“Outside Queensland, no one knows about us – even our flag is unrecognised”. Who could artist Toby Cedar be talking about? His Torres Strait Island culture, of course – so often muddled with Aboriginal, but such distinctive people.
And it’s true that it’s hard to find evidence of its variety and richness outside Queensland – where Brisbane held a very big show across several institutions in 2011 and Cairns, where ‘Ilan Pasin’, the first major exhibition of Torres Strait Islander art ever seen in mainland Australia originated in 1998. But now people get the perfect opportunity to make up for their ignorance in Newcastle, of all places.
Why Newcastle? A combination of factors, I believe. Four years ago, Lauretta Morton became the Newcastle Gallery’s Director. A former print-maker, she was uncomfortable that the burgeoning art of TSI print-making was unrepresented in her collection. And she also became aware that the TSI diaspora had quite a presence in Newcastle – the result of ready employment in the area’s mines and railways. Not many economic opportunities like that on distant islands like Mer, Erub, Saibai or Badu.
But distance doesn’t diminish memories of those island cultures – stories like that of Gelam, a foundation myth in which a young hunter travelled from island to island trying to get away from his weeping mother; ceremonial objects such as complex dance masks made from turtle shell to hide the dancer’s identity; divinities ranging from the ancestral figures who used to rule island lives to the Christ who arrived with the Coming of the Light in 1871; and, of course, knowledge of the stars and their seasons which guided so much of life in pre-electric times for these maritime people.
So, four years ago, Morton linked up with Cairns-based curator/artist Brian Robinson – who’d already worked on ‘Ilan Pasin’ – and local artist Toby Cedar, then still a miner, but now a full-time artist and cultural leader, creator of works in the National Gallery and bringer of the Torres Strait to local schools, as well as to events in the Gallery throughout the exhibition’s run.
The result is “a small glimpse into our traditional material culture, created up there but brought to the mainland by our diaspora”, according to Brian Robinson. The range is from 19th Century ceremonial objects such as the single-headed skin drum (‘Warup‘) loaned by the Melbourne Museum, once used in sacred initiation ceremonies, to fashionista-of-the-moment, Grace Lillian Lee’s complex, knotted contemporary neck decorations – the weaving method taught to her by TSI elder Ken Thaiday Snr.
BTW, Lee and her mentor Thaiday have been selected for this year’s Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in December to create a large-scale kinetic dhari (headdress) using the same ‘double grasshopper’ weave.
Of course, Thaiday’s dance machines and head-dresses are also a presence, so is a flamboyant mask by Obery Sambo, who’s so proud of its selection that he’s flying down south to see it in person. There’s a suite of outsize lino-prints from the artists of Badu who’ve all returned to their island home from studies at the Cairns TAFE; and a print by cultural leader Alick Tipoti which hides a turtle in amongst a dense arabesque patterned background (actually that’s the meaning of the Meriam Mer title, WARWAR) which once formed the basis for a vast roof-scape on Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum. Monaco’s Prince Albert was using TSI ghost-net sculptures to draw Europe’s attention to that form of oceanic pollution, both recognised and recycled by the artists of the Strait.
Moving further away from the core of TSI culture, ceramicist Janet Fieldhouse appears to be coming from distant Melbourne with her raku offerings. But titles like ‘Scarification‘ and ‘Warrior’s Armband‘ plus the presence of the feathers which are an almost essential accompaniment to all TSI work, suggest she’s taken the islands with her to Victoria.
And Brian Robinson himself brings his mixed ancestries into his works – prints mocking Captain Cook’s efforts to turn the Torres Strait’s Bedhan Lag into Possession Island, and a sculptural work, ‘Ascending the Serpent’, revealing his Asian heritage in the figure of a sea dragon rising on a water-spout to heaven. A small cowrie shell at the bottom brings the work back home, though. “All TSI ceremonial activity requires a charm like that to placate the gods”, explained the artist.
Newcastle man, Toby Cedar is also pushing boundaries, using resin in his works, as do many artists now, replacing un-ecological ways requiring turtle shells. But, leaving his comfort zone in mask-making, Cedar has created a complex work based on a tail of the Strait’s dugongs, inset with pearlised material that glows with internal lighting. Incorporated is that foundation tale of the fleeing Gelam and his mother. Cedar tells me that future work for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is even higher tech – using augmented reality.
Other significant TSI artists in ‘WARWAR‘ include Ephraim Bani, Soloman Booth, Ricardo Idagi, Gail Mabo, Glen Mackie, Billy Missi, Laurie Nona, Racy Oui-Pitt, Segar Passi and Ellarose Savage. Sadly missing is another contemporary pioneer and the only TSI Big Telstra winner, Dennis Nona – still paying the price for a sexual crime even though his prison sentence is completed.
All the show needs now is the constant thrum of the Warup/drums to bring it to life – a sound to match the excellent use of the Kala Laga Ya and Meriam Mer languages in the exhibition catalogue, and the flying of the TSI flag proudly outside the Gallery.
Artist: Toby Cedar, Brian Robinson, Grace Lillian Lee, Ken Thaiday Snr, Obery Sambo, Alick Tipoti, Janet Fieldhouse, Ephraim Bani, Soloman Booth, Ricardo Idagi, Gail Mabo, Glen Mackie, Billy Missi, Laurie Nona, Racy Oui-Pitt, Segar Passi, Ellarose Savage, Dennis Nona,
Gallery: Newcastle Regional Art Gallery ,