The talented mid-career Injinoo artist, Teho Ropeyarn’s latest exhibition, Ulada Ikya Ami, was held at KickArts, Cairns. It illustrated the history and fate of the artist’s family and culture, through a fine display of his talent as a carver and printer, who takes risks and pushes the medium of printmaking.
The exhibition was Ropeyarn’s most comprehensive to date and offered three bodies of work that spanned the different stages of Injinoo and the history of Northern Cape York Peninsula. The first body of work, Ulada, depicted the beforetime and dreaming of the Northern Cape Peninsula, the second Umany depicted European colonisation, and finally Uta depicted the post-colonisation era. Ropeyarn clearly communicated the key aspects of each of these stages, bringing together a well researched, intelligent and culturally significant body of work.
Reflecting on the significance of the exhibition, Teho Ropeyarn says,
Ulada Ikya Ami was a huge project spanning three years of research and stories recorded on country and stories that have been passed on since primary school. […] The idea was to record old stories both traditional and historical so it is there for future generation and am proud that I had the opportunity to work closely with my elder the late Rev Ama Mary Eseli who held a significant amount of knowledge along with many other senior elders; Papa Rusty Williams and other community elders and leaders.1
Key works in the beforetime section of the exhibition included the Ulada that depicted the creation story, and the Umbah (carpet snakes) that made the Great Dividing Range. Both works, printed by Justin Majid, introduced unique textured elements to the print. Printmaking is an exacting art form, however Ropeyarn experimented and successfully incorporated his own style by using textured aspects and applying acrylic washes to the surface of the prints.
The beforetime section also included a print of a simple but haunting image of Bula Bula. The work illustrates a spirit figure based on rock art drawings found in a cave at Somerset Beach. Ropeyarn acknowledged the rock art to be the ancestral property of the Gudang People, Cape York Peninsula. The combination of scale, colour and simplicity made Bula Bula one of the strongest works in the exhibition.
The middle section of the exhibition, Umany, illustrated the violence and turmoil Ropeyarn’s family experienced during European colonisation in the 1860s. In particular it gave voice to the atrocities carried out by John Jardine, the Police Commissioner at the time, who set out to establish Somerset as a government outpost. It also referenced his two sons Frank and Alexander Jardine.2 This section of the exhibition was explicit and confronting. The work, Killer Sweets, saw Ropeyarn re-create the story of children who had been lured with sweets by Frank Jardine and then shot if they ran away. Only those children who did not run away and fall for his trick survived. Ropeyarn printed the images of sweets transforming into bullets on paper. He then cut the images out into stencils and installed them as a wall piece, effectively creating a paper installation.
Although a confronting work, I believe Killer Sweets saw Ropeyarn find the right balance of imagery and story in order to engage the viewer and communicate the atrocious tale. This section of the exhibition significantly relates to the ongoing debate with the United States around how some historical figures are acknowledged wrongly, and more recently by Australian journalist Stan Grant about how some Australian colonial and post-colonial figures are commemorated. As Justin Bishop, Director of KickArts, notes, ‘The works in the exhibition reveal a depiction of Australian history often left unwritten, one that allows for the acknowledgement of atrocities that occurred through Umany—European Colonisation’.
The third and final section of the exhibition, Uta, meaning later on, communicates the conscious settlement of the four tribes’ clans at Injinoo in the 1900s: the Gudang, Angkamuthi, Yadhaykana and Atambaya nations.3 Two works in this section, Tribal Fighting and the Religious Fracture, introduced the mentorship of respected printer and artist Paul Bong. Ropeyarn acknowledged the realism achieved in these works was through the use of Paul Bong’s intaglio printing techniques. The notable work in this section was But You Don’t Look Aboriginal, where again Ropeyarn bravely illustrated a contemporary issue he personally faces everyday—the ignorance of how many perceive Indigenous people should look.
In summary, there are two key aspects that make this exhibition important. Firstly, the use of experimentation and the introduction of washes and treatments to the printing process. Secondly, the way Ropeyarn communicates the effect and history of the Jardine family on his family and culture. The Jardine name is still widely referenced in the region and it is brave for Ropeyarn to illustrate so powerfully the massacre and violence that occurred at Somerset during colonisation.
It is important that Indigenous artists are recognised and given voice when they bring to light important historical events and issues. Communicating such issues reveals Ropeyarn as a serious contemporary artist, and one that I hope is given many more opportunities to share his knowledge and history.
Teho Ropeyarn, Killer Sweets, 2017. Vinyl cut print on 300gsm hahnemuhle paper, edition of 5. Printer: Teho Ropeyarn.
Image courtesy the artist and KickArts Contemporary Arts.
Teho Ropeyarn, Bula Bula, 2017. Vinyl cut print on 300gsm hahnemuhle paper 222x121cm edition of 5, Printer: Theo Tremplay. Image courtesy KickArts Contemporary Arts.
1. Teho Ropeyarn Working Blog Facebook. See https://www.facebook.com/TehoRopeyarnArtist/posts/874220979401929
2. Teho Ropeyarn Ulada Ikya Ami (Listening to Beforetime Stories), ex. cat., KickArts Contemporary Arts, Cairns, p.25.
3. Ibid p.17.