Mad Professor

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As part of her field work in the Torres Strait - which led to the publication in 1970 of Myths and Legends of Torres Strait and Tales from Torres Strait two years later - Margaret Lawrie travelled with art materials which she supplied to local Torres Strait Islanders to illustrate the numerous stories she was collecting on her journey. 

From this, a body of work was created by eight Torres Strait artists — some 71 watercolours and 19 pencil-and-ink sketches on paper depicting a variety of subject matter.

Of the original group — Francis Abai and Kala Waia from Saibai Island and Locky Tom from Boigu Island (north-western Torres Strait, Kala Kawaw Ya language group); Ngailu Bani and Ephraim Bani from Mabuiag Island (western Torres Strait, Kala Lagaw Ya language group); and John Baud, Segar Passi and DH Kabere from Mer Island (eastern Torres Strait, Meriam Mir language group) — Segar Passi is the only artist living today. 

The work with the earliest known date of 31 June 1967 is a watercolour by the Saibai Island artist Kala Waia — Wakemab crawling out into the sea after being clubbed by two men of Ait, illustrating the story of Wakemab. 

Of the 71 works, 38 can be dated to between 1967 and 1968 - the most recent work illustrated in Tales from Torres Strait is Atwer trying to spear Gelam with her pointed stick, by Segar Passi from Mer Island, dated 24 January 1972, illustrating the story of culture hero Gelam. 

These watercolours and pencil sketches comprise the Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection, held by the John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland in Brisbane.

With the increasing national and international prominence of contemporary Torres Strait Islander artists such as Destiny Deacon, Dennis Nona, Alick Tipoti and Billy Missi, the collection contributes to the dialogue on the development of the contemporary Torres Strait art tradition as it is the only collection of its kind representing a distinctive, yet overlooked form of Torres Strait ‘naive realism’. 

At its most fundamental, the theory of naive realism encapsulates the way the majority of people see the world, which is, in turn, based on the assumption that what people see is real, that people experience an instinctive and spontaneous response to their world.8 In the visual arts, it is the literal depiction of what the eye sees and how artists perceive representations and objects, that is, it is the object itself which is important, rather than the form it takes. It is the view of the world taken at face value, with objects having the literal properties they appear to have. 

Therefore, when Maurie Eseli of Mabuiag tells the story, on 6 October 1967 of how the mythological being Amipuru of Wagedagam grabbed the legs of a pelican ‘which flew into the air and circled Wagedagam...[flying] across Mabuiag...and out over the passage between Mabuiag and Kuiku Pad (Jervis Reef)’, the Mabuiag artist Ephraim Bani illustrates the story by literally depicting Amipuru holding onto the legs of a pelican as it flies over the sea with Mabuiag Island in the background (pictured above). 

For naive realist painters, the subject matter itself tends to be defined very much by local geography, and the manners and the customs of the artist. Arguably, nature, in particular, is not viewed in any abstract sense, because, for the artist, it is simply there — it is a literal fact, it exists. Nature is the background to daily life and is, of course, something with which the artist is thoroughly familiar. This is vividly depicted in the watercolor Kuiam in Daudai (New Guinea) by Ephraim Bani.

The story of Kuiam recounts the history of the part-Aboriginal, part-Torres Strait Islander culture hero and warrior, who created a trail of death and destruction from Mabuiag in the west to Boigu Island in the north-west, and subsequently to the Papuan coast bordering the Torres Strait. 

Ephraim Bani depicts Kuiam in full battle dress, walking on water and dragging a string of severed and bleeding human heads. In the background, billowing smoke directs the eye to a burning hut under a glowering sky, hinting at an apocalyptic massacre. This portrayal of Kuiam, with his gruesome trophies, graphically captures the pre-contact reputation of Torres Strait Islanders as ferocious headhunters. Although the work was painted in 1967, nearly 100 years after the arrival of the London Missionary Society in the region in 1871, the local geography and setting, as well as traditional manners and customs, are evident; there is also some idealisation and romanticism. 

Naive art has variously been described as primitive art, folk art, innocent art, non-academic art, immediate art, self-taught art and peasant art. At its core, however, naive art is predominantly self-taught. In the World Encyclopedia of Naive Art, Bianca McCullough writes that the truly naive artist could be characterised as: 

...uninfluenced by artistic conventions, often without proper education or the necessary artistic tools, the ‘Innocent Observer’ set out to record in his spare time or after retirement from a physically arduous job, what he had absorbed through close contact with nature and animals. If the paints available were house enamels and the brushes had to be improvised from horse-hair or frayed twigs, this did not deter the painter. Since there was no market for his works and no recognition from outsiders, the subjects and execution stayed completely personal — truly innocent, unselfconscious and spontaneous.

As a generalisation, naive realism comfortably describes the works in the Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection. None of the artists had any formal art training or ready access to the use of non-Indigenous art materials. Passi readily admits he is essentially self-taught. As a young boy, he sourced his pigments by crushing different coloured stones and mixing them with saltwater; he used dried pandanus as a brush to paint on large flat rocks. His mother eventually bought him watercolours from the Thursday Island administrative centre. There is a spontaneity and freshness in these watercolours, such as the standout suite of fish and bird studies by Passi, as well as The coconut palm which grew in the shape of a cross after being struck by lightning and Two women standing in water and pointing at each other, both by Kala Waia; and Kuiam in Daudai and Amipuru by Ephraim Bani. 

The term ‘naive realism’, however, has been used here simply as a matter of convenience. Some negative associations advocate a move away from the word ‘naive’; for example, its association with the term ‘primitive’ and with underdeveloped consciousness and arrested development is reflected in what is seen conventionally as defective anatomy and a lack of perspective on subject matter. More generally, the term is considered politically incorrect, especially when used in the indigenous context, as it misrepresents the degree of sophistication inherent in conceptual and spatial thinking, particularly in the work of Aboriginal artists. 

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The term ‘naive realism’ also fails to capture the natural ability exhibited by artists such as Segar Passi, seen in the suite of 20 fish and bird studies, as well as in the two intimate pencil sketches of children, Two portraits of children and Three portraits of children. Although there is an incredible richness and depth in each of the 64 watercolours, the fish and bird studies by Passi are exemplary works that, arguably, test the ‘naive realism’ characterisation of the works of his contemporaries. In the suite, Passi depicts 135 different species of fish and birds native to his home island of Mer, ranging from the common sardine — extensive shoals of which are still seen off the island’s shores — to sharks, marine mammals and bird life. 

The Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection may be seen to fill a chronological and stylistic gap between the predominantly three-dimensional sculptural tradition of pre-contact Torres Strait cultural production and the distinctive contemporary markmaking tradition of formally-trained contemporary artists — including Nona, Tipoti and Missi. Historically, the art tradition of the Torres Strait has been primarily sculptural, with work centred on the realistic depiction of the human or animal form. Abstract design was expressed largely as mark-making on the surface of these sculptures. This tradition has transformed into the development of increasingly intricate designs in the linocut medium, as a result of the inherited carving ability of Cairns TAFE students, and markmaking relating to the incising of historical turtle shell masks from the Torres Strait. 

The watercolours also point to a tradition of public art in the Torres Strait, which included, up until the 1970s, the decoration of triumphal arches, erected in villages to welcome visiting dignitaries, as well as murals adorning public buildings. The tradition also includes ‘revelation paintings’, produced by artists to embellish village churches. These paintings tended to depict Islanders in traditional dress, along with Christ, against a background of specific geographic landmarks. Unfortunately, many of these paintings were discarded with the deconsecration and dismantling of older church buildings in favour of new modern constructions. Similarly, the temporary nature of the arches themselves meant that any painted elements were destroyed when the structures were no longer needed. Today, the Anglican Church in St Pauls Village, on Moa Island, contains one of the few remaining revelation-style paintings by Segar Passi.

Due to geographic and cultural circumstances, the artists represented in the Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection enjoyed limited opportunities to produce consistent bodies of work beyond the years associated with Lawrie’s time in the Torres Strait.

The Australian Indigenous art scene has been dominated by such luminaries in naive art styles as the late Ian Abdulla from South Australia, Pantjiti Mary McLean of the Ngaatjatjarra people of the Western Desert, and the late Ginger Riley Munduwalawala of the Mara people of the Northern Territory, as well as the late HJ Wedge from New South Wales.

Therefore, it is now time for the artists represented in the Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection to be afforded a degree of recognition as meaningful contributors to the historical landscape of Australian art.

 

* This is an edited version of the essay 'Myths and Legends: The Margaret Lawrie Works on Paper Collection' by Tom Mosby, published in The Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, 2011

 

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