In his epically scaled print destined to hang in the 2012 Sydney Biennale Alick Tipoti has brought to visual realisation the songs and stories of his Torres Strait Islander heritage. Tipoti’s work stems from the spiritual and cultural traditions of his native language, Kala Lagaw Ya, of the Maluilgal nation of Zenadh Kes. In the continuing innovation of printmaking by Torres Strait Islander artists, Tipoti, born in 1975, develops the language of the linocut to the scale of a performance. His latest large-scale work Girelal (2011) is over 8 metres long and presents traditional dances and associated figures on a stage-like setting. The complex interweaving of figures and designs reveals the cyclical connections between natural phenomena, the physical movement of dance and the spirit world of the ancestors.
Tipoti has developed a rigorous and passionate art practice to ensure the maintenance and survival of his cultural traditions. Through analysis and innovation he continuously animates his language’s stories and genealogies making them relevant for contemporary life. He received an Advanced Diploma in Arts at the TAFE College on Thursday Island and a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the School of Art, ANU, Canberra. Tipoti maintains his base in the Torres Strait Islands but frequently travels to further his art practice and to research the material culture of his Islander heritage now stored in ethnographic museums.
His commitment to maintenance and renewal of his traditions has involved extensive research incorporating the oral traditions of his elders and the ethnographic collections and research into Torres Strait Islander traditions that have occurred since colonisation. His responses to this research have become manifest in exciting innovations in both his cultural practices and the European tradition of printmaking. These innovations have received great recognition resulting in Tipoti being awarded the 2007 Telstra Prize for Works on Paper and his inclusion as the first Torres Strait Islander artist in the Biennale of Sydney in its 39-year history.
Whilst he was initially trained in printmaking Tipoti has extended his practice to include the crafting of traditional masks that he has translated into modern materials such as fibreglass and resin to replace the traditional turtle shell. His knowledge of Melanesian designs, ceremonial objects and masks is faithfully woven into his linocut prints while the content of his artworks flows out of the chants and stories that thread through the language groups of the Islands.
The effort in cutting and printing such a large work as Girelal is a performance in itself requiring great stamina and concentration. Tipoti has developed a fluency in his cutting so that the weaving bands of designs appear to float naturally and effortlessly across the paper. The large scale of the work is made possible through collaboration with printer Theo Tremblay who has designed special equipment and techniques for the purpose. Financial support has come from the Australian Art Print Network who recognise the need for the grand narratives of the Torres Strait Islands to be expressed in the visual arts.
In Girelal Tipoti not only presents a tableau of dancers engaged in a performance but also activates the print through a sophisticated composition that draws the viewer in a continuing cycle along the print. There is a beautiful melodic current flowing throughout the work that sweeps the viewer around the narrative. The melody begins on the right with three elders drumming and calling on the spirits to guide the young dancers. The current flows over four young men calling on Bu shells, and then sweeps around into the fecund world of ancestral figures. This section refers to the relationships and responsibilities held between uncles and nephews. Their depiction and the wealth of knowledge contained within this work signals Tipoti’s significant role in maintaining and invigorating his culture’s traditions.
Tipoti has created an epic mural for the transmission and enjoyment of knowledge. The work envelops the viewer in the poetry and cyclical nature of Torres Strait Islander dances. Each mark is imbued with meaning and is rich in associations. An immersion in this work is richly rewarding as travelling through its grand scale and intricacy becomes a performance in itself.
Jan Hogan is an artist, writer and researcher based in Gundaroo, who is committed to cross-cultural dialogue.