Torres Strait Islander printmaking.

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Torres Strait Islander printmaking.


Robinson, Brian.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Torres Strait Printmaking

Torres Strait Printmaking.
byBrian Robinson


Over the past few years the Australian Art market has seen a steady influx of prints, especially linocuts, being produced by Torres Strait artists. These skilfully refined prints, intricately detailed with traditional motifs, are an extension of an ancient art-form used to ornate functional items and ceremonial objects. This form of low relief carving has been lying in a dormant state until just recently, with a young group of contemporary Island artists starting to utilise the traditional skills and techniques of their ancestors. These artists are in fact pioneers, revitalising a once vibrant culture bring to the fore the stories of the past using modern mediums and techniques.

This surge in art production has been helped along by the establishment and assistance of art centres in remote communities and by courses specifically designed for indigenous people at Technical and Further Education Colleges (TAFEs) and universities Australia wide. Such courses, although allowing students to experiment freely with design and materials, produce graduates who conform to the Western concept of art and artist. They produce work that blends tradition, modern society and conflict, a statement of cultural affirmation and identity.

The Torres Strait Islands lie off the far north-eastern tip of Australia in the shallow seas of the Torres Strait which links the Arafura Sea to the west and the Coral Sea to the east. Sandwiched between Cape York Peninsula and the south-west coast of Papua New Guinea, the Strait measures 150 kilometres at its widest point. Comprised of islets and partially exposed sandbanks and coral cays, there are more than 100 islands within the Strait, of which only 16 are currently inhabited. Torres Strait is divided up into four regions: Eastern, Central, Western and Top Western, according to geological features and location, and within these regions language varies, as does customs and art styles. This is closely connected with religious practice and cult rites.

Cultural practice throughout the Straits has long had close affiliations and been associated with Papua New Guinean cultural practice, which is evident in the extensive trading of ritual artefacts between both groups. Artistic practice played an important role in everyday life, as this gave shape to the Islander’s gods. The spirit world was given form through the creation of ritual objects, in particular ceremonial masks used in dance. These masks constructed from turtleshell and wood were the mediums by which Islanders could evoke spiritual protection during war, hunting, initiation and cultural practice, and ceremonies.

In the later half of the nineteenth century, the advent of the London Missionary Society (LMS) and the introduction of Christianity and government services to the Islands disrupted, but did not fully eradicate, cultural practices and lifestyle. The Torres Strait people were forced to quickly adapt to their new environment and as a consequence created a new lifestyle, one that was interconnected with their Pacific neighbours, Christianity and an increasing government presence. With the introduction of the outside world came new attitudes and new technology – traditional materials were eventually replaced by modern components.

The process of etching, incising and mark making by Torres Strait Islander artisans began as far back as 25 000 years ago, possibility even longer, as life began for many of the islands comprising the Pacific and Oceanic region. These crude early examples were produced in shell, wood, pumice and stone, embellishing many functional objects — masks, smoking pipes, statues, bowls, canoe prows, weaponry and musical instruments. It was a means of depicting the social and religious life, the supernatural forms and cult heroes which determined everyday life, and the transference of spiritual power to these objects. Produced by simple etching tools such as animal bones, pump drills and wooden stakes, these designs were superbly crafted, displaying a uniform balance of colour, form and symmetry.

Due to the location and topography of island groups, very few natural resources were readily available, but this didn’t hinder the production of the artefacts and is testimony to the skill acquired by the Island artisans. Being seafaring people, the Torres Strait Islanders had mastered the sea and its products, so it’s not surprising that their greatest achievements were produced with reef materials harvested from the surrounding seas. They manufactured artefacts from the ocean material but they also introduced both the raw material and artefact into the customary exchange network. By this method, the Islanders obtained, in return for their materials, food and artefacts that they could not produce or obtain. Goldlip pearlshell, coneshells and plates from the shell of the hawksbill turtle were the most precious commodities exchanged. The turtleshell was the most highly prized and sought after commodity, which was fashioned not only into elaborate ritual masks but also combs, body ornaments, scrapers, spoons and fish hooks.

Masks constructed from turtleshell and wood were the most distinctive and highly embellished of all objects from the Torres Strait artisans. Turtleshell masks were a central component to ritual observance throughout most of the islands in the Western, Eastern and Central groups but the Top Western islands also used wooden masks obtained via trade and exchange. Etched and incised using primitive stone axes and animal bones, the low relief carving depicted simple but elaborate design work through animal forms and tracks and clan markings.

Much of the decorative art applied to these masks and implements had in common Papua New Guinea origins and occurred mostly on flat surfaces due to the implements being used to create them. The central image in the design was firstly positioned and then lightly scratched into the surface of the material being used. The next step was to gouge the lightly scratched lines until they were a few millimetres in depth. The carved portions were then filled with lime and certain parts of the mask coloured using vegetable dyes and ochres. The lime was produced from burnt and crushed shells and the ochre obtained via trade from Cape York Aboriginal tribes.

Since its decline at the end of the nineteenth century, traditional artefact production has been in a state of hibernation. While the Islander’s creations were being removed to the far reaches of the globe, the creators were somewhat more restricted. Because many of the traditional artisans produced work for ritual and religious circumstances, once the Christian belief system was in place their skills in producing these objects were no longer required. Instead their labour was sought for the growing marine industry, either as boat crews or workers in the ‘slipways’ that were required to build and maintain the growing pearling fleets. Even though pearlshell was a highly prized commodity throughout the Islands and was traded extensively through exchange, the monetary benefits obtained from sales to Western markets far outweighed any previous value or importance held within the local art and craft market. This caused all traditional craft production to diminish.

In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers aimed at salvaging the remains of traditional knowledge from surviving elders may have inadvertently contributed to the revival of interest in the old ways of life. One Australian historian in particular, Margaret Lawrie, who was employed by the Queensland State Library, travelled the Straits extensively, often spending large amounts of time with Island communities, interacting with local people and recording their stories — creation stories about the Torres Strait. Many of these stories are now being retold through the visual arts of contemporary Island artists, especially using the medium of printmaking, considered by many of these artists to be the next true art-form, replacing traditional carving.

The development of this new artistic movement for Torres Strait has been led mainly by Island artists residing on the mainland. This group includes Anne Gela, Tatipai Barsa, Ellen Jose, Dennis Nona, Alick Tipoti and other colleagues.

Anne Gela was born on Moa (Banks Island), Western Islands Torres Strait in 1953. Her education was obtained on Waiben (Thursday Island) and in 1991 she enrolled at the Far North Queensland Institute of TAFE where she obtained an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Visual Arts. Although women tended to be drawn closer to the mediums of batik and ceramics, Gela excelled in the area of printmaking, both linoprinting and screenprinting. Over a ten year period she has produced many finely executed prints, two of which (Koedal: Crocodile hatching and Eyes of the sea) toured Australia and the United States in the print exhibition, Old Tracks, New Land. Gela provided the following statement about her work in this exhibition:

“With my crocodile print, I see this as a way of introducing myself to the outside world. My father’s totem is the crocodile or Koedal in Western Island language. The second print is called Eyes of the sea or in our language, Zobererkep. This print refers to the islands that I come from (Torres Strait) and also includes the totems that most Island people have. The designs that you see in the print are taken from the designs of our totem poles and of etchings that are usually done on the conch shells.”

The depiction of traditional island life from a female perspective is the main theme behind Gela’s linoprint. She is currently employed as Arts Coordinator by the SAIMA Torres Strait Islander Corporation in Rockhampton, Central Queensland.

Tatipai Barsa was born in 1967 and grew up on Mer (Murray Island) on the eastern side of the Torres Strait. He was the first Torres Strait Island student to gain an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Visual Arts from the Far North Queensland Institute of TAFE in Cairns (commencing his studies in 1986). His images are drawn from his island home and the life of the tropical seas surrounding Mer; the reefs, currents, tides and powerful seas of the Torres Strait. During his childhood, Barsa often spent hours at his father’s side watching as sea animals emerged from blocks of Wongai wood that were being carved. He inherited many skills and techniques that would later be of great use to him and others. Over the years spent as a printmaker and painter, he has produced, time after time, wonderfully executed works using the medium of printing.

The carved patterns that echo across the surface planes of his work reflect the traditional carving and plaiting of his people and the vibrant colours that radiate from the fauna and flora found on and around the island. Pictured in many of his prints relating to the sea can be seen many bold line marks that run the length of the linocut, separating the fish. These strong lines represent dangerous currents that surround his island and the shifting of sandbars towards the central island group.

With the influx of outside cultures, specifically Pacific Islanders, Torres Strait societies throughout the islands began to reflect changing language, culture and customs. Island families began to intermarry with the Pacific Island population, thus creating a new race of Torres Strait Islanders with bloodlines to both cultures. With overcrowding starting to occur and with the continual search for work (to sustain the growing size of families) migration to the mainland began in the 1940s.

Ellen Jose’s family was one of those migrating. Jose grew up in and around Cairns during the 1950s and 1960s. After leaving school she worked as a commercial artist and in 1976 was awarded a Certificate of Applied Art from Seven Hills Art College in Brisbane. Jose continued her studies in Melbourne, gaining a Diploma of Fine Art from Preston Institute of Technology (1978) and a Diploma of Education from the Melbourne State College (1979). Jose is considered to be the first Torres Strait Islander artist to produce linoprints — these depict tropical island scenes.

Being surrounded by Aboriginal and non-indigenous printers she was influenced by both, which is apparent in her work. Jose also attended printing workshops in Japan where she was greatly influenced by the bold strokes of Japanese artists and the use of handmade and rice paper. Bold lines and geometric shapes cover the black surface of the printed image with the occasional splash of colour applied with watercolour pencils. Jose is one of few Torres Strait printers to depict the Australian landscape.

Dennis Nona was born on Waiben (Thursday Island) in 1973 and spent his childhood at his family’s home on Badu (Mulgrave Island). Being of both Torres Strait Island and Papua New Guinean descent had its advantages for Nona who travelled frequently between both island groups. In 1990 he travelled to Cairns where he commenced his Associate Diploma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Visual Arts at the Tropical North Queensland Institute of TAFE, Cairns finishing in 1992.

During time spent at the college, Nona carved and printed many fine works from linoleum blocks. Comprised of intricately cut detail, his main themes were, and still are, based on the creation stories of Torres Strait, the myths and legends and ceremonial practice throughout the Islands. The main images are represented by bold areas of black and are surrounded with traditional markings, motifs and clan totems. Although there were some Torres Strait artists printing before Dennis started on his artistic career path, he was the first to create the finely cut lines and use traditional markings extensively.

In 1995 Nona gained entry to the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, where he was awarded his Bachelor of Fine Art (Printmaking). Since graduating he has taken up a number of residencies and held a number of exhibitions throughout Australia and overseas. Last year utilising networks forged while in Cairns and Canberra, Nona established a print workshop at Kubin Village on Moa (Banks Island) with assistance from the community council and Torres Strait Regional Authority called the Mualagal Minneral Arts Centre.

The most recognised printmaker from the Torres Strait is a young male artist by the name of Alick Tipoti. Born in 1975 on Waiben (Thursday Island), he began his initial education on Badu (Mulgrave Island) and Ngurupai (Horn Island) before moving to Cairns. He completed an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Art at Tropical North Queensland Institute of TAFE (1995) and a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Printmaking) from the Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, a couple of years later. In 1998 Tipoti entered a large linocut print titled Aralpaia Ar Zenikula in the Fourth National Indigenous Heritage Art awards and was awarded the Lin Onus Youth Art Prize. A traditional story from his home island of Badu, it tells a tale of land ownership on the island which resulted in conflict and bloodshed. When asked about his artwork, Tipoti comments:

“I get my inspiration from the ancient artefacts of the Torres Strait Islands, which I have had the opportunity to see in universities and museums, and from the traditional stories handed down and recorded by my father and the recognised elders of the Torres Strait.”

In 2000 Tipoti was successful in obtaining an arts grant from the Australia Council which he used to travel to Cambridge in the United Kingdom to view and study the traditional artefacts of his Torres Strait forefathers. Since returning he has spent long hours carving linoblocks which he exhibited at Cairns Regional Gallery in February 2001 titled Lagaw Adthil - Island Legends. The images reflect the time spent abroad studying the ancient turtleshell masks and artefacts rarely seen after the removal of this material culture by explorers and anthropologists.

A number of prints by Alick Tipoti feature the events of the past, when fighting was glorified and warriors enjoyed the esteem of their people. Legendary heroes appear along with weapons of war, the distinctive shapes of dari’s (headdresses) masks, drums and other artefacts associated with ritual dancing and ceremony. Forceful images of headhunting and the skull racks of warrior cults feature among his recent lithographs and drawings. With the stylisation of forms and narrative undertones, many of his prints, and those by Dennis Nona, are very similar to the story boards associated with Papua New Guinean culture.

Other Torres Strait printmakers worth mentioning in this section are — Laurie Nona (Badu), Brian Robinson (Waiben), Robert Mast (Badu), Mario Assan (Waiben), Rose Barkus (Moa), Fred Baira (Badu), Ceferino Sabatino (Kiriri), Nazereth Alfred (Masig), Lorraine Iboai (Saibai) and Kathryn Norris (Waiben).

Over the past few years there has been an increase in prints being produced by indigenous Torres Strait artists throughout regional Queensland, in particular at the Banggu Minjaany Arts and Cultural Centre at the Tropical North Queensland Institute of TAFE in Cairns and the Mualagal Minneral Art Centre at Kubin Village, Moa (Banks Island). These two centres offer printmaking facilities of an average to high standard and have been visited frequently by recognised faces within the Australian art scene — Theo Tremblay, Yvonne Boag, Garry Shead, Guy and Joy Warren and Arone Meeks.

The Banggu Mijanny Arts and Cultural Centre was established in the early 1980s by a group of dedicated teachers who had grand visions of indigenous art and it place among Australian visual arts. The Centre started its life in an old factory located within the industrial hub of Cairns known locally as Portsmith. After spending several years at this site the Centre was then relocated to the College.

At the college, a Vocational Art Certificate program and then an Associate Diploma of Art was established, designed specifically for indigenous people living in remote communities. This course, offering two years of study, suited many of the applicants, both theoretically and practically and gave them an outlet from which they sold work. Although still working under poor conditions and from demountable buildings, this course helped launch many artistic careers for its early students and still does today.

The greatest strength of the course, which has put the TAFE College ‘on the map’, was and still is its dedication to the area of printmaking. Led specifically by Anna Eglitis in the area of linoprinting, monoprinting, etching and recently lithography, other dominant forms that are offered are silkscreen printing (Elaine Lampton), batik (Ian Horn) and ceramics (Cheral Howell and Kerry Grierson). Many of the prints produced from the centre have now made their way into many of the state, regional and private collections throughout Australia.

Still further north, situated on an island in the Torres Strait is the Mualagal Minneral Art Centre. This centre was established at Kubin Village on the island of Moa in 1999 by Dennis Nona with assistance from the community’s council, the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Theo Tremblay, who worked closely with Nona while he was studying in Canberra.

Art classes in printmaking and painting are run from the community hall and are offered to all those interested in participating. The artists draw upon their natural surroundings: the island life, dugongs, turtles and a vast array of fish and other marine life which they depict in their works. This group includes Dennis Nona, Billy Missi, David Bosun, Victor Motlop and others.

Like their island counterparts residing on the mainland, these student artists utilise their inherited carving skills as they portray the traditional cultural society of Torres Strait in their prints. Being based on Moa, which is situated in the middle of the Strait, access to art supplies is the biggest problem faced by this community and art centre. Basic equipment and supplies are shipped from Cairns ports via barges which take several days to reach Thursday Island and then a further several days before they arrive at Kubin Village.

Despite this setback, the Centre still produces many finely executed prints from carved blocks of linoleum. Based on current outcomes over the past year, the Mualagal Minneral Art Centre’s reputation is growing and will continue to grow as the Centre becomes known to more Torres Strait people willing to portray their cultural heritage to the rest of Australia, and to collectors actively seeking new Torres Strait impressions.


The artistic confidence of Torres Strait artists has grown over the past few years with dedicated assistance from individuals and organisations throughout Australia. As more and more prints are produced, a visual history dating from traditional times to present day will start to unfold. The finely engraved, elegant lines with rhythmic movement and varying strokes which carry the eye across the surface are, and will forever be, a trademark from this group of indigenous artists. For a number of people, particularly the younger generation, there is a desire not only to revive the stories of the past for the artists to use as inspiration, but also for all the Islander people, to show the importance of identity — a renewed interest in the cultural traditions, values and other aspects of the Islanders’ unique and rich heritage.

© Brian Robinson, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.