The islands of the Torres Strait are mere specks in the treacherous seas between Australia's Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Two indigenous artists, Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti, have created unique and contemporary prints - linocuts and etchings - of singular power, expressing a deep tradition. One prominent curator described Nona as "one of the most important artists working in Australia today" and these prints have drawn acclaim in London, Paris, New York - and now Victoria.
The people of the Torres Strait islands are Melanesian, very distinct from the Aboriginal groups of the Australian mainland. Until recently, fish and pearls were the islanders' lifeline, and their whole lives centre on the sea.
"The sea holds power as a spirit world, from the depths of the ocean where sea spirits live, to the waters where the animals travel along spiritually predestined routes, to the sea surface where spiritual forces control the waves, into the skies where the winds blow, driving boats astray or bringing them home," the Alcheringa catalogue informs us.
In 1987, Dennis Nona left pearling to study art at the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) College in Cairns. Later, in 1995, he furthered his studies by undertaking a diploma in visual arts in printmaking at the Canberra Institute of Art, working with master printmaker Theo Tremblay. Tremblay's influence and inspiration on the Australian art-print movement, as a collaborator and printmaker, has been crucial. Nona returned home with a commitment that the islands' spirit lore could be kept alive for a new generation by means of his dynamic and detailed prints. Alick Tipoti is among the most talented of those who made their mark in the Torres Strait group, which Nona set in motion.
Nona is a master of the apparently simple and populist art form of the linocut. Over the years, he and his protÃ©gÃ©s have carved images on thick linoleum blocks of ever-larger dimensions. The largest on show in Victoria, Nona's Baidam - Shark Constellation, is almost four metres across. It depicts the "seven sisters" constellation - known to us as the Pleiades - and the ocean surface which teems with pulsing pathways of life and energy. It is printed in black and then hand-coloured, at once broadly decorative and minutely detailed. Not to be outdone, his associate Tipoti has created Wadth, which is almost as large and shows a complex scene of island lore that takes five pages of closely-spaced printed text to describe.
Nona's etchings swarm with minute patterns and characters drawn on metal plates, cut out in fret-sawn filigree and deeply embossed on fine white papers. In the dense imagery, warriors and skulls, dugongs and stingrays play against fields of rich pattern sometimes reminiscent of tapa cloth. Many of these prints are enriched with vari-coloured inking and plate tone.
Beyond the wonders of the artistry, this show brings to mind broader issues. First, one must acknowledge the support of the government of Australia and of Queensland for these artists. Without the encouragement of the Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing Export Agency and the Australian Art Print Network, the international exposure and subsequent renown accorded these islanders would not have occurred. It is an effective form of economic development that is sadly lacking in B.C.
Second, I consider Alcheringa Gallery a treasure house of inspiration for any artist. Specifically, I am thinking of B.C.'s First Nations artists, who have designed thousands of prints over the past 30 years, but for the most part leave the printing to others - professional screen printers. Since their carving tradition suits them to produce their own woodcut or linocut editions, perhaps the example of the Torres Strait islanders will bear fruit locally.
Anyone can take inspiration from this show. If a few fisher folk from islands very, very far off the mainstream have so effectively taken up their simple tools and told their stories to the wide world, why not you?
Land, Sea and Sky: Lag Ma'al A Dapar: an exhibition of linocuts and etchings by Torres Strait artists Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti. Alcheringa Gallery 665 Fort St., 250-383-8224, until Sept. 20. www.alcheringa-gallery.com
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