Kurtal Dry, 2014

Ngarralja Tommy May: Jila Kurtal

Ngarralja Tommy May, Jilji and Jila painting
Ngarralja Tommy May, Jila and Jilji, 2015, paint and pen on marine plywood. © Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency

I was big when I left my country. I was already hunting by myself. I was with my young brother and my mother. My father was dead by this time. He passed away in the desert. We walked to the north, to Lampu well [Well 49 on the Canning Stock Route]. We came to old Balgo mission and spent time walking around Old Billiluna Station, Old Balgo Mission and Paraku (Lake Gregory). Countrymen who were already working on the station knew from our warlu (fires) that we were there. We knew about stockmen already. Some were from our family; they gave us bullock meat. After living around there for a good while we walked [west] to Jurnjarti; there’s a jila (spring water) there. We sat down on top of the jilji (sandhill) waiting. We were just bushmen, waiting for damper – we were hungry. They brought a bucket of tea and big mob of damper. 

We kept walking to Tangku Spring. We stayed there for a while then they took us, to take us to school. We came on an old truck; we came with ngarka (pubic covering), no trousers. While we were travelling George Wells, the station manager from Meda came along. He took me to Meda. He was a good manager for me. I got that name May from there [from the May River]. I never got lost. I didn’t go to school then but I learnt how to handle horses and cattle at Meda. I worked around too many places, too many stations, Meda first then the other side of Halls Creek, Wave Hill, Top Springs, Newcastle Waters, Elliot, Eva Downs Station. I didn’t have any countrymen with me. I was working with other people. I was thinking, I have to go back to country. I have family back there, my brother, everyone, uncle and all. Maybe I will get a wife from Wave Hill and I’d never come back. 

I came for a holiday to the mission [in Fitzroy Crossing]. I was only a young man, still single. I went to work on Cherrabun in the stock-camp. I was working one year there still no wife. That’s why I found my wife then, right there at Cherrabun. I stayed for a long time there. After Cherrabun I went to Jubilee. I stayed there a long time too. I was back at Cherrabun then when there was some trouble on the stations and people were walking off: “Come on”, that Tarcoola tell us, “Come on. We go. We not live with this station. He can fix it himself. He can handle it by himself.” Horses and cattle and everything. Get all the young fellas and make a walk. Big walk. Whole lot.”[1] We walked with our swags and camped in Spinifex country. We walked to the highway to wait for help. They picked us up and left us at the Old Bridge. 

We came across the river. Three older men had made a camp where Kurnangki is now. Bunuba people put us right there and we carted water from windmill reserve.[2] There were a lot of my family there, Wangkajunga people, who had been working on Jubilee, Quanbun, Christmas Creek and Cherrabun [Stations]. We had no jobs then. We were lost. One year later I got work at the mission collecting wood. It was hard work, axe work; no chainsaw like today. There were plenty of young men then, no drinking, unless you had a citizenship paper. If you were half-caste you had to live in the kartiya camp, you couldn’t go back to piyirnkura camp.[3] It was like that then. I made my first painting at this time. Ken Neilsen bought it from me I don’t know how much, maybe just a little bit of money. A really long time passed before I painted again. 

I was living at Junjuwa village with my family. Some men got together and started Karrayili so we could learn to read things like letters from government. From Karrayili we started Mangkaja Arts. The first time I went to an exhibition in the city was in Melbourne [Images of Power, National Gallery of Victoria, 1994]. After that I was trying really hard, learning how to paint country. We went to too many exhibitions in Perth, Fremantle, Darwin [NATSIAA] and Broome. One time we went to Canberra [Heritage Commission Art Award, 1993]. Me and Ginger Riley from Boorooloola were winners. I won third prize and he got first, a woman from South Australia came second and fourth was a young bloke from Oenpelli. We went overseas a couple of times too. We went to London and America. We went to Whitby from London. We saw the Captain Cook Museum. We didn’t believe he started from such long way; he started from Whitby when he came to Australia. I also worked with artists from overseas at a workshop at Dingo Flat [south-west WA]. People came from all over the world.

When the word came that we could get our native title to our land, we travelled back to the desert. We went to Kurtal three times. We decided to make a painting for our claim. We made a small one first and then we decided to make a bigger one.[4] That big painting is for Jila people, as evidence for our land claim. Native title is really a blackfella story. I believe that it is about blackfella law. It seems like a wangarta (mad) idea; like us, there are a lot of people fighting for their title. We have to prove if it is our own country or not. It is really piyirnkura (Aboriginal) land. We know exactly how we fit together, we know our own country and we know the right people for the other jila (waterholes). We don’t cut across, we have to go lightly into other people’s country. But in kartiya law we don’t know where we stand. In kartiya law it is all mixed up.[5]

Ngarralja Tommy May telling his story at Jila Kurtal
Ngarralja Tommy May telling his story at Jila Kurtal, 2014. © Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency
Aerial view of Jila Kurtal, Great Sandy Desert
Aerial view of Jila Kurtal, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia, 2014. © Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency

Mangkaja was getting stronger and I went to Sydney and Canberra to let government know what we were doing and to look around for some more money. Then ATSIC asked me to sit on an advisory panel for Intellectual Property. I travelled all around for these meetings. Terry Janke was there talking with us. We started up ANKAAA (now ANKA) 29 years ago. We didn’t have [Djambawa] Marawili as a member then. It was a little bit funny for a while – we weren’t really involved. We had meetings in and around Darwin but it was very weak, they didn’t have strong people. It was up and down, up and down and now it is up again. It is strong now. It has taken a long time to set up the corporation properly. We were trying to get the naming right, to get the words right.

When I was Chairperson we had a lot of old people, karrayili [middle age]. They would come in listening. Young men were there too, like Pedro [Wonaeamirri] and some other Tiwi men. Pedro is a good speaker and singer too. There were Roebourne and Carnarvon people at the first meetings as well. When Marawili first came along to the meetings he was just listening, getting the ideas in his mind. He never came in too rough. He didn’t take over straight away. When I did ask him to take over I stayed with him for one year to make sure. I moved back but I still went back to make sure. He is really good, strong. That is how we handle this business. I know them [the artists and directors]. I used to mix up with people helping them to set up everywhere then. They were listening to Mangkaja. Mangkaja was really strong. I was helping people understand [how to run their art centre].

People in Fitzroy Crossing would ask me “why are you going up and down to Darwin, its wrong country” [for you]. I didn’t believe these people. ANKA was set up for all piyirnwarnti and they are good people too. We all have our story, our background. We all have our own story. This is just some of mine.

Ngarralja Tommy May with Ngaurrara Canvas II, 1997
Ngarralja Tommy May sitting adjacent to his section of Ngurrara Canvas II. Ngurrara was one of the driving forces behind the production of Ngurrara Canvas II in 1997 in support of the Ngurrara people's land claim.


  1. ^ Ngarralja quoted in Steve Hawke, A Town is Born, Magabala Books: Broome, 2013, p. 160. 
  2. ^ Bunuba people are the traditional owners of the land where the township of Fitzroy Crossing is located.
  3. ^ Kartiya and piyirn are Walmajarri words for ‘non-Aboriginal’ and ‘Aboriginal’ respectively. 
  4. ^ Ngurrara Canvas I is in the National Museum of Australia collection in Canberra while the artists, family members and broader claimant group own and; or have ties to Ngurrara Canvas II. The Ngurrara Canvas Mangkaja Group has been formed to manage the on-going care and preservation of the canvas and an associated collection of smaller works. 
  5. ^ Ngurrara Canvas II was used to secure a strong native title determination over a significant portion of the country that is painted on the canvas. While Ngarralja has claim to land within the determined area, Kurtal lies outside. It is still under negotiation. This fact, within a broader story of the Kurtal group, is the subject of the recently released and highly acclaimed film, Putuparri and the Rainmakers (2015,Dir. Nicole Ma).  

Ngarralja Tommy May was born in the Great Sandy Desert. As a youth he was quick to pick up the skills of a stockman. In middle age he was one of the founding members of Karrayili Adult Education Centre and Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency located in Fitzroy Crossing Western Australia. Since the early 1990s his prints and paintings have been exhibited widely. He is now one of the most senior and highly respected members of the Mangkaja Artist group.

The Association of Northern, Kimberley & Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA) officially changed its name to the Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Artists (ANKA) Aboriginal Corporation in 2016.