Robert “Tommy" Pau, Kol Sad Sod, 2023, hand-coloured linocut. Courtesy of NorthSite Contemporary Art and the artist.

Tropical North Queensland is well regarded for its diverse environmental prestige, flanked by the Great Barrier Reef from Gimuy/Cairns to the Zenadth Kes/Torres Strait archipelago and a growing network of national parks across tropical Cape York Peninsula skirting small townships and mining and grazing operations. Less known are the far north region’s diverse contemporary art practices. SpotFire is an exhibition by the First Nations Print Making Program (of the same name) which celebrates some of these figures and harks toward a strong future of versatile printmaking practices.

With a long history—arcing back to their former KickArts identity—NorthSite Contemporary Arts has an affinity with printmaking. Managing the Djumbunji Press Print Archive and supporting local arts organisations such as InkMasters, NorthSite’s love for printmaking sees the medium print well represented in Gimuy/Cairns. Striking graphic works, especially from Zenadth Kes/Torres Strait are instantly recognizable, with many of the islands’ most notable artists working as printmakers. The monochromatic and mesmerising patterns of linocuts are pronounceably ‘Torres Strait’, extending the form of traditional wood and shell carving techniques. Pioneer print artists such as SpotFire’s Brian Robinson, Glen Mackie and Robert “Tommy” Pau saw both colour and more eclectic influences of storytelling introduced to linoprinting, spawning the abundant and yet thematically broad printmaking movement.

The SpotFire Project is the fourth in a series of studio-based programs managed and mentored by master printmaker, Theo Tremblay, initiated to promote access to printmaking facilities for emerging artists and assist in the presentation and promotion of their work. Funds and in-kind support have been provided by Arts Queensland under the Regional Arts Development Fund, UMI Arts, the Thancoupie Bursary, and InkMasters (2011–2022), with the purpose of providing free studio access and technical assistance, one day per week, throughout the year.

SpotFire  installation view, NorthSite Contemporary Art. From left works by Sheryl J Burchill,  Ruth Saveka (textile work), Kassandra Savage and other members of the SpotFire Collective. Photo by Michael Marzik.

Flush along two deep walls of NorthSite’s sunny foyer and shop and into the gallery’s flow-through space, SpotFire showcases artists of all career levels. It’s a welcome commercial space, brimming with fine art and gorgeous locally made merchandise within the tranquility of a contemporary art gallery and cool relief from the frequent humidity of Gimuy/Cairns. The lofty ceilings give ample room for the artworks to resonate; with recent work by Brian Robinson, Frank Anderson, Glen Mackie, Kassandra Savage, Robert “Tommy" Pau, Ruth Saveka, Sheryl J Burchill and Zane Saunders (most known for his performative art pieces and films), the works on paper and fabric test every technique conceivable and producible with a printing press—and share the wide range of SpotFire’s collective inspirations. Standout works are Pau’s large-scale and delicate Kol Sad Sod (2023), a hand-coloured linocut portrait of a vividly decorated woman (perhaps partly inspired by Gustav Klimt?), and Ruth Saveka’s impressive textile screen print Wongai Season (2023) — a celebration of the important bush food, the Wongai plum. Kassandra Savage’s Sunset Glow of Country (2023) vinyl cut depicting birdlife and its totemic importance to kinship customs is another. While each artist contributes works of intricacy and experimentation, Savage is the emerging talent to watch out for. A Waanji and Kurtijar woman from the Gulf of Carpentaria, she started her career as an artist well over a decade ago. Given her busy family life and work an early childhood educator, Savage has had different stages of practice throughout her career, allowing a freedom of expression across styles and techniques. As she describes her motivation, 

I’ve always loved animals—especially brolgas and jabirus (all birds, really). My husband commented once that I have a connection with brolgas, because I see them everywhere I go. And, to my amazement, I recently learnt brolgas are the totem of my Great-Grandmother, Maude (Kurtijar descendant), who was born on Delta Downs. My works reflect my personal experiences, memories and observations, as well as those of my family. I’m making connections to the Country of my people […]. Once I produce my artwork—whether paintings or the various techniques of printmaking—the titles and stories come to me. Some stories are my personal lived experiences and memories, while other stories for my artwork are more factual information. [1]

For the past fifteen years, the Indigenous contemporary art movement from Tropical North Queensland has found its annual, national showcase in the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. When people think of Cairns, they hopefully now think about First Nations art… maybe they also think about climate change and how, like all the unique natural “resources” across the country, ecological threats are poised to affect the wonders of the region. Our artists, of course, are telling the stories of their Country and Sea Territories—the old ways and the changing ways. SpotFire First Nations Print Making Program is one example of the work being done by the sector to upskill and unearth new talent in diverse ranges of arts practice by mostly independent artists. Together they form part of the future of storytelling and arts practice, as well as advocacy of Country. As these artists demonstrate, the printmaking movement from the tropical north is one distinctive cultural asset that will continue to grow.

Printmaker Theo Tremblay (left) and  artist Sheryl J Burchill working as part of the SpotFire First Nations Printmaking Program. Photo: Cristina Belacquiva/The Photo Corner.



  1. ^ In conversation with Cassandra Savage, February 2024.