‘I’m more Australian than Captain Cook will ever be’ – Sydney Morning Herald

“It’s so peculiar to me that Cook is this symbol of national identity when he was not Australian. [He] was not Australian and would never have identified as one, he went back to England and didn’t have the best things to say,” Lee says. “I look around and see the people I know as Australian, all these beautiful multicultural [people].”

“I wanted people to have a conversation around this; I am more Australian than Cook will ever be, so let’s have a conversation about the symbols and the stories we are promoting.”

Detail of Jenna Lee’s HIStory Vessels (2020).Credit:Merinda Campbell

Identity is a theme in several pieces this year. West Australian artist Ngarralja Tommy May won the $50,000 Telstra Art Award for his work Wirrkanja. Judges described the striking black and white piece depicting May’s country, near the Canning Stock Route, as the reflection of an artist at the height of his powers.

A finalist in the NATSIAAs eight times, May, a Wangkajunga and Walmajarri man, draws on tin or wood using a knife or a pen.

“This work is Wirrkanja, it’s the country where I lost my brother, its jilji (sand dune) country and flat country,” May says. “There’s a jila there (living spring waterhole). It’s not far from Kurtal, over two sand dunes. It’s in flood time, the water runs down the jilji (sand dunes).”

Born in Yarrkurnja in the Great Sandy Desert, May has been making art for more than three decades and learnt his craft from his father and grandfather. His work is held in many collections including the prestigious Kluge-Ruhe Museum of Aboriginal Art in Charlottesville, USA, and locally at the NGA, Queensland Art Gallery and the NGV.

Ngarralja Tommy May’s Wirrkanja.Credit:Merinda Campbell

Traditionally announced at a busy time in Darwin’s calendar, running simultaneously with the Darwin Festival and the Darwin Art Fair, the pandemic meant this year’s awards were live-streamed around the country on Friday evening. They were judged by Donna Nadjamerrek, director of Injalak Arts, Darwin based visual artist Karen Mills and Araluen Arts Centre curator Stephen Williamson.

This year’s winners also include Adrian Jangala Robertson for the general painting award; Marrnyula Munungurr for bark painting; Iluwanti Ken for works on paper; Siena Mayutu Wurmarri Stubbs for the multimedia award and Cecilia Umbagai received the emerging artist award.

Artist Ngarralja Tommy May won the Telstra Art Award.

MAGNT assistant curator Clare Armitage said the NATSIAA works speak of many different and specific things. For Armitage, the main threads this year were ideas around resilience, generosity and creativity as a way forward.

You can see the finalists and winners works here.

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