By coincidence rather than by design, both the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gab Titui Cultural Centre opened exhibitions last week called ‘Land, Sea and Sky‘. The title could be describing anywhere “ but is particularly appropriate for those little lumps of land that separate the tip of Cape York from Papua New Guinea, giving their people cultures that are markedly different to either of their neighbours, dominated by a need to master the meanings of clouds, stars, rocks and reefs, wind and water in order to survive.

An amazing proportion of their art today reflects this ancient knowledge, developed over the 8/9000 years since rising seas created those islands. It features the demons who formed the lands or control the weather, or about the fish and birds that feed the inner man or his spirit…being caparisoned or imitating those creatures in the dances that accompany all important events in Torres Strait life. Despite these features, it’s no coincidence that the two cultural events coincided around July 1st “ the 140th anniversary this year of the Coming of the Light, ie Christianity and its missionaries; so often derided, but still appreciated by Islanders

Also quite frequently derided are early white anthropologists, who all-too often took ceremonial artefacts from communities like the TSI without really understanding their meaning and without caring to record the maker’s or owner’s names. In the context of this weekend, though, the name of Alfred Court Haddon emerged smelling of roses “ for the Haddon expeditions of the 1880s and 90s were hailed at exhibitions and talks in the Queensland State Library and Museum as a correlative to the missionaries. For the latter had of course done their bit to rid Islanders of pagan habits; Haddon seized the chance to record those habits on paper, film and wax cylinder before they were forgotten and to take the artefacts that reflected those habits back to Cambridge. The missionaries, meanwhile, probably saved the Islanders from the excesses of the Queensland government, which wreaked such havoc amongst its Aborigines on the mainland.

So it’s been off to Cambridge for a number of today’s Torresian artists “ such as Alick Tipoti and Dennis Nona – to refresh the experience of their people’s past and to feed it into the present. The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has also made available much of the Haddon Collection online.

The present condition of TSI art started with those two guys in about 1990. Sure, there were artists like Segar Passi, Kala Waia and Rosie Barkus operating before that. But their realistic paintings and illustrations for Margaret Lawrie’s books which first introduced the idea of telling stories via art in the 1970s, was a necessary staging post towards today’s flowering, according to Tom Mosby, the State Library’s TSI expert, and an Islander himself. One could say that a culture which lacked the idea of ‘art’ to be hung on walls tends to go through a ‘Namatjira phase’ before finding its own forms and styles.

But since the Cairns TAFE established a printmaking course under the legendary Anna Eglitis in the mid-80s, a stream of younger artists have emerged who, in her words, have been lead by their natural carving ability to cut increasingly intricate designs in the medium of linocuts. Actually, the 1991 pen on paper drawings by Dennis Nona that feature in the Queensland Art Gallery’s current show reveal much about where it all came from. For they’re the works of an 18 year old absolutely steeped in the old myths and legends of his Badu Island home. Beside them is a magnificent wall of 2, 3 and even 6 metre long works that show where this pioneering effort has gone. Fellow pioneer, Alick Tipoti’s Kuyku garpathamai mabaig “ a head-hunter communicating with the spirits of his victims “ may well be the finest expression of a phase, which also features densely detailed background patterns of Melanesian origin.

Of course, these guys (and gals) are artists. So they’re always trying to move on. Nona “ one of whose first linocuts was called Ubirkubiri, went on to win the NATSIA Award with a two metre bronze sculpture of the same crocodile story. Tipoti will be launching a series of fibre-glass dance masks at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in August, based upon the turtle shell originals. His elder Ricardo Idagi has been mask-making for years “ still using traditional turtle shells, winning the WA Indigenous Art Prize and selling for up to $160,000 at Lauraine Diggins’ gallery in Melbourne despite some concerns about the legality of trading in an endangered species.

Dance has also inspired something unique to the Torres Strait “ dance machines. The Thaidays “ Ken and Patrick “ are the masters here; with an increasing trend towards the sculptural, created either by size, complexity or “ in GoMA “ by multiplication of the model over its vast walls.

Meanwhile, a younger generation is emerging from the art centres now established on Erub, Badu and Moa Islands with with less Gothic, more down-to-earth work. Glen Mackie’s Waru (Hawksbill Turtle) has quite an Art Deco feel to it. Solomon Booth’s Coconut Palm basically offers a whole world of coconutry and the totems associated with its culture within the shell.

And Booth’s 2010 print won the Gab Titui Award for that year. This year on Thursday Island TI/Waiben), 53 artists from across the archipelago offered their wares for SA Art Gallery Indigenous Curator (and artist) Nici Cumpston to judge in the fourth Award. There’s no pre-selection, so the range is pretty much unfettered “ a carved a pearlshell-inlaid Dugong won top honours; a ceramic statuette came second; head-dresses, drums, fish-scoops and jewellery abounded; and the ghost-net works (made of discarded fishing trawl-nets) were superior to GoMA’s. No one’s homogenising the culture here. And the National Museum in Canberra came all that way to encourage work that’s more about the importance of the story to artist and community than it it is about aesthetics. Names to look out for include Angela Torenbeek, Mersane Loban, Edmund Laza and Racy Oui-Pitt.

If you have the good fortune to be in the Torres Strait, don’t miss this show, running until the end of August.