It is with great sadness that I write of the death Torres Strait Islander artist Billy Missi at just 42 years of age. He died just before Christmas of a heart attack following complications from a leg infection.
Billy was a great bloke and a fine ambassador for his people. We first met in 2000 when I travelled to Moa Island to consult with the locals hoping to open the first in the Torres Strait Islands. At the time Billy was still earning a living as he had since a teenager, diving for crayfish on the reefs of the Western Torres Straits. He had studied art at the Tropical Far North College of TAFE in Cairns under the inspirational mentor Anna Eglitis and was hoping to make a living from printmaking, sculpture and painting.
He lived on Moa Island in a lovely old island home that had formerly belonged to his grandmother. Here he was surrounded by family memories and dreamed of a future as an artist along with Dennis Nona, David Bosun and Victor Motlop. Our freindhsip began as I wrote a business plan for their flegdeling enterprise during the mornings and we dived for reef fish and crays off idyllic sandy beaches in the afternoons. Later we’d sit around the fire and I’d learn about the unique culture of the Wesetrn Torres Straits. Billy was part of the Wagadam tribe. His major totem was Kodal the crocodile; though being related to both the Dhanghal clan to the east and the Geomu to the south of Mabuiag Island his lesser totems were the dugong and the shovel nosed ray. He knew all of these and other creation stories.
Billy Missi initially came to national attention as an artist when he was awarded the Lin Onus Youth Award in the 2000 Heritage Art Awards in Canberra for his print coloured print, Dhangal Um Araik, depicting his totemic dugong under a rainbow. A raft of awards, group exhibitions and commissions followed over the next decade. He held his first major solo show at Kick Arts in Cairns in 2008. The exhibition Urapun Kai Buai (One Big Kin) subsequently toured to venues around Australia. Fittingly the highlight of Billy’s career occurred during NAIDOC Week in 2011, when his brilliant solo exhibition featuring the most intimate clan designs and imagery was held at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Entitled The works of Billy Missi it was a fitting tribute to a life of a man deeply steeped in his culture.