FX to NYC — Tommy Ngarralja May at the Outsider Art Fair

Design / Life

From the remote Western Kimberley to the global epicentre of contemporary art.

It feels surreal that just a few months ago I was pushing a wheelchair around New York City in the snow. What a time to be alive!

I work as a consultant across a broad section of the contemporary arts sector. Part curator, art consultant, producer and arts development specialist, I am passionate about WA. We have an incredibly diverse and cutting-edge contemporary art movement in our backyard, we are only just scratching the surface. Through the work we do, we hope to help shift the accepted wall space for remote community artists through projects that agitate the space between what is known and what is unknown. In a rapidly changing field, what happens next will be significant. This could be our post-modern Jackson Pollock moment!

Most of my work involves visioning with remote artists and their organisations. Some artists dream big, some artists dream small. No two dreams are the same. It’s my job to rationalise those dreams and chart a fairly simple pathway to achieving them. Together, we assess what is possible and the associated actions that need to happen creatively and financially to deliver. Sounds simple right?

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in Fitzory Crossing where senior Mangkaja Artist and cultural leader, Tommy Ngarralja May is a studio regular. I used to live in Warakurna and speak pretty ok Ngaanyatjarra and he does too (among other languages).

Tommy would make me get out my laptop and google all the places that he had been to in his life; London, Salt Lake City, Texas, Virginia,  Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Whitby- the list went on. Eventually, he asked that I secured him an exhibition in NYC and that he would attend.

I really did think he was dreaming!

Not because he wasn’t capable, but because I had no idea how to secure a show in NYC, it’s not really that easy. Tommy, as a senior lore man and experienced consultant himself, was charting his own fairly simple pathway to NYC.  His sheer certainty and unwavering belief were integral to the delivery of the project.

To really explain who Ngarralja is would take a lifetime – a book about his life is near completion. Ngarralja Tommy May is a Wangkajunga/Walmajarri desert man. He was born at Yarrnkurnja in the Great Sandy Desert in 1934 and walked out of the desert as a young adult.

His personal story is a complex mix of his lived experiences, the Dreamtime, his ties to place and, the station movement in the Kimberley that took many desert men from their families into forced labour on stations. Tommy’s complex visual language is as much a protest for listeners as it is undocumented history. Ngarralja was a founding Director of Mangkaja Arts and has been on the board of Mangkaja since its incorporation over 20 years ago. He was former Chairman of Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre (KALACC). Ngarralja was also an executive for twenty-one years on the Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA) Board of Directors.

So, when he asks you to do something, you have to do it.

I was taking the minutes at the 2019 Mangkaja AGM; the room was packed and it was about 47 degrees. The formidable Mr May stood up to address the audience, in front of everyone in the building he points to me and says “and that manga (woman) is taking me to New York in January”.  I was sweating hard. We had been knocked back on an Ozco grant and it was now almost Christmas. The manager of Mangkaja, Belinda Cook and I decided that we had to somehow make a miracle happen – a Christmas miracle.

Convincing funding bodies that it’s a good idea to take an 87-year-old to New York from Fitzroy Crossing is no small feat. However, with the support of the DCA and two major philanthropists, we made it happen.  Timing is everything; the day we were scheduled to leave, it rained for the first time in two years. “Little rain” Tommy said. That little rain became a cyclone that we drove through. The planes to Perth were cancelled the next day as the weather got worse – it already felt like the longest journey of my life.

The journey there took over a week and every day we thought; this is WILD! The team consisted of Mangkaja staff member Illiam Nargoodah and Belinda Cook, the business manager of Mangkaja Arts. We

collaborated with Creative Growth and shared a booth at the Outsider Art Fair. Creative Growth is a global leader in their field and are known to be specialists in placing non institutional work into main stream collections.

The Outsider Art Fair (OAF) was founded in New York in 1993; it is the original art fair concentrating specifically on self-taught art, and exhibits works by acknowledged masters, as well as contemporary figures. Quickly recognized for its maverick spirit, OAF played a vital role in building a passionate collecting community and broader recognition for outsider art in the contemporary art arena.

Visiting MOMA was the highlight of my trip, taking Tommy to see the modern masters in the world’s most famous institution. Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Ernst; all the biggest names in art history. However, Tommy

looked unimpressed, Belinda and I kept saying; “this is one of the most famous paintings, this is worth millions of dollars”. As we stood in front of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, I could not believe my eyes! Tommy started to shake his head and he utters; “very rough, too rough”. We weren’t sure if he was joking. We waited in line to look at Starry Night; a tiny work that everyone crowds around. When we got to the front he glanced at the work and turned to us and says;

“I’ve had enough, too many dead kartiya, I don’t wanna look at any more dead kartiya art (white person). Take me out of here”.

Which I really thought was so hilarious- it perfectly summarises the modern art movement, what hangs on our gallery walls, who dictates the story– the glorification of dead white man’s art. That short sentence debased my entire arts degree- my entire philosophy surrounding the history of art.

To Tommy, Western Desert cosmology is modern and contemporary. The paradox of Picasso’s rough brush strokes made whilst looking at African boards; times are changing –Tommy was so on point, as usual.

For all 2020 is and will be we will forever remember travelling to NYC in January, in the snow from Fitzroy Crossing. All in all, the trip was successful with sales, networking and galleries. After many years doing what we do, we can now finally see a space for living artists work within the world’s most competitive artistic market.

Wild world!