Dennis Nona: 2007 NATSIAA Winner - Art Collector

Issue 42, October - December 2007

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Dennis Nona’s mark-making has been honed over the years in wood and metal for his highly acclaimed printmaking. Used over the coat of his NATSIA award winning bronze Ubirikubiri, it shimmers like a dazzling Kaleidoscope of information, writes Ashley Crawford.

Softly spoken and painfully shy, Dennis Nona looked more than a little stunned as the media milled around him. The Torres Strait Islander had just been awarded the coveted 24th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA).

“I didn’t expect it,” he said of the non-acquisitive $40,000 award. Nona had also been named one of Australia’s 50 most collectable artists this year in Australian Art Collector magazine.

The winning work – Ubirikubiri – is a massive 3.5 metre bronze of a crocodile, which tells the story of a legend that took place on the Mai Kusa (river) on the West Coast of Papua New Guinea. Nona should not have been surprised, the work is a distinctly daunting affair and, placed in the centre of the gallery it practically throbs with the energy of the story it depicts.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) expressed interest in purchasing the work before it was entered in the prize. The proposal for its purchase is scheduled to go before the National Gallery of Australia Council in October this year. The asking price is reported to be $193,000 but the gallery will not confirm that at this stage.

The work won’t be to everyone’s taste. The intricate carving coating the crocodile’s skin borders on the overly decorative, reflecting the traditional obsession with maximum mark-making inherent in the crafts and arts of the Torres Strait. Cut into the burnished, faintly glowing bronze, it is in essence a transference of Nona’s approach to his renowned linocut prints.

Nona was born on Badu Island in 1973 and as a youth was taught the traditional craft of woodcarving which led directly to the approach he took to linocuts and etchings when he started working in those media in 1989.

For all of his remote upbringing, he has been an ambitious artist indeed. He holds a Diploma of Art from Cairns TAFE, a Diploma of Visual Arts in printmaking from the Australian National University, Canberra and is currently completing a Master of Arts at the Queensland College of the Arts in Brisbane. At the comparatively tender age of 34 his work resides in almost all the major Australian art institutions as well as London’s British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Cambridge University Museum, the Musee d’Art & d’Historie Naturelle de Lyon and the Musee d’Art & d’Historie Naturelle de laRochelle in France and major galleries in Sante Fe, New Mexico and Tokyo.

The NATSIAA has a somewhat unfortunate tendency to treat its winners like film stars with back-to-back 10 minute interviews. Given many of the winners are unused to talking directly to white folk at the best of times, suddenly having to do so under serious time constraints can create little more than confused silences. Under the circumstances it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that Nona has opted to re-tell the story behind the work in almost exactly the same words as those written on the plinth next to the sculpture.

In the story, following the death of his wife, a fisherman decides to get a pet for his daughter to help console her. Firstly he gets her a puppy, which she doesn’t really like. Secondly he gets a piglet but she doesn’t like that either. “One day when he was out spearing fish on the beach he came across a baby crocodile which he caught and took home to show his daughter,” Nona recounts.

“She really liked it and named the crocodile Ubirikubiri. Her father made a holding pen for the crocodile. As it kept growing he kept expanding the pen. When it was fully grown the father went to visit some friends in another village but forgot to feed Ubirikubiri. When he returned the crocodile was starving and very angry. As the father went to feed him Ubirikubiri grabbed him and killed him and broke out of the pen, placing the father on his back and headed off.”

When the daughter returned home she saw the signs of a skirmish and followed the crocodiles tracks, calling out to Ubirikubiri to tell her about her father.

“At Ziba Ziba (that time of day when the sun has almost set) Ubirikubiri appeared on the river bank with her father on his back,” Nona goes on. “She pleaded with the crocodile to give up her father, but he refused and went back into the river.”

There is a moral behind the story, says Nona. If animals are taken from their natural environment they must be cared for properly. This animist element infiltrates all of Nona’s work and reflects the strong heritage of his culture.

A publication from The Australian Print Network describes Nona’s work as a “celebration of island myths and legends, of how humans, animals, plants and landscape took their meaning from epic or magical events in the past. It was a culture where fighting was glorified and warriors were held in high esteem.

Legendary heroes wore distinctive local headdresses and masks … It was a culture of head-hunters, cannibalism and raiding parties that attacked homes built in tree tops. It was a society where men, women, sorcerers and witches came to their final grief by being transformed into sea creatures or cast into the sea to become the islands and rocky outcrops evident throughout the Western Torres Strait Islands today.”

Indeed, Ubirikubiri itself was a massive and epic undertaking. Carved in his studio in Brisbane it was cast in three sections before being welded together for transportation to Darwin. Like wrestling any large croc, it was a dangerous logistical enterprise.

Until now Nona has been essentially renowned for his almost baroque etchings, lithographs and linocuts. One is jolted into recognising the extraordinary cultural diversity of this region via Nona’s work, the hints of the Indonesian isles, of Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia, all filter in and out of these works in an exotic pot pouri. Where much traditional Torres Strait Islander work concentrates on a singular, graphic image, Nona embraces entire narratives and an extraordinarily rich diversity of story telling. The complexity of Nona’s mark-making has inspired Roger Butler, the Curator of Australian Prints at the NGA, to compare Nona’s approach to that of the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, where the simplicity of technique makes for extraordinarily complex images.

Indeed, like Dürer, Nona is engrossed in the stuff of myth-making. His visceral mark-making, honed over the years in wood and metal for his printmaking, shimmers over the coat of Ubirikubiri like a dazzling kaleidoscope of information, a palimpsest of language and story.

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