Sharne Wolff reviews the work of Dennis Nona, contemporary Torres Strait Islander artist…
Sometime in the next three years, Australians will be voting on a referendum to decide whether our Constitution should recognise our two separate groups of indigenous peoples – that is, Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We are so used to hearing these two groups spoken about in the one phrase, it’s as if we are referring to one cultural group rather than two. There are, however, significant differences between the two groups – both historical and cultural. For the purpose of considering art made by the artists from each group, we must untangle the words so as to put art in its proper context.
One of the most interesting things about the Torres Strait Islands is just how little we know about them. For example – if I asked you how many islands in the group what would you guess? Maybe five or six? In fact there are 18 major groups and dozens of separate islands. What about the border between Australia and PNG? The 1978 TIS Treaty confirmed the Islands as part of Australia, attached to Queensland and administered by the Torres Strait Regional Authority. It created Australia’s only permeable border (with Papua New Guinea) and one of very few in the world. Indigenous people from the Islands are permitted to move through it and travel between Australia and PNG for traditional purposes – like funeral and wedding ceremonies, and for cultural trade. Best-known Islander? – I guess Eddie Mabo would probably take the prize.
Dennis Nona, Malu Sara (Deep Sea Tern), 2010
Acrylic on linen, 31 x 46cm
This week I viewed the new show at Brisbane’s Andrew Baker Art Dealer. The artist, Dennis Nona, is a well-known artist from the Torres Strait Islands – born on Waiben (Thursday Island) although his community is Badu (Mulgrave Island). The Torres Strait Islands have an incredibly rich cultural tradition going back thousands of years. Artists like Nona and Alick Tipoti, Billy Missi and George Nona have been responsible for producing contemporary works of art from the islands of the Torres Strait for some time. The art, however, has always been heavily underpinned by the language and beliefs of the Islanders and their communities.
Nona has been collected by almost every major art museum in Australia and also by international museums from London to Tokyo. He is well known for his intricate lino-cuts and carved bronze and wooden sculptures and has won several prizes in the Telstra National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, including the major award in 2007. His last show at Andrew Baker in 2010 comprised mainly coloured etchings.
This show sees a quite dramatic change in Nona’s work, although evidence of its beginning can be seen in earlier shows. Apart from several carved wooden sculptures of dugongs and turtles, the works in this exhibition are painted in ochre or acrylic on linen. Striking black and ochre on white or white on black canvases are pared back and elegant in their simplicity. Many are quite large.
Probably the most stunning work in the show consists of two simple white lines on black on a very large canvas. Nona has painted Witch’s Breasts ‘Dhogai Susu’ (in Nona’s language of Kala Yagwa Ya). The story of the witch’s breasts appears in the exhibition catalogue and illustrates the embedding of the oral tradition in the work. The actual witch’s breasts (now the islands between Kulbai Kulbai) can be seen in the Torres Strait.
Dennis Nona, Urburr (Breathing of the Dugongs), 2010
Acrylic on linen, 180 x 100cm
The painting ‘Dhogsai Susu’ is accompanied by a carved wooden arm ‘Dhogai Zug’ (the arm of the witch) which hangs from the ceiling of the gallery – a shadow falling on the wall behind. The oversized arm is carved and is complete with oversized turtle-shell fingernails. The friend who accompanied me to the gallery decided it was scary. She hadn’t seen Nona’s work before. Whatever the reason looking at the work did tend to make the hairs on your own arm stand on end.
‘Urburr’ (Breathing of the Dugongs) is another beautiful piece. Nona has made a visual representation of the dugongs breathing quietly in the night. If you can imagine for a moment, the shiny black sea is completely still. The sky disappears into the darkness and the stars are hidden behind the clouds. The hunter readies himself in the boat to spear the dugong that comes to the surface for air. The fatter dugong is prized for eating and has a shorter breath. A mere puff. The fisherman waits in the black silence and listens carefully for the right sound. In ‘Urburr’ Nona has painted the breathing as symbols on the canvas. The white whimsical strokes of the brush float on the black canvas. They are completely convincing.
Although the art is strong enough to stand alone, significant stories of traditional island life abound in and inform this show. ‘Maita’ relates an important story (well known by Nona but also found in anthropological textbooks) of how the Island woman solves the mystery of the sex of her unborn baby using a mangrove seedpod. ‘Nurrapat’ recounts the feeding of the dugong baby by it’s mother and ‘Karramui Nad’ tells of the desire of the family to have a baby with ‘fish features’ – small features (which are considered the most attractive). The works are spontaneous expressions of the way Nona experiences this tradition.
Apparently when he was a younger man, Nona spent much of his time hanging around the elders in his family group. He listened intently to their stories and effectively became a human vehicle for storing the oral traditions of his people. Andrew Baker and his staff spent nine months preparing for this exhibition, recording over 60 hours of Nona’s stories. Edited versions of the stories behind the paintings have been carefully compiled and published in the catalogue to accompany the exhibition. To hear Nona’s voice speaking about the works is a feeling that is haunting and hard to explain. Nona is like a walking history book of a people with a proud tradition. It is hard to believe that in Australia we are unaware of this rich culture, despite the fact that the Island people live among us and are also Australian.
Baker refers to Nona’s work as a cathartic process where Nona is able to unburden himself of the responsibility of the oral tradition. Nona feels deeply responsible for the passing on of the tradition to future generations of his own people and to the rest of us as well. He translates the stories into visual images – in the way that only he can see them.
If you can’t get to Brisbane to see this show, I suggest you download the excellent pdf catalogue from the gallery website and read it anyway. It would be unAustralian not to.
Dennis Nona, Malu Sara
Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane
Until 23 April 2011.