Shared Sky Shared Sky

Stephen Gilchrist Curator, Indigenous Art, NGV
Dr Allison Holland Curator, Prints and Drawings, NGV

It is four hundred years since Galileo Galilei turned a telescope toward the night sky and observed the movement of the planets around the Sun. These observations supported Nicolaus Copernicus' heliocentric theory and brought about a significant shift in human consciousness. European man could no longer validate the notion that he, on a stationary Earth, occupied the centre of the universe. Following the stars, European explorers found the hidden land of Terra australis incognito and subsequently mapped and renamed Indigenous countries. In contrast, the sky remained innocent of a colonial discourse. Above the contested lands of Australia, the night sky remains open to universal projections of ancient beliefs, nationhood and personal reflection. In this way, diverse cultural interpretations of celestial events and planetary bodies can stand side by side without fear of displacement.

The prints and drawings, as well as other media, in Shared Sky are by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria. Included amongst the fifty works are ones by artists such as Gulumbu Yunupingu, Tim Jones, Leonie Pootchemunka and Ruth Johnstone. A circular motif unifies the ancestral narratives, scientific observations and metaphysical understandings that inspired many of the works. The predominantly white on black palette of the exhibition reflects the visible light our eye discerns emerging from deep space and challenges our reading of positive and negative spatial values. White paper thus becomes dominated by the application of black medium in visualisations of the Milky Way Galaxy and the Sun, Moon and planets of our Solar System.

The relationship between the celestial and the terrestrial is explored in the juxtaposition of black and white against ochre and also conceptually suggested in the star charts that brought Europeans to Australia. In 1515, the Florentine Andrea Corsali (b.1487) sighted the Southern Cross while on board a Portuguese ship heading for the Indian Ocean. He wrote in a letter to his patron Guiliano de Medici of his observation of El Cruzero — a fair and beautiful cross of stars. Melbourne-based artist Felicity Spear has incorporated an engraving of Corsali's El Cruzero into South-Crux, 2005, printed by Michel Szczepanski from the Victorian College of the Arts. The stars of Crux are set against a shadowy, infra-red x-ray taken of the paper gores that wrapped an early seventeenth century celestial globe produced by Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612). Digitally manipulating scans of early maps, time-lapse photographs and x-rays. Spear emphasises the lineage of astronomical research. Each visual fragment exemplifies a conventional way of observing and documenting the night sky that is particular to a time in human history.

Dennis Nona’s Baidam - Shark constellation, 2006, stands in contrast. Nona is recognised as one of the leading artists among a growing number of printmakers from the Torres Strait Islands, whose etchings and linocuts of impressive size and undoubted authority have commanded considerable international attention. His imagination and ambition are unbounded, as evidenced by his recent linocuts measuring six metres in length. While earlier and smaller prints succeeded in revealing elements of these narratives, they were, in essence, studies prefiguring the complexity of his large-scale works. Printed in association with master printmaker Theo Tremblay, the panoramic format allows for a more comprehensive and dramatic retelling of these lengthy customary stories, reproduced in their totality.

The inspiration for the Torres Strait arts of wood and shell carving, and printmaking are the richly textured ancestral narratives that encode land, sea and ceremonial law. Nona's use of the relatively simple technique of linocut is resonant with cultural memory, simulating the physicality and intimacy of ancient carving practices. The intriguing frisson created in his prints is underpinned by Nona's sculptural quintessence, giving the work an extraordinary degree of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane.

At night, when the sea and the land are enveloped in darkness, Nona has turned toward the expansive skies and the seven brilliant stars of Baidam, or the shark asterism. In Baidam - Shark Constellation, contours of diminutive motifs radiate out and around the shark asterism, shimmering like emanations of stellar light or the flow of ocean currents. Nona does not position the stars with complete accuracy, instead scattering them in a way that allows the viewer to imagine the shark's snout pointing right, with the central star marking the dorsal fin and the two stars to the right delineating the caudal fin. Revered for its strength and skill as a hunter, the shark is a potent emblem for Torres Strait Islanders and is often integrated into ceremonial masks and headdresses. In June and July, when the shark is called Baleuka, it can be observed stretched along the northern horizon over Papua New Guinea. This is the time of year when the evenings are typically windless and a slick calms the surface of the sea. It is the breeding season for sharks and an optimum time to plant crops of bananas, taro and cassava. Nona's work visualises the power and speed with which this revered hunter journeys, both above and below the horizon. [1]

Nona experiments with hand colouring, drypoint etchings, lithography and bronze casting, but it is in the graphic simplicity of his black and white linocuts that his composition is at its most heightened and powerful. The intense repetition of interlocking motifs and scrolling patterns create works of great technical and visual sophistication that are rivalled only by other Torres Strait artists. Alick Tipoti also studied alongside Nona at the Canberra School of Art. The subtlety and intricacy of Tipoti's laborious tooling into the linoblock in Zugubai, 2006, is juxtaposed against the muscular forms of Ancestral Warriors and marine animal life. The Zugubai, or spirit beings, have the ability to transform into the elements of the natural world.

These figures form a silhouette against the drama and luminosity of the night sky. The figure on the bow of the canoe blows on a shell, sounding the men's return to the community. The warriors' superhuman powers are manifest in their bold postures, body scarification and elaborate masks. In contrast, the sky is a complex web of intricate motifs that shimmers around two of the warriors, Thagai and his brother Kang. Within the mosaic of the night sky are four black crescent moons that mark the star cluster of Thagai as it moves on its annual journey. The figure of Thagai can be traced in the stars of Centaurus and Lupus. The Southern Cross sits at the end of the spears in Thagai's left hand and in his right hand is the constellation of Corvus. The body and tail of Scorpius make up part of the canoe near where Kang sits and Sagittarius forms the anchor. [2]

Cassandra Laing’s drawing Fortune teller (it will all end in stars), 2007, positions destiny and the transience of human life against the timeless evolution of the universe. Seriously ill, Laing completed this work in the last year of her life, finding that the intellectual and creative process of drawing eased her physical distress. The artist has copied her hands holding a fortune teller, a children's chatterbox game made from folded paper. The surface has been decorated with the spiral arms of the Andromeda galaxy. One can imagine how the expansion and contraction of the origami game fragments this galaxy — like the birth and collapse of stars. Laing's hands, themselves the products of millennium old stellar explosions, hold within them life, death, pre-history, evolution and impermanence. Each work in Shared Sky questions how our relationship with the celestial and terrestrial environments has been based on the need to survive, the desire to progress and the essential belief that beyond the existence of the individual there must be some unexplained but greater power.


[1] Dennis Nona, Allan Currents Contemporary Printmaking from the Torres Strait, (exh. cat.), KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, 2007. p. 43.

[2] Alick Tipoti, Ailan Currents Contemporary Printmaking from the Torres Strait, (exh. cat.) KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, 2007, p. 71.

Reproduced with the permission of the authors and IMPRINT Magazine, vol 44, number 2.