Dennis Nona is the first Torres Strait Islander artist in the almost quarter-century history of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award to win the overall prize in August 2007 for his majestic bronze sculpture Ubirikubiri 2007.
Nona is from the Kala Lagaw Ya (Western Torres Strait Island) people, whose totems are Tabu (snake) and Tupmul (stingray). Renowned as one of the leading Torres Strait Islander printmakers, Nona recently expanded his ouevre to include three-dimensional works, masterfully transforming his two-dimensional visionary depictions from linocuts on paper – already stunning in their complex portrayal of customary stories – into the medium of bronze.
Ubirikubiri was preceded by Apu Kaz (Mother and baby dugong) 2007, an equally impressive bronze work comprising two intricately cast, life-size dugongs, which in turn developed from earlier life-size carvings of dugongs – a highly prized traditional food for the traditional custodians of the Torres Strait Islands – hewn from far north Queensland cedar.
Both these bronzes were included in Culture Warriors, the inaugural National Indigenous Art Triennial, which opened on 13 October 2007 as part of the Gallery’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations. Nona’s sculptures greet visitors to the exhibition, alongside fellow Queensland artists Danie Mellor’s phantasmagorical installations and Vernon Ah Kee’s wall-text work, creating a whimsical, historical fantasy-scape.
Ubirikubiri depicts an ancestral story originally from Papua New Guinea, the closest neighbours of the Torres Strait Islands. The story involves the Mai Kusi River on the west coast of Papua New Guinea, and Ubirikubiri, the crocodile. The warrior figure lying prone on Ubirikubiri’s reptilian back was killed in retribution for maltreating the crocodile. The intricate carving on the sculpture relates various aspects of the story and is a masterly development of Nona’s skill as a printmaker, evident in the near-biblical creation narrative represented in the impressive 6-metre-long linocut Yarwarr 2007.
This magnificent sculpture has been acquired for the national collection through the magnanimous support of Janet and John Calvert-Jones and will be a key work in the Stage One extensions of the greatly expanded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander permanent collection galleries.
Brenda L Croft
Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010