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A map of rich desert stories

Peter Murray

The Ngurrara Great Sandy Desert Canvas is a vibrant and powerful map of Country quite unlike any other. Forget the one dimensional simplicity of road maps, topographical maps or resource maps—this canvas was originally painted to support the Ngurrara native title claim in 1997 and it contains stories and information about the desert: about water, plants, songs and ceremonies. 

Apart from a few rare exhibitions, including at the National Museum of Australia, the 10 metres by 8 metres canvas has been stored in a box in the archives of Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, WA. 

But all this is about to change. 

Terry Murray, a curator with Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) and the Deputy Chairperson of Mangkaja Arts, was the youngest artist to work on the canvas. With involvement from Mangkaja Arts and Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation, he is working with the other artists and authorised family members of deceased artists toward forming a management committee. The committee will then set a clear path forward to preserving, exhibiting and sharing the impressive canvas. 

Mr Murray says it’s time to develop a vision for the canvas that will benefit all Ngurrara people—young and old. “We’re hoping the canvas can bring Ngurrara people together and that we can use it to celebrate our culture. This canvas, this map, is about our family connections, our connection to country and our shared history. It belongs to everyone,” Mr Murray says.

Joseph (Japarti) Nugget was one of the senior artists who worked on the canvas. He says, “There are special icons painted on this canvas. It shows particular places for people to understand the importance of country and the connection with land and culture.”

Tommy (Ngarraltja) May, another senior artist who worked on the canvas, says, “Everything on this canvas is important.” He painted a Dreamtime story based on how two men met during law time. The story was about getting taught by the elders to pass on the knowledge of their journey. 

It’s a moving, meaningful document, and not just for the Ngurarra painters and people. 

“A couple of years ago, when we were in Perth, a young couple approached the canvas. They looked at it for a while and then they both started to cry. We were actually shocked by the power of it. The power of the layers and what these layers contain.”

Mr Murray says that once the management committee has been formalised there are plans in the pipeline for the canvas to be exhibited in other parts of Australia. There are also plans for it to be used locally, as a teaching tool for school students, and as a draw card for tourists visiting the Fitzroy Valley. 

“It’s been great to have Mangkaja as a safekeeping place but now it’s time to bring the canvas out of its box. It’s so dense and it’s so rich and it’s a way of bringing Ngurrara people together, so we can stand strong and united.”

Keep your eyes on for more updates on what next for the Ngurrara canvas!