“Thank you mob in Darwin for this business. Thank you. At last. I feel proud. I’ve been trying all my life, all the time second, fourth, last, sometimes nothing. But I got it now, today. My day, my time this year, I’m the winner. At last”.

That was the glorious response of the 2020 ‘Big Telstra’ winner, 85-year-old Ngarralja Tommy May to his triumph in his third appearance in the finals of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards after many more entries. It surely reveals how important this event is for artists; and how competitive they are to win an award there.

The late Tommy May was a Wangkajunga and Walmajarri man, born in the Great Sandy Desert. He painted, danced and sang Kurtal, a ceremony relating to the main jila/waterhole in his Country. In Steve Hawke’s A Town is Born, Ngarralja speaks about his journey away from this Country: “I was big when I left my Country. I was already hunting by myself”. May was, in fact, one of the last of his people to head out of the desert to work on the cattle properties of The Kimberley around Fitzroy Crossing. As a result, he added, “I know these stories and these places in my Country. I paint these now. I first saw paintings in caves. I was living all around in my Country, camping all around. Wurna juwal, always moving. I learned a lot from people, mostly my father and grandfather. When I paint I think about this”.

Intriguingly, the earlier art he created for his 1993 debut in the NGV’s ‘Ímages of Power’ exhibition of art from across The Kimberley, his first NATSIAA appearance in 2001, for the land-claiming Ngurrara Canvas, and for the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the National Museum was quite different. But in 2013, he attended a workshop with the Melbourne Blak artist, Reko Rennie, was given a posca pen and a fluoro board to mark on to, and his development into a master of creating images of rain, rocks and sand dunes on Country with an infinite variety of scratched lines began. “My work is now like my drawing for printmaking, straight on to the tin, sometimes wood, using a knife or pens. I work every day”.

Mr May was one of the first people to start up the Karrayili Adult Education Centre because he wanted to learn to read and write his own language and English. And he went on to found the Mangkaja Art Centre. Ngarralja admits he wasn’t a very good painter at the beginning. They were all just learning. But they knew forming a Western-style commerce system through cultural entrepreneurship was essential to meeting the basic needs of their families. The overarching goal was forming organisational structures for the future of all Indigenous people. Ngarralja was part of a group that travelled the country making history in this way, creating the Indigenous art sector as we now know it.

He went on to become Mangkaja’s Deputy Chair as well as the chairman of Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, and being a director for twenty-one years of the Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists. Mangkaja responded by printing an exclusive Tommy May T-Shirt featuring by one of his recent artworks.

Unfortunately, as 2020 NATSIAA judge Stephen Williamson admits, “You do really need to see Tommy’s work in the flesh – it just hums, it vibrates. And my fellow judge, Arnhemland’s Donna Nadjamerrek told us she could feel his Country in the work without ever visiting the deserts”.

Ngarralja’s themes in his painting included Ngarrangkarni (Dreamtime) stories and bush foods from the Great Sandy Desert, Pulany Jirtirl ngapa jila (living waterhole), Louisa Downs country, Yarrngkurrnja hill in the Great Sandy Desert, Mukurrutu waterhole, Purrkarra rockhole and Tali (sandhill), jumu (soakwater) in the Great Sandy Desert.

Experimenting until the end, in 2021 the Art Gallery of WA commissioned a sculptural work from Ngarralja Tommy May. Warla, Flat Country (2021), his first foray into sculpture. Made in collaboration with a Perth-based manufacturer, Warla, Flat Country is a three-metre wide golden cloud made from laser-cut brass suspended from the ceiling, with brass chains mimicking rain descending to the floor. The concept was developed through a retrospective analysis of the artist’s rain cloud artworks made on tin. Ngarralja wanted a bold, shiny finish, both indicative of shimmering rain and the grandiose of his personal narrative. Tracing a life lived through two world views, the final artwork was a monument to Ngarralja’s story and his importance in Australian art history.

Url: http://www.mangkaja.com/content/ngarralja-tommy-may

Artist: Ngarralja Tommy May, Reko Rennie, Donna Nadjamerrek,

Category: Blog , Feature , Industry , News , OBIT ,

Tags: art gallery of wa , Donna Nadjamerrek , Jeremy Eccles , Kurtal , Mangkaja Art Centre , ngarralja tommy may , reko rennie ,