Ellarose Savage: The Savage Sea - Art Collector

Issue 73, July - September 2015

Working from her island home of Erub in the Torres Strait, Indigenous artist Ellarose Savage has a deep personal connection to the sea, the life-giving force in Meuram culture. Jane Raffan writes.
Ellarose Savage, photographed for Art Collector Issue 73, July - September 2015. Courtesy: The artist, Lynette Griffiths, Erub Erwer Meta, QLD and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne

A practising artist since 2003, Ellarose Savage’s oeuvre is innovative, exhibiting a diverse approach to medium and message. Her sculptural forms range in scale and scope: from commanding ceramic totem poles to contemporary abstract clay transformations of spirits. They include a striking array of figuration, from spirits and siblings, to marine animals formed in clay or woven using fishing nets and other at-hand recycled materials. Working in two-dimensional forms, she has produced finely detailed and patterned monochrome linocuts, as well as velvety charcoal drawings, which have recently inspired a contemporary fashion range.

Savage’s art does, however, have a potent common denominator – the artist’s relationship with the sea, the life-giving force in Meuram culture and an important personal inspiration. As one of a group of artists working at Erub Erwer Meta Artists on Erub (Darnley Island), in the Torres Strait, which works to revitalise traditional Meuram culture, Savage often refers to her father’s influence in this regard. “My father always tells us about the importance of life on land and sea: ‘respect things around you, when you are out in the dinghy you have to respect the sea … the sea has life in itself, when you litter … Spirit of the sea will get angry, it will make you suffer’.”

Savage’s ancestral totemic animal is nam (turtle). In 2013, The Australian Museum acquired a magnificent ghost net turtle by the artist, which also features in the new Australia Post release, Collections Australia. Ghost nets are discarded or lost fishing nets that wash up on our northernmost coastlines in frightening quantities and turtles are amongst a host of sea life trapped and killed in their drift. Savage’s ghost net turtle is stitched with recycled industrial twines that echo the turtle’s patination and colouration, awash with the jewel-like iridescence of the sea.

Savage’s artistic practice is highly celebrated. Since 2007, the artist has earned four commendations from the Gab Titui Art Awards (runner up 2011, highly commended 2013, commended 2012 and 2008), which attract entrants from around 18 communities across the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula area. In 2010 she made history at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards with a ceramic sculptural work, the first for a resident Torres Strait Islander woman, which also received a highly commended.

Since then she hasn’t looked back. Savage has been a finalist in the Shepparton Art Museum’s Indigenous Ceramic Art Award twice (in 2011 and 2014), and in 2014 she again made the NATSIAA finals with the highly commended Tiri Sisters, a group of three (tiri) small, highly embellished figures representing childhood memories swimming with her sisters in the waters off Erub – a charming and highly evocative physical rendition of the sea washing over the girls and watching over their spirits. In 2014, the Torres Shire Council awarded her Torres Strait NAIDOC Artist of the Year.

Savage is represented in the collections of the National Museum of Australia and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, where she was commissioned along with other Erub Erwer Meta artists to produce work for the important 2011 exhibition, Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands, the largest exhibition of contemporary art from the Torres Strait ever mounted.

Her coming show at Alcaston gallery in Melbourne features Savage’s new sculptural works built from wood-fired ceramics and ghost nets. Beverly Knight describes the work as “colourful and joyful ceramic objects which celebrate connection to country and culture”. Their physical potency reflects this life force, wrought with unique character through Savage’s technical prowess, tireless innovation and Torres Strait imagination.

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