work, I rarely came across anyone who was not impressed by it. His large works are particularly awe-inspiring. He described the feeling of painting the large works as "being on Country". Painting gave him the means to travel back to Country no matter where he was. I once joked with him that he must be channeling his Italian heritage as well because the arched patterning of his dots occasionally looked like Roman mosaics. He laughed and said that had never occurred to him. He was proud of his Italian heritage and boasted of being a gourmet bush cook who liked a good coffee with his roasted kangaroo tail; his grandmother called him Pedro.
During his career, Kunmanara's works were acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia, Artbank, Adelaide Airport Limited, Edith Cowan University, Lipman Karas Adelaide, London & Hong Kong, W. & V. McGeoch Collection, Lagerberg Swift Collection, Marshall Collection, and Merenda Collection. Numerous other works are in private collections around Australia and internationally. We are deeply grateful to each and every one of you who supported him. It gave him great pride to know his works were out in the world and his most fervent hope was that through them, people would come to love and respect his culture and Country as much as he did.
Our thoughts are with Kunmanara's Nyoongar, Italian and Pitjantjatjara families - especially his partner and seven children - and his communities and friends in WA and SA during this very sad time. I would like to acknowledge the tremendous support that Pam Diment in Ceduna gave him throughout his time there.
We have had the immense privilege of being his sole gallery representative at his request since 2008. I will remember him for his wicked sense of humour, his "take no prisoners" politics, his cultural advocacy, our long colourful conversations, and of course, his beautifully stirring art. He was a talent lost too soon.
Image: Kunmanara P. Bertani, Nyapari Ngura Wiru, 2012 acrylic on canvas H179.8 x W278.9 cm.