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The fantastic myths and legends of the Torres Strait came to life in the works of the artists in ‘Ailan Currents’—Joey Laifoo, Billy Missi, Dennis Nona, Brian Robinson, Joel Sam, Leroy Alua Savage and Alick Tipoti. Masked spirit figures, haemorrhaging dugongs, super warriors, warplanes and men leaping out of dogs filled KickArts’ space with fascinating boys’ own adventures—Torres Strait Island style. Traditional stories, intricately carved into oversized linocuts, form the unequivocally distinct style of contemporary Torres Strait Island printmaking.
The exhibition ‘Ailan Currents’ operated with commercial aims both for the artists and the presenting venue, KickArts, which is showcasing its capacity as it moves to develop a centre for print excellence. The exhibition catalogue demonstrates joint promotional ambitions by publishing the resumes of participating artists and master printmaker Theo Tremblay, as well as that of Rae O’Connell, the KickArts’ Director. O’Connell has been at the helm for several years and her expertise and background as a printmaker has no doubt helped to articulate KickArts’ new direction.
O’Connell’s catalogue introduction positions this group of artists as the Zenadh-Kes Printmaking Movement. In Kala Lagaw Ya, a traditional Torres Strait language, Zenadh-Kes is the name for the islands of that region. As a branding exercise, Zenadh-Kes Printmaking Movement has parallels with the development and marketing of the ‘Art Gang’ of the Lockhart River area. Signs of an emerging market claim are evident, with the support of regular funding giants Arts Queensland, Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency and the Australia Council. The Indigenous art market can be lucrative for well-supported artists and the organisations backing them. In seeking to claim their share of this market, organisations with vested interests will either tousle for it or work together. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the relationship between KickArts and the Australian Art Print Network (AAPN) who are publishers and agents for artists including Alick Tipoti and Billy Missi. AAPN has contributed to the stellar market success of Dennis Nona whom they have represented since the commencement of his career.
Most of the artists in ‘Ailan Currents’ live and work on the mainland but their subjects are predominantly stories of the Torres Strait, re-told, refashioned and expressed through contemporary imagination. Many of these works result from unique intellectual property collaborations between the visual artists and story custodians. Community approval of the works and their faithful presentation of each story are, therefore, important. Generally the visual story telling is highly illustrative. Innovation is given scope through technique, visual narratives and formal structure more than through content.
Participating artist Brian Robinson, the Exhibition Manager at Cairns Regional Gallery, assisted Tom Mosby’s original research of Torres Strait Island art for Ilan Pasin, published by the Gallery in 1998. In his catalogue essay for ‘Ailan Currents’, Robinson describes how the scale of the linocuts, developed since the 1990s, has enabled whole stories to be depicted on one work. He compares this to the carved wood storyboards of Papua New Guinea. Generally, the catalogue text uses reconstructions of historical analysis and anthropological observations to describe the cultural developments leading up to contemporary Torres Strait print making.
A tension exists between the linear narratives of the written stories accompanying these works and their visual representations in a non-linear storyboard format. This is prevalent in Dennis Nona’s works, with the exception of Baidam (Shark Constellation). In this 940 x 2390mm black ink print, fine lines team together creating a highly charged pictorial field that allows imaginative scope for the viewer. Without needing reference to the written story, the viewer is able to gain through the work a sense of the atmospheric stratifications stretching up into the universe. Verticals charge out from rounded, cloud-like lines and above this a central constellation finds shape through more fluid lines. Finally the uppermost layer consists of horizontals spanning the work end to end. On reading the text, the viewer is told of the shark constellation of stars (Zugubau Thithuyial) that was used for navigation and as a signal for crop planting. The breadth of this nebulous cloud and its inextricable connection to the island communities is enhanced by the sheer size of the work.
Nona’s hand colouring in several pieces disrupts the aesthetic strength of his work. The colour combinations are basic red, yellow and blue as can be seen in the patchy colouring over Sesserae. A sense of child-like melodrama is the resulting effect where red paint is smudged roughly in and around the severed limbs scattered over the surface of Dhogai Zug or the speared dugong that appear at the bottom of Sesserae. However, the refinement of Nona’s carving and drawing skills is the result of close to seventeen years of dedicated practice. He has literally carved his way to success as a leading contemporary Australian printmaker and in doing so, has thrown Torres Strait art into the market spotlight.
As with Nona, the carving and drawing skills evident in Alick Tipoti’s works are a testament to his dedication to the craft and practice of linocut printing. Gabau aimai mabaigal (wind makers season), 810 X 3005mm, demonstrates Tipoti’s unique skills as an image-maker. He combines highly decorative and finely produced line work with powerful masculine central figures. Tipoti cleverly enmeshes all sorts of creatures into very elegant and decorative lines that swirl in and around his main subjects. Squid can be discovered amongst patterns evocative of teeming ocean-life, and the energy of these lines make buoyant the large turtle figures of Warul ar bidhiyal (turtles and squids). Each turtle in this 900 X 1906mm image provides a large black expanse of space that offers visual relief against the highly detailed line work.
By carving broader lines Joel Sam allows white to dominate his line work, electrifying his subjects with a solarising effect. Thulup (stingray) appears irradiated as electric line work emanates from the stingray’s body, charging up its internal body space with intricate lines. In the same way that Tipoti uses black space, Robinson introduces large areas of white space as visual balance to his equally decorative illustrations. Robinson’s images are constructed with bold lines and structures that in works such as the 605 X 2002mm sized Tagai (guardian of the heavens), have an architectural quality influenced perhaps by the artist’s sculptural interests.
Carved corner to corner and edge-to-edge, the large-scale linocuts in ‘Ailan Currents’ are an exciting and energetic showcase of a very masculine perspective of Torres Strait printmaking, community life, folk-legend and culture. ‘Ailan Currents’ does, however, purport to represent contemporary Torres Strait printmakers, which is not possible with an entirely male perspective. Art does contribute to the construction of identity and in the case of Torres Strait women artists, ‘Ailan Current’ leaves open the question of whether women are either choosing not to print or are just not chosen to exhibit.