Proud his time has come

Country and family provide inspiration for Ngarralja Tommy May, winner of the major Telstra art award

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INSPIRED BY FAMILY AND COUNTRY: Ngarralja Tommy May has won the 2020 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Photo: Damian Kelly

INSPIRED BY FAMILY AND COUNTRY: Ngarralja Tommy May has won the 2020 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Photo: Damian Kelly

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Indigenous artist Ngarralja Tommy May wins 2020 major Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

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In the Great Sandy Desert there's jila, a living spring waterhole. In flood time, the water runs down the jilji (sand dunes) and around the rocks.

It's place of significance for Indigenous artist Ngarralja Tommy May and, along with memories of his late brother, is the inspiration for his artwork, Wirrkanja 2020, which won this year's major Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

Mr May is a Wangkajunga and Walmajarri man born in Yarrkurnja in the Great Sandy Desert in 1935.

He dances and sings Kurtal, a ceremony relating to the main jila in his country.

He is also a painter and printmaker and now lives with his family at the Mindi Rardi Community at Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia.

His winning entry is comprised of etching on metal and enamel paint. Award judges described it as a triumphant artwork symbolising the artist at the height of his creative powers.

"This work is Wirrkanja," Mr May said. "It's the country where I lost my brother; it's jilji country and flat country. There's a jila there. It's not far from Kurtal, over two sand dunes.

"In flood time, the water runs down the jilji. This is my country and my family's country.

"This is about my country. There's clay pan near to Kurtal. It's also called Helena Springs, a well on the Canning Stock Route. My brother was born here."

Mr May said he was "big" when he left his country. "I was already hunting by myself. I was with my young brother and my mother. My father had passed away by this time."

He first saw paintings in caves and said he learned a lot from people, mostly his father and grandfather.

"I was living all around in my country, camping all around. Wurna juwal, always moving," he said.

"When I paint I think about this. My work is now like my drawing for printmaking - straight onto the tin, or sometimes wood, using a knife or pens.

"I work every day, and I've travelled a lot with the paintings - Singapore, Houston, Washington D.C., like that."

On his award win, Mr May said he felt proud.

"I've been trying all my life, all the time second, fourth, last, sometimes nothing. But I got it now, today. My days, my time this year; I'm the winner. At last."

Mr May is fluent in Wangkajunga, Walmajarri and English and writes Walmajarri.

He is a founding member of the Karrayili Adult Education Centre where he learnt to read and write his own language and English.

He has been deputy chairman of the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency Aboriginal Corporation, chairman of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre and was a member of the Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists Board of Directors for 21 years.

"With an artistic career spanning more than three decades Ngarralja Tommy May's triumphant artwork symbolises the artist at the height of his creative powers," the judges said.

"This work announces itself with exquisite beauty and power in the signature style Mr May has pioneered in recent years.

"This master stroke is sophisticated and intricate and shimmers with the life-giving force of the living water that nourishes the artist's country and its people."

Mr May's prize was $50,000.

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