Australia

Painting inspired by artist's late brother wins $50k prize at top Indigenous art awards

Western Australian artist Ngarralja Tommy May. Source: Damian Kelly/MAGNT

Australia’s longest-standing Indigenous art exhibition has moved online this year, with Western Australian artist Ngarralja Tommy May taking out the top prize.

Western Australian artist Ngarralja Tommy May has been crowned the overall winner at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. 

The Wangkajunga and Walmajarri man the received a $50,000 cash prize at the digital-only event - the first time it has not been held in-person since launching 37 years ago due to coronavirus restrictions. 

The winning artist was born in Yarrkurnja in the Great Sandy Desert and said he uses art as a way to educate, inspire and show his love for country.

All 65 finalists have their work on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin.
All 65 finalists have their work on display in Darwin.
Charlie Bliss/MAGNT

"The painting was inspired by my late brother. I also painted it to tell stories to the younger generation," he told SBS News.

"This work is 'Wirrkanja', it's the country where I lost my brother, it's jilji [sand dune] country and flat country.

"There's a jila [living spring waterhole] there. It's not far from Kurtal, over two sand dunes, and in flood time the water runs down the jilji. This is my country and my family's country."

Made from enamel paint and etchings on tin, the winning artwork shows the flow of the jila, or living water, that flows in that country after the rain falls.

Kurtal is where the artist's brother was born.

Made from enamel paint and etchings on tin, the winning artwork shows the flow of the jila or living water that flow in that country after the rain falls.
The winning artwork.
Merinda Campbell/MAGNT

This year, the ceremony at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin drew a small crowd with artists forced to accept their awards via video.

Of the finalists, winner of the multimedia award Siena Mayutu Wurmarri Stubbs was the only artist to attend the event.

Ms Stubbs is from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory and made a video of her trip to Japan soundtracked with a poem she wrote.

Siena Mayutu Wurmarri Stubbs was the only artist to attend the event she is from Yirrkala in the Northern Territory and made a video of her trip to Japan.
Siena Mayutu Wurmarri Stubbs was the only artist to attend the event.
Charlie Bliss/MAGNT

She said the video was a moment of thought and reflection she had after a busy overseas trip following the death of her grandmother.

"This is actually such an incredible opportunity to have this happen at this stage in my life. It's very special and it's just a start, I guess," she said.

"One of the reasons I've blossomed creatively is because my family really encouraged me to be myself.

"My sister was a dancer, my brother was a musician, my mother was a backup singer for Yothu Yindi, my dad is an art curator and my grandfather was a journalist. I feel like they nurtured me to do what I love."

The museum’s assistant curator for art Clare Armitage said a virtual gallery is a great way to allow people to access this rare and beautiful work.
The museum’s assistant curator for art, Clare Armitage.
Charlie Bliss/MAGNT

The digital edition of the show is an initiative to help make the event more accessible amid the pandemic. 

All 65 finalists have their work on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and for the first time, a virtual gallery is being used to display the work to people across the world. 

The museum's assistant curator for art, Clare Armitage, said it is a great way to allow people to see the rare work, saying it's been a silver lining to the pandemic.

Finalists include 25 from the NT, 16 from WA, 16 from SA and 8 from QLD, NSW, ACT and Victoria.
Finalists include 25 from the Northern Territory.
Charlie Bliss/MAGNT

"One of the most exciting things about developing the online show is thinking about how we might be able to do it for other exhibitions and continue to make shows more accessible," she said. 

Finalists include 25 from the Northern Territory, 16 from Western Australia, 16 from South Australia and eight from Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria.

Other winners include Adrian Jangala for the general painting award, Marrnyula Munungurr for bark painting, Illuwanti Ken for the paper award, Jenna Lee for the 3D memorial award and Cecilia Umbagai for the emerging artist award.

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