Andayin/Gija language. Born c.192O. Died 2OO8.
Ngarra was the quintessential outsider. To his peers, he was a figure of singular importance, whose knowledge of culture, law and mythology were unparalleled. To those intimate with his art, he was one of the great visionaries of recent times. In the last 14 years of his life, he had a distinguished career as an artist. He exhibited widely throughout Australia and overseas, his works were acquired by numerous public collections and he was a five-time finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. And yet, he remained something of an unheralded master in his lifetime. It is only now that the magnitude of his artistic legacy is finally coming into view. Ngarra was born in 192O on Glenroy Station in the west Kimberley. As a young orphan, he ran away from the station to join his grandparents Muebyne and Larlgarbyne. These old men had not reconciled with the pastoral industry; speaking Andayin and Gija, they lived traditionally in the Mornington Range, upholding their customs, laws and ceremonies. The education they provided set Ngarra apart from his contemporaries, most of whom were living on the cattle stations, and made him one of the most important ceremonial leaders of his generation. In 1994, Ngarra started painting, first with natural ochres, before shifting to acrylic paints when old age and infirmity made collecting and grinding ochre physically impossible. He shone as a master colorist, mixing his own palette to stunning effect. Ngarra’s paintings are a vast repository of ancient knowledge, but they are equally defined by their visual inventiveness, humor and wit. His privileged cultural position meant that he felt free to innovate and adapt his imagery for visual or allegorical effect. Working in isolation, he experimented at an extraordinary pace. He was prepared to work across numerous subjects: from designs embedded in deep, spiritual content, to whimsical images of station life. In 2OOO, Ngarra was given a survey exhibition at the Western Australian Museum. His works are held in numerous public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Museum Victoria.