Kunmanara Bertani was born Peter Bertani in 1958 in Boddington, Western Australia. His father was an Italian immigrant and his mother a Nyoongar woman. In 1980 he moved to Nyapari, a tiny community at the base of the Mann Ranges on the South Australian-Northern Territory border; Nyapari is home to the Stevens family, and Tjungu Palya. In the early 1980s there were no buildings or services, nor an art centre, just ‘wiltja’ (traditional shelters made of branches).

During his early days in Nyapari, Kunmanara was adopted by the late Eileen Stevens, matriarch of Nyapari and master painter. She gave him the name 'Pungkai', which is associated with the sacred water hole, Piltati, just east of Nyapari. It was under this single name that he painted. Through Stevens, he was initiated into Pitjantatjara culture; she became his adoptive mother and her son, Keith Stevens, is now his brother.