A yarn with Yam Island's last story teller

Tucked away on Grafton Street, slightly north of the holiday swagger that spills out from the latte precinct in Cairns, is one of Australia's greatest treasures, a double shopfront-gallery that hums with art.

This is Canopy Art Centre, a place that rewrites the cliche that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is also a place busily counting down the days to this week's Cairns Indigenous Art Fair when the arts' world will turn its attention to the more creative side of the cape of Queensland.

Divided into bits, Canopy Art Centre is a Sydney-worthy gallery with the perfect amount of swank, a home for the boldest of bold block prints and sculptures (some commanding up to five thousand dollars a piece), and a working studio that revolves around an over-sized printing press. Those are the parts.

The whole is so much more. Canopy Art Centre is also a meeting ground for local Torres Strait and aboriginal artists and a hub for documenting 40,000 years of legends from Australia's first people, at least while they are still alive to tell them.

The day we rock up to the gallery, owner and master print maker Theo Temblay is kicking back kerbside trading tales with his star artist, Glen Mackie. Like most folks in this region, they welcome us with a lazy smile and an invitation to come on in.

The first thing I note is a fierce monochromatic print of a warrior chief who I learn is Mackie's great, great grandfather, Kebisu, a man who killed some of the first Europeans that came to north Queensland.

“He is the last chief of Yam Island and he was the first one to make contact with the English ships,” explains the softly-spoken Mackie. “His job was to protect the Torres Strait. Our people called white people ghosts (back then). They saw them and thought it was their ancestors come back to haunt them. So, they killed them - again.                                       

It was nothing personal,” he shrugs.

Born in Torres Strait Islands, Mackie moved to Cairns in 2002. He is the only artist from the 600 strong Yam Island, and he sees it as his duty to tell the stories of his people.

“You can't see our place on the map. So, someone has to tell our stories,” he says of the dozens of finely detailed lino block prints that adorn the walls of Canopy Art Centre. Some depict legends, others show family totems like the crocodile or map out hunting grounds.

Mackie believes he could be the island's last story teller.

“It's very important to continue the stories of my community. My culture is dying and I'm scared,” he says, reminding us that Torres Strait Islands only got television in 1992.

“Growing up we used to look for octopus. You don't see that anymore.” On a recent visit home, he “freaked out seeing 10 kids under a tree not talking to each other” their eyes glued to screens.

“For me it's not about the money. I'd rather educate people about my culture.”

Mackie's prints are based around the stories he was told while hanging around with the Elders, and particularly his grandfather who he claims is an inspiration for his work.

“I was always around my grandparents. My granddad taught me carving. He was an artist who did design work on wood, around drums, on artefacts, and on weapons.”

It's at that point that Mackie grabs a 30 cm black wooden club and points to the intricate carving and colourful seeds embedded into the handle. As pretty as it is, the carving has a practical application.

“Blood is really slippery. If you carve into the handle, it's easier to grip,” he says.

Gruesome. But practical. With that, I decide it's time to move back to the prints and the vibrant prints, many larger than two metres and created through a collaborative approach between the artists and the Centre's print maker, Theo Tremblay, whose philosophy is to help artists do bigger sizes and volume prints. 

Artists like Glen (Mackie) already have fine arts skills but by working with us, he can work larger scale work,” says Tremblay.

He then points to Mackie's big pillowy hands and jokes that “those are not meant for small spaces.

Mackie supports this process. “I don't want to do (my art) in little pieces. I like big art. You can feel the stories. You do big (art) and you can tell the whole story at once,” He also admits that he prefers to focus on carving and leave the printing to Tremblay.

One of Mackie's most acclaimed pieces is the story of Mokan, a composition centred around the legend of puffer fish turned into a rock in an act of revenge. The print was entered into the Telstra Awards and although it didn't win any gongs, Mackie won the ultimate prize: the gallery bought one ediiton.

Most prints like the story of Mokan are in black and white (also on display is the exciting newcomer Daniel O'shane whose work is quieter than Mackie's and whose designs provide a background for movement and mood), but I spot a curious splash of block prints with washes of colour.

Tremblay, who has been working in the field for more than four decades and claims that each print can take up to four hours to produce due to the changing variables, sees me looking and explains that colour can fit into the print providing it doesn't take over.  

“A printer sees other things and can take it to a different experience.”

“Sometimes we are an interface with broader public. We reflect on what is working in the sales world and take this back to the artist. 

“We want to keep the artist energised by sales, and colour can sometimes do better in the market. We try different prints and different colours, but the artist always has the first right of refusal if they don't like it.”

As proof of that point, Tremblay recalls one occasion when he, the artist and the gallery owner "had a beauty contest in front of the artist” to judge various tinted versions of the same story.

In the end, they decided to go with the black and white original.

For both the artist and the printer, it seems that the singular most important thing right now is to get the stories out and get them “as close to the grandparents' memories while (the grand parents) are still alive and still can.”

To Tremblay, that is the greatest success. “It's a great moment to see this work exposed to a wider audience. The painting is a document forever.” 

Theo Tremblay is excited about the 2017 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (July 14 – 17) which he claims is a positive vehicle to rally the indigenous art and culture happening in North Queensland. CIAF, he says, gives the locals a market to sell things not considered big ticket items, things like fashion, jewellery and sculpture.  

Canopy Art Centre located at 124 Grafton Street in Cairns is open year round and is one of more than a handful of noted galleries in Tropical North Queensland to support the indigenous arts. Others include:

  1. UMI Arts, 335 Sheridan Street, North Cairns W: umiarts.com.au
  2. Doongall Arts, 49 The Esplanade Cairns, Queensland W: http://www.doongal.com.au/
  3. KickArts, 96 Abbott Street, Cairns W: kickarts.org.au
  4. Janbal Gallery, Mossman W: janbalgallery.com.au
  5. Ngarru Art Gallery, 31 Macrossan Street Port Douglas http://www.ngarrugallery.com.au/
  6. Bana Yirriji Art & Cultural Centre, 736 Douglas Street WUJAL WUJAL http://wujalwujalartcentre.com.au/page/contact
  7. Yarrabah Arts Precinct, south of Cairns http://yarrabah.qld.gov.au/artcentre/

Ends

Author: Shelley Winkel

Word Count: 1294

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