Lofty Nadjamerrek was born and spent his youth at Kukkurlumurl and his clan lands in the Mann River region of Western Arnhem Land. It was amongst these rocky outcrops and caves, where they camped during the wet season, that Bardayal’s father, Yanjorluk, taught him the art of rock painting. Indeed a number of Yanjorluk and Bardayal’s earliest cave paintings survive to this day, in the Kodwalehwaleh region of the Djordi clan estate.
Bardayal left Arnhem Land as a teenager, migrating to the tin mining region of Maranboy, a two hundred kilometer walk to the south. He worked at the mine, where his European boss dubbed him Lofty, a reference to his tall stature, until the mine’s collapse in the face of the Federal Government’s equal pay legislation. Prior to this time Indigenous workers were paid in rations and tobacco. Bardayal then took up stock work on various cattle stations until the onset of WWII. He left for the bush at one point, but was promptly brought back and forcibly made to work at the Army’s Stirling Mill near Mataranka. ‘We had to work, we were all frightened, there was nothing we could do and all that working has given me grey hair‘ (cited in West 1995: 8). With the end of the war Lofty returned to his clan lands and then into Oenpelli (Gunbalanya), where he worked as a buffalo-shooter. He married Mary Kalkiwarra who gave birth to three of their eight children there.
Though a number of anthropologists had visited Oenpelli and collected paintings on bark beginning with Sir Baldwin Spencer in 1912, it was not until Peter Carrol had arrived that bark paintings were created ‘commercially’. Encouraged by Carol’s energy and enthusiasm, his linguistic interest in the culture, and a policy of paying 60% ‘up-front’ for bark paintings, Bardayal began to paint in earnest from 1969 onward. Even though there was a significant international demand for bark paintings at this time no ‘official’ art centre existed in Oenpelli until 1989. Between 1970 and 1987 the Aboriginal Development Commission’s Aboriginal Arts and Crafts, later renamed Aboriginal Arts Australia, exhibited bark paintings in its galleries located in each of the capital cities. Lofty’s bark paintings were a familiar mainstay, and ‘field operatives’ including Dorothy Bennett aided in their collection and documentation, with additional works being sent to dealers such as Jim Davidson in Melbourne and emerging privately owned outlets such as Sydney’s Coo-ee and Hogarth Galleries. During this period Lofty’s career continued to blossom and receive recognition in group shows that focused on the art of the ‘Stone Country’ and the Oenpelli region in particular. By this time, with the encouragement toward self-determination initiated by the Whitlam government, Bardayal had moved from Oenpelli and lived at a number of outstations, before establishing his own at Malkawo in 1980. Tragically, in 1988 the family Lofty had been living with was shot, and this preempted his move to Kamarrkawarn, in his mother’s country on the Mann River, where he and his family resided until his death in October 2009.
The establishment of Injalak Arts at Gubalanya in 1989 finally brought about the recognition that Lofty deserved, as one of the community's most significant artists. His subjects range across a wide array of secular and spiritual themes. Bardayal’s style is firmly seated within Western Arnhem Land conventions, with figurative elements contained within an unadorned red, brown or black ochre background. His predominantly white figures are in-filled with a combination of X-ray details of their internal organs and his own uniquely identifiable cross-hatched (rarrk) patterns. The design elements in his work differ from other Western Arnhem Land painters of his generation, such as Mick Kubarkku, with whom he is strongly associated since the important 1995 landmark exhibition Rainbow, Sugarbag and Moon - The Art of Mick Kubarkku and Bardayal Nadjamerrek. The exhibition was mounted by the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. While both of these artists styles are related to the rock art tradition, Bardayal confines his in-fill patterns to red parallel lines, that are more closely associated with these conventions, than the geometric body paint designs from which Kubarkku derives his own unique cross-hatching. Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, praises him for his ‘ sure draughtsmanship and sense of proportion, the mark of a great artist‘ and concludes, that his ‘ power of outline, not the patterning within each figure, is what transmits life to the compositions‘ (1990: 80).
During the later part of his life Lofty continued to paint, most notably on Arches paper due, no doubt, to the difficulty of collecting suitable bark. Despite a long and enduring career, it is only since 2005 that solo exhibitions of his work were organized by Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne and Annandale Galleries in Sydney. However the group shows that he participated in were many and various since his first exhibition in 1975 at the Meadow Brook Art Gallery in Rochester, Michigan. In 1982 one of his paintings was used on the Australian 40c stamp, and in 1999 he won the Telstra Work on Paper Art Award at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, having been an entrant many times since the first Award was given in 1984. Furthermore, after a lifelong legacy of creativity, in 2004 he was a richly deserving recipient of the Order of Australia for his lasting contribution to Australian culture.