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Dennis Nona’s Baidam – shark constellation


Dennis Nona is at the forefront of a group of contemporary Torres Strait artists who have invigorated printmaking with a visual language that articulates their relationship with the sky, sea and islands. Born on Waiben (Thursday Island), Nona grew up on Badu (Mulgrave Island), immersed in his community’s aural traditions and ceremonies. At a young age Nona learnt from craftsmen the techniques of woodcarving and incising; skills that became fundamental to his later engagement with printmaking and sculpture.

The natural beauty of Nona’s island homeland is a significant inspiration for the artist. At night when the sea and the land are enveloped by darkness, Nona has turned toward the expansive skies and the seven brilliant stars of Baidam, or the shark asterism. Early European astronomers named this same collection of stars, situated within the greater constellation of Taurus, as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. In the southern hemisphere this star cluster has been interpreted by disparate cultural communities in different ways. This multiplicity of Indigenous and non-Indigenous readings is one focus of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Shared Sky exhibition, which opens in March 2009.

In 2000 Nona visited Cambridge University and was impressed by the traditional clan markings on the turtleshell masks and the bamboo pipes in the Haddon Collection. An anthropologist and naturalist, Alfred Haddon visited several of the Torres Strait islands in 1888, 1898 and 1914. On each occasion he collected fine examples of sacred and domestic objects while documenting cultural knowledge and activities. In Nona’s large-scale linocut, contours of diminutive motifs radiate out and around the shark asterism, shimmering like emanations of stellar light or the flow of ocean currents.

In Baidam Nona does not position the stars with complete accuracy, instead he scatters them in a way that allows the viewer to imagine the shark’s snout pointing to the left, with the central star marking the dorsal fin and the two stars to the right delineating the caudal fin of the tail. Revered for its strength and skill as a hunter, the shark is a potent emblem for Torres Strait Islanders and is often integrated into ceremonial masks and headdresses. Between February and September the asterism moves through three significant phases that coincide with tidal, wind and seasonal changes in the Torres Strait. When the asterism rises up from the horizon during April and May, it is known as Kadaka Sika. By August the star cluster, now called Sarrzane Sika, has begun to descend toward the horizon.

It is in June and July, when the shark is called Baleuka, that it can be observed stretched along the northern horizon over Papua New Guinea. This is the time of year when the evenings are typically windless and a slick calms the surface of the sea. It is the breeding season for sharks and an optimal time to plant crops of bananas, taro and cassava. Nona’s work visualises the power and speed with which this revered hunter journeys, both above and below the horizon.

Allison Holland, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)