Australia has roughly 8000 islands within its maritime borders. While many are sites of difficult histories, they also maintain their unique identities through song, stories, dance and visual art, often in environments characterised by isolation and significant external influences. Here is an overview of the Indigenous Australian artists and projects from Tasmania, Arnhem Land, the Torres Strait and the Pacific — who combine their geography and creative talents to honour their island heritage.
Island life is often likened to living in ‘paradise’. Though this is rarely true, island life offers numerous Indigenous Australians opportunities for creativity and continuity. Of the 8000 islands within Australia’s maritime borders (both offshore and in mainland rivers), many are renowned for their Indigenous artists.1
Many Australian islands are sites of difficult histories. Due to their isolation, Indigenous Australians have, at times, unwillingly harboured misfits and mercenaries and had wrong-doers incarcerated in their midst. Similarly, their enclaves have been commandeered to enact cruel control over their own people. Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have also endured the exploitation of their rich marine resources. They have been forced to provide safe ports for trade ships, to engage in border and quarantine protection, and to perform governance and administrative roles for the mainland.
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Despite these incursions and ongoing restrictive government policies, many Indigenous island cultures maintain their unique identities, and enrich the spectrum of Australian life immeasurably through song, stories, dance, visual art, and a poetic and practical understanding of the natural world. Four of Australia’s largest islands include Bathurst and Melville in the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, and Mornington and Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. All are known for their art. Consciously engaging with the arts and creating celebratory occasions to memorialise their histories are acts that provide residents with social cohesion that nourishes and inspires, and also opens pathways to the wider world.
Lutruwita (Tasmania) in the south is, of course, Australia’s largest isle. Tayaritji (Furneaux Group) to the north-east of Lutruwita is made up of remnants of an ice age land bridge that connected to the southern tip of Victoria. Growing up in Tayaritji on Cape Barren and Flinders Islands, Palawa woman Lola Greeno enjoyed a rich community life surrounded by the cool, clear waters of Bass Strait, where she learnt the ways of collecting and preparing shell species to make exquisite necklaces, as practised by generations of her ancestors.
In her twenties, Greeno moved to mainland Launceston with her family and studied the ancient art further with her mother. Together, these women played an important role in an intergenerational movement responsible for a vibrant reworking of shell necklace making. The opalescent beauty of the necklaces commands world attention, and Palawa artists continue in the spirit of ‘waranta takara milaythina nara takara’ (‘we walk where they once walked’), ever mindful of honouring their ancestral heritage.
Disturbingly, though, the formerly pristine marine domain of the artist’s home is altering, making even the most common shells difficult to source. Changing weather patterns and climatic disturbances are causing radical environmental damage to the shell beds on the ocean floor. Even one degree of the water warming can kill kelp forests and marine flora. On Tasmania’s east coast in early 2018, Greeno and her family were shocked to find tonnes of sand, dumped by freak wave action, burying the penguin shells they were to collect. Sadly, too, the magnificent king maireener shells, once plentiful, are now rarely found.
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In the far north of Australia, Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy have spent most of their lives on their tiny island home of Langarra in the Arafura Sea. The sisters now live on nearby Milingimbi (Yurrwi), the largest of the Crocodile Islands. Milingimbi’s richly layered histories are marked by remnants of its bombing by the Japanese during World War Two, and subsequent occupation by the Royal Australian Air Force. In addition, groves of ancient tamarind trees remain after hundreds of years of seasonal occupation by the Macassans from south Sulawesi, who came in their large wooden perahu to collect and process trepang (sea cucumber) for sale to the Chinese. Macassan history is celebrated on Milingimbi in colourful ceremonies, songs and dances that recall their knives, swords, pottery, textiles, palm-flower wine and sailing vessels, as well as the trade winds that enabled their journey to and from Marege (Australia). Intermarrying and sharing language cemented their connection, with over 1000 ‘loan’ words now incorporated into the Yolngu languages. In pre-Macassan times, only rock, clay and charcoal pigments were used to colour weaving fibres; however, the cooking pots they introduced were used by Yolngu to boil plant materials, producing a larger range of colours. In a process they hold secret, Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy (both master weavers) experimented with local leaves to find the rich black dye that now distinguishes their remarkable works.
Always open to new influences, pop icon Madonna — whose music rang out from boom boxes and discos in north-east Arnhem Land in the 1980s — and her corset like costumes inspired Rarru to make her ‘Madonna bras’: simply two small conical baskets bound together with a woven string harness. These days, the music is more likely to be by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (1971–2017), the revered Australian musician who grew up on nearby Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).
Erub (Darnley Island) is the furthest Australian territory to the north-east. In 1871, English and Kanak missionaries sailed across the Coral Sea from Lifou in the Pacific’s Loyalty Islands to introduce Christianity. The faith spread from Erub throughout the Torres Strait, and elaborate annual ceremonies mark the ‘Coming of the Light’, a melding of Christian and customary beliefs in contemporary island life.
Many of the Lifou missionaries stayed on Erub and lost contact with their families; however, an emotional reunion in 2011 between distant relatives sparked new connections. The resulting project explores bloodlines, heritage and spiritual connections with the land and sea. Initiated on Lifou, the two groups drew around each other’s bodies using charcoal on lengths of paper, a process from which significant narratives and personal memories emerged. Back on Erub, the works were embellished by the Torres Strait Islander artists. The project sees its completion at GOMA, with Jimmy K Thaiday drawing directly onto the Gallery’s walls. These powerful drawings, presented for the first time in APT9, are testament to the ties that will forever connect Erub and Lifou.
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These practices reveal Australia’s island cultures to be far more than a fictionalised ideal. Lola Greeno continues Palawa traditions, while bringing attention to the environmental threats to our fragile marine ecology. Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy make art in an ancient culture, more recently influenced by centuries-old trade routes, while artists from Erub and Lifou come together in observation of strong historical ties. Often working in environments characterised by isolation and significant external influences — both historical and contemporary — these artists use their geographical conditions and considerable creative talents to reveal elements of ‘paradise’ of their island lives.
Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA
1 In addition to Australian island-based artists, APT9 also includes: Mao Ishikawa (Okinawa), Kapulani Landgraf (Hawai’i), Martha Atienza (Bantayan Island), Tongan-Australian artist Latai Taumoepeau, the Jaki ed Project from the Marshall Islands, Chris Charteris and the Tungaru: The Kiribati Project, and the Women’s Wealth project connecting women from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.
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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
Feature image: Lola Greeno, Australia b.1946 / Netepa menna (and detail) 2018 / Abalone shells spaced with echidna quills / 43.5cm (diam.) / Purchased 2018 with funds from The Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer AM through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Lola Greeno