Tipoti, Tupou and Tradition: A Story Told Through Prints

Place and heritage have a tremendous effect on one’s development as a person, and on how we lead our individual lives. History and culture also shape the work of Australian indigenous artist, Alick Tipoti, and New Zealand/Tongan contemporary artist, Sam Tupou. The influence of both cultures is woven through their works. Tipoti’s work displays the immediate visual elements of Torres Strait Island art, whilst Tupou’s melds contemporary street art, Pop culture style and the fundamentals of Tongan printmaking. How has time and place influenced the messages and stories portrayed through each of these artists’ original styles?

Alick Tipoti was born in 1975 on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, north of Cape York Peninsula and south of Papua New Guinea (Queensland Art Gallery). He grew up on Badu Island and from an early age developed a fascination for art of the Torres Strait, re-telling the stories of the past through detailed prints (Howell, 2010). Tipoti’s work is built on and held together by traditional Torres Strait designs, maintaining traditional patterns in order to pass on the stories of the past to today’s generation. Printmaking and material culture throughout the Torres Strait Islands was long marginalised by European settlers, with the entire collection of islands being converted to Christianity by 1880. Among the islanders, this conversion was known as ‘The Coming of the Light’. As the people’s beliefs changed, so did their approach to material culture; specific headdresses and artefacts for unique ceremonies were lost. In fact, it was said that the missionaries on each of the islands forbade the production of traditional Torres Strait symbols and artefacts (Australian Art Print Network).

Through his work Apu Kaz (2008), included in the exhibition ‘Land, Sea and Sky’ (2011), at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Tipoti continues to tell the stories of his place, passed down through generations. Apu Kaz tells the story of one of the Torres Strait’s most treasured animals, the dugong and her calf. The intricate print displays Tipoti’s exceptional skill, which he honed through his early wood carvings on Badu Island.

The concentric lines flowing around the mother and calf represent the strong tidal currents of the Western Torres Strait. Tipoti’s region of the Strait has over eighty different words to describe the flow and direction of different currents. This knowledge is a key to the treasure chest of the ocean. Tidal currents represent the changing seasons and, therefore, dictate the dugong’s feeding areas, determining hunting patterns (Howell, 2010).

Contrasting against the flowing lines of the current are the bold yet graceful forms of the mother dugong teaching her calf how to dive, a vital life skill for the calf to feed. Tipoti’s masterful printing techniques are complimented with the creative use of acid brushed upon the linoprint block, allowing the ink to pool in hollows in the block and creating the blotched yet natural appearance on the dugong’s skin (Howell, 2010). The piece is finished with a soft, hand painted water-colour, providing both mother and calf with a distinct glow. The print as a whole draws the viewer in. One becomes lost in the intricate patterns created in the current, the depth of texture achieved throughout the dugongs’ bodies and the overall calming influence of a mother. Tipoti’s history and the influence that his own place has on his printmaking is evident through his traditional patterns and techniques, and can be seen to be an intrinsic motivator for him to continue the stories of his culture for the next generation. 

New Zealand born Sam Tupou’s approach to traditional Tongan printmaking techniques takes a different path to that of Tipoti, yet still places great significance on his own Tongan heritage. Born in New Zealand to a Tongan father, Tupou was steeped in a rich tradition and culture of art steming from the Pacific Islands. Working from Cairns, Tupou creates stories through screenprinting, depicting the modern day dilemas of cultural identity and immigration (Manton, 2008). Tupou creates these images cleverly, incorporating patterns from the traditional Tongan ‘tapa’ cloth designs. Traditionally these tapa were made in very large pieces, roughly four metres wide and up to twenty-five metres in length. The recurring pattern was then painted as a village exercise, with each individual given the job of painting a fifty centimetre square. Traditional Tapa was originally used as clothing, now replaced by cotton and other textiles. Today, Tapa can still be seen at formal occasions such as weddings, can be used as blankets and is also highly prized for its aesthetic value, regularly seen hanging upon walls as decoration. Tupou does not directly mirror these patterns, but rather equally incorporates the traditional Tongan Tapa designs, surf imagery, suburban material along with modern pop culture to create a somewhat ‘new tapa’. This seamless combination of the old and the new is seen in Tupou’s work, Candy Apple (2005). This screenprint on perspex incorporates the traditonal Tongan tapa designs, repeated in the flower-like pattern over the background of the print. Tupou’s contemporary style, and his message revolving around consumerism, is seen through the man in the foreground holding an apple, coincidently the logo of the biggest electronics brand in the world: Apple. His traditional use of pattern and repetition along with his deft jab at the materialistic world of today are cleverly combined, creating the ‘new tapa’ pictured. Compare this to the more ‘customary’ and visually traditional appeal of Tipoti’s work, which paints an entirely different picture. But does this mean Tipoti’s work is influenced more by his own place and heritage? I think not.

Neither Tupou nor Tipoti strictly follow the notion of ‘tradition’: both are resolutely contemporary. Both successfully juggle the contemporary with the cultural. Their work is quintessentially postmodern, taking the best and most powerful symbolism from their own, esoteric backgrounds and mixing it with critical issues pertinent to hybrids such as themselves—indigenous men living in a post-colonial world. Tipoti achieves this in his retelling of ancient Torres Strait stories through contemporary linoprints which use the ‘imported’ modern media of vinyl, acid and watercolour. Tupou’s combination of the visually appealing Queensland coastal surroundings and pop art flair with that of traditional Tongan printmaking seamlessly blends the somewhat ‘old’ with the new. In both artists’ work, the medium of printmaking and an attention to pattern have provided a key in melding the traditional with the contemporary and indicate the complex interactions that make up contemporary Oceanic culture.

notes: 

Queensland Art Gallery, Alick Tipoti, (n.d.). Queensland Art Gallery – Gallery of Modern Art: http://qag.qld.gov.au/collection/indigenous_australian_art/alick_tipoti (accessed 11 October 2011).
Howell, E. Collection Search – Apu Kaz (Dugong mother and calf) 2008, 2010. Art Search – Gordon Darling Graduate Intern: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=198976 (accessed 13 October 2011).
Manton, J., Samuel Tupou – Biography, 2008. Jan Manton Art: http://www.janmantonart.com/ARTISTS/SAMUELTUPOU/tabid/1956/Default.aspx (accessed 13 October 2011).
The Australian Art Print Network, Torres Strait Islands. The Australian Art Print Network – Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Prints: http://www.aboriginalartprints.com.au/regions_details.php?region_id=9 (accessed 11 October 2011).
Tupou, S., Sam Tupou – News, 2010. Sam Tupou: http://samueltupou.com/ (accessed 28 October 2011).
Image page 76. Alick Tipoti, Kala Lagaw Ya people, Apu kaz, 2008. Linocut, hand coloured on Hahnemüle paper. 240 x 120cm. Purchased 2010. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection Queensland Art Gallery. © The artist.

Angus Ryan
Downlands College