Rainforest ID is inspired by the brilliant painted and carved shields and artefacts (such as boomerangs and baskets) unique to the rainforest of Far North Queensland and the stories that bind the intense mosaic of twenty traditional rainforest language groups, in particular of his mother’s country, the Djabugay area. Napolean Oui brings a theatrical dimension and scale to his abstract paintings from his background as an accomplished performer and educator.
The installation at The Cross Art Projects comprises body-scale paintings (the rarest shields were full body size), experimental tapas (paintings on bark cloth) and large etchings made in Montreal at the renowned Studio PM (a collaboration with printer Paul Machnik). Napolean Oui's synthesis is utterly contemporary: his designs are deliberately left open as the meaning of the designs the old artefacts record remain a puzzle about the law and customs and the totemic, marriage and kinship significance. Oui instead draws on his affinity with the old people's deep understanding of the rainforest environment and its world. The visual ambiguity of the paintings — the oil stick creates a visual illusion not dissimilar to spray paint — reflects the knowledge puzzle. But Oui's dominant colours reflect traditional white and yellow ochres, blood red and black, as well as the intense saturated green of a rainforest canopy.
Oui's works are documents that read lines and patterns against recovered rainforest languages; on the one hand, traditional history would reconstitute these as images of weapons of war (carried in combination with huge knives) or lost ceremony (shields were probably presented as part of initiation rites). On the other hand, authenticity would suggest that their traditional form was accompanied by speech, song and dance. (Oui works with several word lists.)
The consequences of Oui's archaeological and museum-based notion of history are fascinating; he creates singular images that sit as 'series of series' or tableaux of images organised around a single centre — a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape, a disappeared cultural history that still, paradoxically, communicates by the evocation and enactment of its next generations. (From the 1930s Aboriginal Missions or reserves usually brutally censored language, ceremony and culture, a process continued in Queensland as state policy.) As an ensemble the works could tell a creation story for their re-creation or representation is a confirmation of essential relations — the people and their sacred land.
|Napolean Oui, Yagil (pandanas), Gurrngam (flame tree), Madjal (tree fern), Bulyin (grass tree), 2014, acrylic ink on tapa (bark cloth), each 180 x 65 cm
||Napolean Oui, Ngawu Bulmba-Barra Ngawu Djabuggay (I belong to the country I am Djabugay), Sting Ray, Bayngga (underground oven). All 2013-14, oil stick on canvas, 150 x 100 cm|| Napolean Oui, Stingray, Bayngga (underground oven), 2013-14. Prints: Walbirr-walbirr (butterfly) and Mimu (water lily), 2012. Etching printed in one colour from one plate, each 151.5 x 98 cm. Published by Studio PM, Montreal.
|Napolean Oui, installation view, lane way showing Gabay (termites), 2014, oil stick on canvas (on right).
||Napolean Oui, Walbirr-walbirr (butterfly) and Mimu (water lily), 2012. Etching, 151.5 x 98 cm. Published by Studio PM, Montreal, Canada. Collaborative printer Paul Machnik.||
Napolean Oui lives in Cairns where he works as a cultural presenter and educator at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. His father's family is from the Torres Strait and New Caledonia. Oui is a dedicated advocate, researcher and educator of the rainforest art, culture and style. As information on rainforest culture held in public collections is scant and not published, he wrote to all Australian museum collections. (Cautious museums usually make access restrictions.) The collated black and white copies the registration records serve as a memory bank for his imaginative commentary on this anthropological material. His research has uncovered not only the enormous scope of what remains of the great art of the rainforest people, but a little known aspect of the production of bark cloth in this region. Nowhere else in Australia was bark cloth made. Reclaiming this medium is now one of Oui's passions.
Napolean Oui held his spectacular debut solo show titled Rainforest identity (past and future) at KickArts Contemporary Arts in Cairns in 2012. This included works from his residency at the renowned Studio PM with Paul Machnik and others in Montreal. Studio PM uniquely works with Inuit artists as well as fostering inter-cultural projects. Oui continues to work closely with KickArts, especially supporting the press project.
|Napolean Oui, Sting Ray, 2013-14. Rainforest shield design. Oil stick on canvas, 150 x 100 cm||Napoleon Oui, Ngawu Bulmba-Barra Ngawu Djabuggay (I belong to the Country I am Djabugay). 2013-14, 150 x 100 cm|| Napolean Oui, Gabay (termites), 2014.
Oil stick on canvas, 150 x 100 cm
Rainforest ID: Rainforest art movement
Napolean Oui's work also can be seen within a powerful local rainforest art movement that includes artists working at UMI Arts collective or trained at Cairns TAFE (printmaking) and promoted by the Cairns Art Fair (CIAF) initiative. This contemporary field was developed in Cairns by colleagues such as Brian Robinson (TSI artist and curator), Alik Tipoti, Ellen Jose, Michael Boiyool Anning, the renowned maker of traditional shields (Oui's cousin-in-law) and Aarone Meeks (trained Brisbane). They are joined by fellow urban-based rainforest revivalists Tony Albert, Vernon Ah Kee and Danie Mellor amongst others. One overview of work by contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from Queensland Australia is documented in Gatherings (Keeaira Press, 2006) and by Queensland Art Gallery. Oui's inaugural Sydney installation is held simultaneously with an exhibition at Mossensen Gallery in Perth.
Thanks: Australian Museum for rainforest shield registration photos; South Australian Museum for Norman Tindale, Tjapukai shield making, archive film recording, nd. c. 1930s.
Rainforest shields in public collections: at National Museum of Australia, Australian Museum, Museum of Victoria, South Australian Museum, Macleay Museum Sydney University and Cairns Historical Museum.
Napolean Oui: Artist website (including research on rainforest culture) at http://www.napoleanoui.com/rainforest-culture-background.html
Napolean Oui, Rainforest ID, 2014. Download worklist as pdf > Napolean Oui, Rainforest ID
Anna Johnson, Napolean Oui, SMH, 'Spectrum', 22 Feb 2014 > Download as pdf
Download catalogue: Napolean Oui, Rainforest ID Past and Future, Kick Contemporary Arts, Cairns 2012 as pdf > Napolean Oui, Rainforest ID
KickArts: www.kickarts.org.au and Napolean Oui prints: http://shop.kickarts.org.au/collections/djumbunji-press-prints-napolean-oui
Artlink magazine Re-Visions issue, 2013: https://www.artlink.com.au/issues/3320/indigenous-re-visions/