Ngath kulay thayan inab zageth ika, ngaw awgadhal, Thupmul a Koedal; ngaw gubal, Sager a Naygay; ngaw thithuy, Zugubaw Baydham; ngaw yangu kudu, Kala Lagaw Ya. Ngay lak mina koeyma ap asin ngaw Kuyku Mabayg ika, Muruylgal a Zugubal. Ngaw ngulayg ngapa nithamuningu.

(I put before my art practice my totems, File-ray and Crocodile; my winds, South Easterly and North Easterly; my stars, Zugubaw Baydham constellation; my language, Kala Lagaw Ya. I humble myself before my Elders, and my spiritual ancestors, the Muruylgal and the Zugubal. This knowledge I possess was inherited from them.)

I have always—understood and respected my cultural protocols relating to my ancestral masks. I take this opportunity to create masks on a larger scale using modern materials. Similar-shaped masks were worn by traditional dancers in ceremonies many times before we discovered foreign explorers. I aim to revive the recognition my forefathers once earned and to educate the youth of my culture to understand, respect and practise the art of mask-making.

These masks from the series Mawa masks were made for people who take the time to view them not only as art but also as Zenadh Kes culture. ‘Mawa’ in the language of the Maluyligal people of western Zenadh Kes translates as ‘sorcerer’ or ‘witchdoctor’. A mawa mask was only worn by a spiritual Mawa.

Esso (thankyou).

Alick Tipoti is a maker of ceremonial masks traditionally worn by a mawa (sorcerer or witchdoctor).[1] Predominantly, two types of mawa masks were made by Torres Strait Islanders: those made of wood and those made of turtle shell. Mawa masks are used in sacred ceremonies connected to life, death and magic, and certain information associated with the masks is never shared with outsiders.[2]

Tipoti, however, commenced his artistic career as a printmaker. Although printmaking is a relatively recent medium among Torres Strait Islander artists, it is fast becoming an iconic form of contemporary Torres Strait Islander cultural expression, in part due to the relatively straightforward transference of traditional techniques of carving and engraving designs into wood and turtle shell.

Tipoti began to make three-dimensional renditions of traditional masks in 2007. His ancestors had mastered the techniques of moulding the carapace of the wunuwa (hawksbill turtle) to create masks with intricate engravings and fretwork.[3] Tipoti now uses the modern material of fibreglass and resins; fibreglass possesses the flexibility he requires for moulding and shaping, while the stained surface of the material strikes Tipoti as resembling the polished turtle-shell flakes used to make ceremonial and other objects such as masks, jewellery and combs.

Headdresses (especially the ubiquitous dhoeri) and masks have become iconic symbols of contemporary Torres Strait Islander people and culture. Traditionally worn by men, masks and headdresses are donned for ceremony and public cultural performances. As Tipoti indicates, turtle-shell masks were traditionally shrouded in secrecy and the making of the masks was restricted knowledge. Only men with healing and divination skills were permitted to wear and engage in their making.

Tipoti exhibits a series of highly sacred and grandly scaled mawa masks, the largest to date, alongside an equally oversized mask in the shape of a shark. The former make for a formidable group: five mawa masks, five faces, peer at onlookers. Each one is different despite the uniformity of size, colour and media. This individuality out of sameness is created by highly stylised fretwork, chiselled in to and out of the forehead and chins. Incised patterns, enhanced by the overlaying of white paint, distinguish the facial features of the masks even further. The masks are in some ways preternatural, emanating the power of a mawa.

Although elements of Tipoti’s masks are secret and undisclosed to viewers, his sculptures play an important and public role in continuing and nourishing contemporary Torres Strait Islander identity. Visual art is increasingly becoming a valuable resource among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as way a of revitalising, perpetuating and manifesting culture and identity. As with cultural materials of old, Tipoti’s sculptures are modern-day symbols of what it is to be a Torres Strait Islander. He feels a passion and a responsibility to make Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge accessible for all, but in particular for Torres Strait Islander youth. Tipoti also aspires to branch further into public art to enable the placement of his work in locations where all can encounter them.

Tipoti holds a deep reverence for Torres Strait Islander culture and is closely connected to the Zugubal and the Muruylgal, his ancestors, in his daily and artistic life. Their knowledge guides Tipoti in his rendering of all things Torres Strait Islander. The artist is also actively involved in programs preserving Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge: genealogies, narratives and language. Participating in such programs informs, motivates and lays the foundation of his work.

Carly Lane

[1] Alick Tipoti, artist statement, see p 17.

[2] Tipoti, correspondence with author, 3 September 2010.

[3] Tipoti, correspondence with author, 20 October 2010.