In August last year, however, a group of artists from the region caused a sensation when they showed new experimental work at the inaugural Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. It was such a hit it all sold within hours.
These artists from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre in Cardwell had, for the first time, produced ceramic firestick sculptures based on their traditional wooden fire-making implements. Eighteen of these sculptures, created by 13 artists ranging in age from 26 to 70, are now in the Queensland Art Gallery collection and are on display at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, as part of the exhibition Spirited: Works from the Gallery’s Indigenous Art Collection.
For the traditional people of the Queensland rainforest, fire was a vital necessity, used for cooking, warmth, making weapons and in ceremonies. In the wet weather, when tinder was scarce, the people had to carry the fire with them when they moved camp. They did this by encasing jiman, or firesticks, inside a bagu, a body-shaped container. The person designated to maintain the fire was under immense pressure to keep the sticks dry, and the bagu was revered as the representation of the spirit man, chikka-bunnah. Common to each bagu are the eyeholes where the smoke from the smouldering sticks would escape, creating an eerie effect that would instil respect and fear. Girringun artist Doris Kinjun remembers that children were forbidden to put their fingers into the eyeholes of the bagu so as to “keep the fire pure”.
Last year the Girringun artists decided to give the bagu and jiman a contemporary interpretation by using fired clay with ochre patterning, native guava wood and string. They have developed recognisable styles and given the bagu different personalities.