Background and Location
There are more than 100 islands in the Torres Straits covering a total area of over 35,000 square kilometres of which approximately 3% is land, 6% tidal reef flats and 91% mainly shallow open seas.1 38 are inhabited which is home to the 7,000 (2) people living on the islands. There are a further 40,000 (2) Torres Strait Islanders who reside on the Australian mainland. The islands are generally divided in to four groups according to their geographical position and geological make up. The Western Islands comprise Mabuiag (Jervis), Pulu, Badu (Mulgrave) and Moa (Banks) to the North and Waiben (Thursday), Ngurupai (Horn), Muralag (Prince of Wales) and Tuined (Possession) in the South. It is interesting to note that the northern group tend to be referred to by their names in the native Kala Lagaw Ya language while the southern group are far better known by the names given them by the English. The Kala Lagaw Ya language is most closely related to the Pama Nungan language of Indigenous people of Cape York on the Australian mainland. 3 Today however the people generally communicate in the lingua franca of Torres Strait Kriol.
The Western islands of the Torres Straits are in effect a continuation of Australia’s Great Dividing Range which terminates behind the present day Papuan Village of Mabaduan. They are characterised by a weathered granite appearance and are surrounded by extensive mangroves with shallow seas, vast reefs and sandbanks. They contrast to the Eastern island group which are volcanic remnants, while the Northern islands are more recent, being formed from silt deposits from Papuan rivers. Those in the centre of the straits are small having evolved from low lying coral.4 Extensive seagrass beds occur in the Western and Northern areas, the habitat preferred by large numbers of dugongs. The clear waters and coral reefs to the east are rich fishing grounds.
These geological divisions roughly translate in to cultural groupings with the Western islanders leading a hunter gatherer lifestyle relying heavily on the land and mangroves as well as shellfish, dugong and turtle gathered from the surrounding shallow waters. The Northern islanders had greater contact with the people from Papua and were more greatly reliant on the farming of taro and yams. The Central islanders relied heavily on the sea as well as inter island trade while in the East, the rich volcanic soils led to extensive agricultural practice.5
Material Culture – A Recent History
The Torres Straits were named after the first European explorer in the region Luis Vaes de Torres who sailed through the Strait in 1606. He was followed by Captain James Cook who made claim to the area on behalf of the British Crown on what is now known as Bedanug (Posession Island). Cook (1768-71), Bligh and Flinders charted the reef waters prior to colonial expansion in to the region. From the 1860’s European, Polynesian, Malaysian and Japanese traders (amongst others) dived and collected on the reefs and islands for sandalwood, turtle shell, pearl and beche de mer.
By 1880 the entire Torres Straits had been converted to Christianity during, what became known in the islands, as ‘the Coming of the Light’ and as the islanders belief systems changed, so too did their material culture. Artefacts formerly used in ceremonies and rituals were no longer relevant. For the new Christian ceremonies artefacts changed to wooden crucifixes, candlesticks and other objects that indigenised Christian practice.6 so too did the dance costumes. In many cases the missionaries forbade the production and use of traditional artefacts. The production of ceremonial icons was tabooed and eventually ceased.7
The collecting impulse amongst anthropologists, missionaries and museums was zealous and continued unabated until very little material culture remained. All of the pieces collected between 1874 and 1888 by missionary Samuel McFarlane, for instance, sold at auction in London and were divided between three European museums, so that this precious connection to the islander’s past now resides in major cities from London to Dresden, from St. Petersburg to Dublin, as well as a number of mainland Australian museums.8
By far the most prodigious collector was Alfred Cort Haddon whose zeal and scholarship was legendary. In his book published in 1932 he relates his own story of purchasing a dojom (stone effigy), used for the rain making ceremony on the island of Mer, off a man named Gasu. The following day islanders objected to its purchase as it would no longer be available when needed. Haddon recalled, ‘I must confess I felt sorry for Gasu, when he regretted his importunity and wanted his dojom back, but the collecting instinct was stronger than pure sentiment, and I had to inform him that it was by then too late.’ 9
By 1904 the Straits were covered by the draconian powers of the Aborigines Protection Act. However in 1899, due to the work of John Douglas, a process of electing island councils was initiated aimed at loosening the stranglehold of the missionary influence. In the Western islands in particular, where the lifestyle tended toward the nomadic, the council system thrived. 10 In March 2008 the fifteen Torres Strait Islander Councils were amalgamated into a single body to form a Torres Strait Island Regional Council. The Queensland Government is enforcing these planned mergers in the interest of financial viability, accountability and transparency of local Governments throughout the State. Many people in the Islands believe that this move has failed to address the unique position and cultural issues of the Torres Strait.
Throughout the early 20th century Torres Strait Islander men found work in the pearling industry while others sought work on the sugar plantations and the railways of North Queensland. Their success prompted a continuing exodus of islanders to the mainland and the establishment over time of a larger Torres Strait Islander community on the mainland than in the islands themselves.11
Apart from weaving and the production of ephemeral items for particular festive occasions, Torres Strait Islander culture has, during the 20th century, been largely restricted to dance and song. However in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a large group of visual works on paper were produced by islander artists. These had been commissioned by Margaret Lawrie, who was employed by the Queensland State Library. She travelled widely throughout the Torres Straits, supplying men with watercolour paints and paper, and encouraging, collecting and recording their stories to accompany the artworks.12 The paintings visualised aspects of traditional culture and creation myths and legends. The individual paintings however, illustrated only one particular point or incident in much longer narratives and it was not until Dennis Nona began printmaking, as a young art student at Cairns TAFE college in the late 1980’s, that a new style of visual narrative was created which would influence a whole new generation of islander artists.
Art and the Mask
While mainland Aboriginal tribes entered the spirit world through body painting and personal totemic representations during ceremony, pre Christian spirituality amongst Torres Strait Islanders had always been given form through the creation of ritual objects especially ceremonial masks. Masks were, in fact, the focal point of the ritual during which participants sought to transcend the sameness of the everyday through a spontaneous release of inner stress.13
Old anthropomorphic masks collected by Haddon and others from the mid 1800’s were often made of composite pieces of intricately carved turtle shell and included a wide flange around the sides with detailed painting, or incised and unfilled patterning and decoration. The creators of these masks skilfully depicted subtle details of facial structure like the shape of cheekbones, the rise of the forehead, and the elongated ears with distended ear lobes from wearing decorative wooden weights.14 Images of many of these historic objects now in museum collections have been incorporated into the recent works of contemporary artists like Joseph Dorante, and Richard Idagi and in 1990’s printmaking and sculpture by Nona, Alick Tipoti , Andrew Williams, Brian Robinson, David Bosun , Victor Motlop and Billy Missi .
The sgraffito or incising seen in the surrounds of these old masks is also found as decoration on old pearl shell ornaments, drums, bamboo tobacco pipes, stone spinning tops, shell knives and effigies.15 The patterns are specific to each object and tradition, clan and tribal group, and can be interpreted in terms of specific meanings and affiliations. How Torres Strait Islanders relate to one another depends directly on who they are related to by birth. Each island has its own traditional stories and creation myths. The stories are usually accompanied in the telling by a genealogical history which contextualises the listener’s position within the kinship system.16 The incised ornamentation thus acts as a signature of the artist; an embellishment of the meaning of the artwork; and a signifier of the artist’s clan, tribe and place of birth.
Today’s Torres Strait Islander artists can be roughly divided in to traditional community, urban, and traditional/urban artists.17 The artists of the Mualgau Minaral Collective, whose founding members were Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun and Victor Motlop, are considered to be part of the latter grouping. They comprise artists who have studied on the mainland and have gained knowledge of new mediums and techniques which separate their art from strictly traditional artists yet they are vitally concerned with traditional themes as well as interpreting contemporary events. Many of their prints tell an entire creation story while the background patterns specifically place the artwork within their own particular cultural group amongst the many Torres Strait Islander cultures.
While traditional community artists produce works in accordance with established cultural rules with little scope for free play or personal vision, traditional/urban artists such as those of the Mualgau Minaral Collective exhibit a flexibility born of a wider technical repertoire and an exposure to broader artistic influences. Because today’s printmakers are generally young and lack the depth of cultural knowledge of their Elders, they tend to portray changes in the contemporary life of islanders in much the same way as islander dancers, at the end of the nineteenth century, accommodated contemporary events and incidents within their own village communities. These artists also portray stories referenced from traditional histories, interviews with their Elders, and access to old artefacts and pieces illustrated in books or held in various collections to which they are able to gain access. Many of the prints exhibit layers of meaning in a similar way to mainland Aboriginal art. As an example of this, an islander song, collected and translated by Margaret Lawrie, recalling the similarity between water spray thrown up from a rock and the shape of a dhoeri (headress), is indicative of the layers of meaning contained in the visual imagery associated with many of their artworks.18
The artists who worked with Margaret Lawrie in the 1960’s; Ephraim and Ngailu Bani, Segar Passi, Locky Tom and Kala Waia, did not continue to explore their art after their brief flirtation with Western art techniques. 19 This was left to a new generation of artists, the great majority of whom have been trained by attending Indigenous art courses at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Institutes throughout Queensland. The most notable of these was the course started by Anna Eglitis at the Cairns TAFE College and the printmaking facilities that have grown out of it. The influence of these graduates has spawned a vibrant new art movement in much the same way that Jeff Bardon’s art classes in the central desert community of Papunya did in the early 1970’s. The difference being that Bardon worked with old men and Eglitis taught and stimulated a younger generation. To this point in time these artists and their acolytes have produced acrylic paintings and relief prints on archival paper. Several artists, including Dennis Nona, the inaugural leader of the Mualgau Minaral Collective, went on to attend art colleges in larger cities, in Nona’s case the Canberra School of Art and Griffith University in Brisbane. This inevitably meant a period of physical isolation and dislocation from family and friends which was often traumatic. However, concurrent with his exposure to Western art practice and technique, Dennis Nona and others that followed him moved in to the exploration of traditional story telling.
The real challenge has come since their return to their island homes where lack of access to sophisticated printing equipment and technical expertise has meant that precious years have been waisted attempting to persuade local councils to support the establishment of printing facilities within their own communities. Deciding whether to relocate permanently to the mainland or face expensive travel costs incurred by living at home and travelling elsewhere to produce their art, has been a most difficult dilemma.20 A move to redress these problems was made with the establishment of a printmaking facility in the Kubin Community on Moa Island in 2006. All of the more recognised artists have found ways of getting their work produced. Alick Tipoti, who teaches printmaking at Thursday Island TAFE, uses the facilities there to produce some of his editions. Alick Tipoti, Dennis Nona, David Bosun and a number of other artists are having their work editioned in collaboration with Master Printmakers who have studios located in cities such as Darwin, Cairns, Brisbane and Melbourne. In the case of these three artists the editioning process is facilitated by The Australian Art Print Network who represents them as their agent and publisher.
In May 2008 the Queensland Government announced a program, ‘Backing Indigenous Arts’ which will see $10.73 million invested over four years to strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts in communities across Queensland. Art centres on the Torres Strait Islands of Moa and Erub will benefit directly from this imitative.
Technique and Inspiration
Dennis Nona, Alick Tipoti, Andrew Williams, Billy Missi, David Bosun, Victor Motlop and others have demonstrated mastery in their traditionally derived carving skills and have created an art movement based on incising in to linoleum, and printing editions on to archival paper. Stylistically their work is characterised by fine incision based on traditional patterning and the introduction of colour by a method that has been referred to until recently as ‘a la poupe’. This rainbowing or rippling effect is created by lifting the printed image and reapplying coloured ink to the block while the trailing edge of the paper is still caught in the printing roller. By lowering the print exactly in register and applying pressure for a second time with the back of the hand or a spoon just the right amount of coloured ink is applied to the black areas highlighted. This technique, perfected by these artists has been recently renamed Kaidaral 21 which literally translates as the ‘spirit that creates ripples on the surface of the water’.
Dennis Nona was not the first of the artists to graduate from the Cairns TAFE but he was arguably the most influential in the development of what has become the contemporary island narrative style. His creative breakthrough came to him during a moment of low confidence during the first year of his TAFE college course. In a recently taped interview he recalled that he wanted to convey more than tourist images of figurative fish and other sea creatures that dominated the work of his fellow students. In a dream he came to the realisation that he could place around a single print all the elements of a larger creation story. In this way he could relate an entire narrative in one single work of art with all of the characters and events linked by the clan patterning that bound the entire story to its place of origin.22 Shortly thereafter Alick Tipoti and many others began employing the same idea into their own works and a new art movement was born.
Since this breakthrough their intricate designs and strong figurative imagery have been employed to re-tell legends narrated by Elders about the creation of their environment; unique and exciting stories about their life before the islands were taken over by the European colonists, the missionaries and government officials. Many prints feature events of the past when fighting was glorified and warriors were held in high esteem. In several, legendary heroes appear along with their weapons, their distinctive headdresses and the masks, drums and objects associated with their ritual ceremonies and dances. 23 Images of head hunters recall days of cannibalism, of raiding parties attacking homes built in tree tops 24 and the sorcerers and witches which came to their final grief lying in the sea to become the islands and rocky outcrops that we see throughout the Western Torres Straits today. In other legends young men and women are transformed into sea creatures which retain their shape when changed in to hills and other features in the landscape. Many prints and artworks portray effigies, or ritual objects. The most powerful of these were traditionally reserved for initiation and secret religious practice with restrictions on who could possess or care for them.25 Others of a slightly less potent nature were used as protective charms like those that were placed in tobacco gardens to make the crop grow more quickly. Turtle charms were used in increase ceremonies or simply as personal talismans while others were used to ensure good hunting and the protection of the natural elements.
A common source of imagery of these artists is the Coral Sea which contains the vital foods that sustain the people of the Torres Straits including dugong, turtle, edible fish, crayfish and the beautiful features of the reef like corals, trochus shells and conches. The artists are acutely aware of the fragile nature of their environment and incorporate this theme in their work. Medicinal plants and other remedies derived from the sea are an inspiration along with the many exotic flowers, trees and birds like hibiscus, frangipani, the tropical fruits and the Torres Strait pigeon native to these islands.
The backgrounds to the figurative imagery are also full of symbolic meaning. These derive from the incisions and decoration seen on ancient artefacts, the open weave of traditional baskets, designs of shark tooth and crocodile skin and the incredibly intricate patterning of tidal movements, ocean currents and the constellations.
In the past, Torres Strait Islander art and culture was largely experienced through story telling and dance. This was seen by small audiences and mainly by the Islanders themselves. However, with the advent of Torres Strait Islander culture being translated in to a visual form by this group of young and extraordinarily talented artists it is now being witnessed and acclaimed by very large audiences not just in Australia but also in a host of overseas countries.
A culture almost decimated by the missionaries of the late 1800’s has been revived thanks to a group of Elders who have maintained the stories, memories of the ceremonies and other cultural information which they in turn have passed on to these younger artists to express in their art. It is ironic that the artefacts so rapaciously collected by the colonial anthropologists have been a source of inspiration for this renaissance.
In 1999 the first major exhibition of Torres Strait Islander art, Ilan Pasin (This is Our Way), opened at the Cairns Regional Gallery and toured to six other Australian venues. It included contemporary work and cultural artefacts from the mid 1800s to early 1900s and was accompanied by an excellent catalogue.
Up until this time it was a popular notion that Australian indigenous art only came from the Desert, Kimberleys or Arnhem Land. Ilan Pisan and subsequent exhibitions helped shift Torres Strait Islander art from under the shadow of Aboriginal art and give it a distinct identity of its own.
The first exhibition of Torres Strait Islander art to be seen extensively in national and international venues was, Gelam Nguzu Kazi – Dugong My Son. This exhibition was curated and toured by The Australian Art Print Network between 2000 and 2003 to capital city galleries, regional galleries and galleries in Canada and the UK. The exhibition comprised linocut prints by Dennis Nona, David Bosun, Billy Missi and Victor Motlop, who were the founding members of the Mualgau Minaral Artist Collective. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade took up the exhibition in 2007 and will show it in over 24 venues in 16 countries throughout the South Pacific, South East Asia, North and Latin America until mid 2009
This exhibition was followed by Dennis Nona’s solo show ‘Sesserae ’. This was in fact two separate exhibitions. One was curated by Simon Wright, the Director of Dell Gallery at the Queensland College of Art which opened in Brisbane in 2005 and is touring Australian regional galleries through to 2008. The second Sesserae exhibition, which included more recent work, was curated and toured by the artist’s agent, The Australian Art Print Network. This exhibition showed in commercial galleries throughout Australia from 2005 to late 2007. It was also seen in Paris and London in 2006.
Alick Tipoti, who is also represented by The Australian Art Print Network, opened his first solo exhibition at the Andrew Baker Gallery in Brisbane late 2007. This exhibition will tour galleries to all capital cities and is currently showing in London until mid November 2008.
A major exhibition of work by Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti was at the Robert Steele Gallery in New York in January 2009.
In 2003 Dennis Nona created his first etching plate. He went on to produce a large body of work in this medium which was seen in his Sesserae exhibitions.
In 2005 he was introduced to sculpture, producing a number of works in cast bronze with the foundry, Urban Art Projects in Brisbane. The largest of these titled, Ubirikubiri of the Awailau Kasa, took out the overall prize in the 2007 Annual Telsra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Art Award. This is Australia’s most prestigious and richest Indigenous Art Award and the artist became the first Torres Strait Islander to win the award in its 24 years history.
Three dimensional works, however is not new to Torres Strait Islander artists. Ken Thaiday Sr, James Eselie, Victor McGrath, Eric Tabuai, Brian Robinson and others are well known for their work in a variety of materials.
All of these artists and many other Torres Strait Islanders are carvers. Most of them, from a very early age, learn to carve just as their ancestors did who carved into canoes, weapons, musical instruments, utilitarian objects and the beautiful ceremonial masks that are now only seen in museums.
The momentum is building with Torres Strait Islander art now being seen regularly in shows throughout Australia and overseas and in important exhibitions such as the Queensland Art Gallery’s 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Australia’s inaugural Triennial of Indigenous Art, Culture Warriors.
Dennis Nona’s monumental six metre linocut, Yawarr, was showing until January 2009 in, ‘The Tropics, Views from the Middle of the Globe’ at the prestigious Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin.
1 2006 Census
2 Victor McGrath p101, in Ilan Pasin-this is our way, Torres Strait Art, Cairns Regional Gallery Publication, T.Mosby (Ed), 1998
3 P. Sutton (Ed), Languages of Cape York,AIAS, 1976
4 Tom Mosby in Ilan Pasin, pp27-28
5 Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime-the story of Prehistoric Australia and its people, William Collins, Sydney, 1983 p230
6 Dr. Helen Lawrence in Ilan Pasin p59
7 Brian Robinson in Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture p169
8 Herle and Philp, in Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, p 157
9 A.C.Haddon, Head-Hunters: Black, White and Brown, Watts, London, 1932, p26
10 Jeremy Beckett, Torres Strait Islanders: Custom and Colonialism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987, p45
11 Beckett pp202-209
12 Margaret Lawrie, Myths and Legends of the Torres Strait, The University of Queensland Press, Queensland, 1970
13 Tom Mosby in Ilan Pasin p73.
14 Herle and Philp, in Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, p158-159
15 Herle and Philp, p 161, amongst others
16 Mary Bani, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, p165
17 Tom Mosby in Ilan Pasin, p87
18 Herle and Philp, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, p160
19 Brian Robinson, Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, p170
20 Victor McGrath in Ilan Pasin,p108
21 Theo Tremblay and Dennis Nona in consultation during a print workshop on Moa Island in October 2000.
22 Taped interview by the author with the artist on Moa Island, October ,2000
23 Anna Eglitis in Ilan Pasin, p139
24 Dennis Nona’s linocut kaidaral, Imanoh
25 Tom Mosby in Ilan Pasin, p91