Dennis Nona's Monumental Linocut prints Celebrate the Ancient Myths & Legends of the Torres Strait Islands
Artist and Printmaker visualises the oral stories of the Islands with
extraordinary skill and beauty
Dennis Nona, arguably Torres Strait Island's greatest living artist will be launching his first major Sydney show at Coo ee Gallery on March 30. Dennis pioneered the development of a highly intricate linocut print making technique unique to the Torres Strait Islands, using as his inspiration sacred stories which he has given vivid visual form documenting for the first time many myths and legends which have previously largely been transmitted by oral story telling and dance. As a result of his work, artists of the region have been profoundly influenced.
Commenting on Denis Nona Adrian Newstead, Director Coo ee says: " Dennis work has been acclaimed by the country's most discerning art critics. It is described by The Australian Newspaper's art critic, Nicolas Rothwell as "the most intriguing work to be seen in the northern capital". (referring to Darwin for Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award in 2005).
Born in 1973 on Badu Island in the Torres Strait, a tropical island that lies between the northern tip of Australia and New Guinea, Dennis's artistic career began in the late 1980's and has evolved through his studies in printmaking and from working with several highly regarded master printmakers in Australia. He has a Diploma of Art form Cairns TAFE , a Diploma of Visual Arts in Printmaking from the Institution of Arts, Australian National University, Canberra and is completing a Masters in Printmaking at Griffith University in Brisbane. His work has been presented in many international and local exhibitions. He is regularly hung in the prestigious annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award and was included in the Islands in the Sun exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
Curator of Australian Prints at the National Gallery of Australia, Roger Butler, says that Nona's work represents a trend by artists to explore the physicality of the print making process instead of just the instant art making of digital processes: He comments: " He (Nona) sits there with a lot of lino and with a very sharp little chisel and cuts out those incredibly detailed little lines and gouge marks... That's really taking it back to the processes of (German Renaissance artist) Albrecht Durer, a simple technique that makes VERY complex images.".
Nona's story telling and ceremony was learnt very early, within a traditional Torres Strait Islander family context. His creative breakthrough came during the first year of his TAFE college course in Cairns. According to Adrian Newstead: 'He wanted to convey more than just tourist images of figurative fish and other sea creatures that dominated the work of his fellow students.' Taking inspiration from his dream he decided to open the visual image to allow a more graphic way of storytelling his dreamtime legends. Instead of a work based on a single image like that of the traditional Torres Strait Islander art, he introduced many, following what was being done by mainland Aboriginal artists. In this way he could relate an entire narrative in one single work with all the characters and events in one image. To link the work he introduced a matrix of delicately lined clan patterning, so binding the entire story to its place of origin. Since this breakthrough, the intricate designs and bold figurative imagery created by printmakers like Nona, have given local culture a vital reinvigoration. Today they are central to a cultural revival and elders now refer to them to help them to relate ancient stories to others. These were fast fading from common knowledge and being lost to new generations of Islanders suffering the cultural dislocation often imposed by the impact European settlement and influence.
Within Nona's work there is a celebration of island myths and legends, of how humans, animals, plants and landscape took their meaning from epic or magical events in the past. It was a culture where fighting was glorified and warriors were held in high esteem. Legendary heroes wore distinctive local headdress and masks. They played drums and used objects associated with their ritual ceremonies and dances. It was a culture of head hunters, cannibalism and raiding parties that attacked homes built in tree tops. It was a society where men, women, sorcerers and witches came to their final grief by being transformed into sea creatures or cast into the sea to become the islands and rocky outcrops evident throughout the Western Torres Strait Islands today.
The attraction of Nona's work lies in the way he has drawn on the rich traditions of Torres Strait Islander carving (skills in carving which he learnt as a child - incised masks were a traditional art form used in ceremony) and has transferred these skills to linocut and more recently etchings. Far more flexible in their visual reference and expressive means than that of traditional work from the Torres Strait Islands, his works are highly skilled compositions. Each work expresses a powerful materiality that comes from exquisitely crafted hand-made surfaces, a complex of finely chiselled hand made lines which are then coloured before printing.
Unlike the traditionally tightly focused images of carving that illustrate only one incident in a myth or legend, his work is often encyclopaedic in its scope, using layered form and symbolic visual reference to address traditional themes and contemporary events in the one work. The visual narratives can be understood in part but to fully appreciate each work, it is necessary to have the symbolic images translated.
A common source of imagery in Nona's work is the sea that surrounds the Torres Strait Islands and which contains the vital foods that sustain his people and their rich island culture. Marvellous tales are translated to print and woven into fabulous, mysterious images using spirit figures, and animals such as dugong, turtle, fish, crayfish, that are intertwined with the beautiful features of coral reefs, trochus shells and conches, landscape, sea, skies and ocean currents, lush vegetation, sometimes even masks and designs found on coastal Papuan trading items.
Nona's Sesserae ( Willy Wagtail Bird) 2004 (1250 x 2100mm) his most impressive recent work, is a large format print which tells the traditional story associated with the Willy Wagtail Bird and clan fishing rights. It is an abstracted, dreamlike presentation, which requires a narrator in order to understand the full significance of the story and its implications to traditional culture. Essentially it is a story that describes the character of Sesserae and the story about his transformation into the bird - it is a cheeky bird that is cunning and will not share with others. The story also reveals the gift to the islanders of how to catch and cook dugong and how to construct a 'nath', the traditional hunting platform which is erected in the sea over the seagrass beds where the dugong feed.
From an artistic perspective the print is dense with imagery, and the key protagonists of the legend are represented graphically as individual players, discretely outlined and interwoven to form a fascinating visual matrix. Central to the story is Sesserae, a young man of Tulu ( the name of local tribe) who lives alone on the island and is pursued by neighbouring clan members because they want to find out how he manages to be so happy and well fed. He has discovered how to successfully hunt for the much celebrated dugong and this information is what his clansmen want to know from him.
The story of this pursuit and the eventual transformation of Sesserae into the Willy Wagtail is outlined in a narrative that painstakingly depicts various chapters in this pursuit, using different parts of the image to tell different parts of the story. References mentioned in the story include that to the supernatural world in which he lives - Nona depicts the skulls of his parents which he consults to advise him. On close examination of the print it is also possible to see many other elements of the tale appear set within an intricately carved islander design; the fish trap, spears and rope, dugongs, cooking ovens/smokers, his campsite, dog warriors, birds, a conch shell and the Wagtail itself are carefully detailed. Soft blues are used to delineate the sea and fishing, a gentle orange to highlight the cooking ovens for the dugong and pale brown to indicate the places where land activities of the narrative take place. All figures are printed in solid black as in outline with some detail included to record eyes, skulls and the internal workings of the fish. Nona comments: ' I always do the eyes last as they distract me if I put them in early.'
Sesserae was acquired recently by the National Gallery of Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery.
The artist has recently completed even larger works that include two 2.4 metre x 1 metre and one 2.7 x 1 metre linocuts. All these large linocuts have been produced on a special hydraulic
printing press developed by master printmaker, Theo Tremblay in Cairns
Nona has been experimenting with etchings for some time but it is only recently that he has completed a substantial body of work in this medium. The same extraordinary carving skills seen in his linocuts have been used to incise metal plates creating finer and even more detailed and delicate imagery. Many of the new etchings have been created in collaboration with the highly regarded printmaker, Basil Hall of Basil Hall Editions in Darwin
One of these recent etchings is Myrta (Mosquito Medicine) 2005, a beautiful print which refers to the Myrta plant which drives away insects when burnt. The image shows the mosquitoes and sandflies descending like gentle rain, then at about half way, at the point where they approach the smoking plant, we see them turn around and fly upwards again. This print is a departure from images of the past. Instead of using intricate patterning of islander designs to create interest and traditional reference he has used a large expanse of ethereal blue on which the insects and plant is depicted. It seems that Nona is again extending his expressive artistic repertoire.
In recent months the artist has moved in to yet another medium completing two cast bronze sculptures at Urban Art Projects in Brisbane. One is a smaller work of a Dugong and harpoons. The other and most recent work is a massive 2 metres dugong and pup weighing over 200 kilograms. The bronze is incised with the patterning seen in his linocuts that tell a rich and complex story. These works will be exhibited for the first time at the artist's coming solo show in Paris.
The artist's first solo exhibition, "Sesserae, The Works of Denis Nona' showed 3 June -10 July at the Dell Gallery, Queensland College of Art. An exhibition of the more recent works from this show and new prints created during late 2005 and early 2006 will tour Australian capital city galleries and internationally from 2006. The start of the international tour will be at the Australian Embassy in Paris opening 6 April 2006 and then in London during July and August.