Cairns Indigenous Art Fair: A sorcerer's tale from Cape York transforms waste into art

The Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre

On the western side of Cape York, in Queensland is The Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre. The centre helps indigenous artists create and showcase their work.

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Only fools and intruders seek relief from the north Queensland heat in the waters of the Chapman River. 

If the bull sharks, stone fish and stingrays do not make waders wary, then the three-metre saltie lying on the other side of the river surely demands respect.

Senior Pormpuraaw artist Sid Bruce Short Joe.

Senior Pormpuraaw artist Sid Bruce Short Joe. Photo: Janie Barrett

Slowing down his battered four-wheel-drive, Paul Jakubowski, the manager of Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre, jokes: "He just wants his belly rubbed."

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But the danger posed by crocodiles is no laughing matter. Two dogs were taken near the river by a crocodile the previous week and a kill order has been issued, according to one of the constables stationed at Pormpuraaw.

One of the most remote communities in Australia, the town of around 700 people is in Thaayorre country on the western side of Cape York, three hours from the highway and 650 kilometres from Cairns.

Steven Kepper in the Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre.

Steven Kepper in the Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre. Photo: Janie Barrett

But another killer as dangerous as the saltwater crocodile inhabits the warm waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Ghost nets, or fishing nets abandoned or lost at sea, ensnare dugongs, dolphins, sharks and other marine life and birds as well as posing a danger to hatchling turtles when they wash up on beaches along the western side of Cape York.

The ghost nets are gathered by rangers and given to Jakubowski and Pormpuraaw's artists led by Sid Bruce Short Joe, a finalist in the 2015 National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. 

Janina Harding, artistic director of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, visiting Pormpuraaw.

Janina Harding, artistic director of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, visiting Pormpuraaw. Photo: Janie Barrett

The artists clean and untangle the nets, a laborious process that often involves removing dead marine animals, for later use in sculptures that have been collected by the Australian Museum. Their work is also on display alongside artists from other northern Australian communities in the Taba Naba – Australia, Oceania, Arts of the Sea People exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

Short Joe, who speaks nine languages as well as English, will be artist-in-residence at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra on July 6, sharing the stories behind the ghost net sculptures as part of NAIDOC Week.

He says practising art is a way of connecting with his ancestors: "I can feel them, they are with me and the more feeling I have from my ancestors, I want to do more that is based on true stories. If I can't write it, I can paint it."

The remote Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw in Cape York is 650 kilometres from Cairns and three hours from the nearest highway.

The remote Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw in Cape York is 650 kilometres from Cairns and three hours from the nearest highway. Photo: Janie Barrett

The latest ghost net sculpture created by Pormpuraaw's artists is one of their most ambitious – an almost eight-metre saltwater crocodile, twisting and snapping its jaws open as a lean figure sits astride its powerful back. The artwork pays homage to the feared and revered creature – a totemic animal for the people of Pormpuraaw – and tells the story of sorcerers who create a small crocodile from the bark of a local tree.

"He shapes the crocodile and sings special songs praising him as his own son," Short Joe says.

Left alone to grow up, the crocodile remains under the spell of the sorcerer, obedient and afraid of its owner, adds Eric Norman, the artist behind the extraordinary ghost net sculpture.

Eric Norman with the almost eight-metre ghost net sculpture of a crocodile he created with other Pormpuraaw artists for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

Eric Norman with the almost eight-metre ghost net sculpture of a crocodile he created with other Pormpuraaw artists for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Photo: Janie Barrett

Norman's quiet voice is almost drowned out by the screech of corellas that flock to the town at dawn and dusk as he relates the story of the crocodile sorcerer. It is one of many stories based on the land and animals of the region that find expression in song, dance and art. 

The crocodile sculpture began life as a chalk drawing sketched on the wall of the art centre by Norman, with the remainder of its body sketched on the floor. A number of artists helped Norman bring his drawing to life, creating a skeleton from wire, flesh from ghost nets and even carving wooden fish to fill his belly. The artists plan to add LED lighting to the sculpture before it is unveiled on the opening night of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair on July 15.

The sorcerer's tale will also be told by a troupe of dancers from Pormpuraaw performing their crocodile dreaming story, says the fair's artistic director Janina Harding.

"Whether you're painting or making ghost net sculptures, it's just another way of telling that story," she says. "They've made this crocodile and it's telling the story of their dreaming.

"And when they start dancing around it and to it, that's all part of it. It's another way of expressing culture."

Harding has given the event a festive atmosphere, describing the art fair as "the jewel in the crown". But the program also includes an art market, exhibition of works from Queensland art centres, a fashion "performance" of garments designed and modelled by Indigenous people plus talks, concerts and art shows.

Pormpuraaw's art centre caters for a core group of around a dozen artists who paint, print, etch and carve. It is particularly renowned for contemporary painting, carved wooden law poles and the iconic ghost net sculptures.

The art centre's turnover is about $80,000 a year – a substantial sum given the community is far from any tourist trail and cut off by floodwaters for up to five months of the year. It is funded though the federal government's Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support program, which provided $22 million to 97 organisations in 2015-16 including $332,505 for Pormpuraaw.

Harding says art centres serve as a focal point for the community as well as aiming to provide an opportunity to express culture and achieve economic independence.

"It's just a great place to hang out for people," Harding says. "As you can imagine, there's not much to do, there's little employment going on in these communities."

A cluster of cinderblock buildings, many adorned with vibrant murals, house the art centre, open-air church, post office and supermarket, forming a town square that is busy with children, elders and camp dogs before the heat intensifies. Sunset raises the town's tempo with children kicking footballs, while their elders play card games under a towering mango tree.

Families tend to be large and are started from a young age. Jobs are scarce and Pormpuraaw is afflicted with the same social and health issues that plague Indigenous communities across Australia although the town's isolation has saved it, for now, from the scourge of the drug ice.

But Jakubowski, who has been art centre manager for seven years, says the community is welcoming.

"People are friendly," he says. "They've been very good to me. They call me brother, they call me uncle and they don't call everyone that. You have to earn that."​

Steven Kepper is one of Pormpuraaw's ghost net sculptors, creating a menagerie of wildlife – turtles, octopuses, dugongs and big salties – from discarded electrical wiring and fishing nets. The sculptures begin life as chalk outlines sketched on the concrete floor of the art centre "and then we shape the wire to that image", Kepper says.

Like many materials used by Pormpuraaw's artists, the wire is rubbish that would otherwise be destined for the tip on the community's outskirts.

"Once a week we'll go to the tip and have a look at something that's interesting and bring it back down where someone might use it as a medium for their next art piece," Kepper says. "Frying pans, fans, bins, bases of tables made to be a table."

Other debris that washes up on the beach – thongs, foam, bottles – are also collected and used by Pormpuraaw's artists.

"The main story for putting these together is not that I love turtles," Kepper says. "I want to see my kids look at these in the future and not a reef that's damaged, ripped to shreds by trawlers and their filthy ghost nets."

He adds: "Yes, they're lovely pieces of art but look at all the shit we've used."

The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair runs from July 15 to 17.

The writer travelled to Queensland with assistance from the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.


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