Artist text by Erin Vink, from The National 4: Australian Art Now, held at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2023
Glen Mackie, also known as Kei Kalak (Big Boy), is part of the transition generation of Kala Lagaw Ya artists, originally from the central islands of Zenadth Kes/Torres Strait Islands between the border of Cape York and Papua New Guinea (PNG), who predominantly live and work in Gimuy/Cairns to revitalise language and culture through new modes of storytelling. The Zenadth Kes have a distinct cultural inheritance that is more connected to the Great Ocean people of PNG and the Solomon Islands, also to the Aboriginal people of mainland Australia. Where historically the practice of woodcarving was managed for many millennia to document seafaring and family histories, along with the ancient knowledges of culture protected by each island’s Elders. Since the mid-1980s, artists from Zenadth Kes have been transferring these skills to the process of printmaking and Mackie has been at the forefront of this movement since the 1990s.
In an earlier work by Mackie, he remembers and honours his great-grandfather x 3 Edward ‘Yankee Ned’ Mosby, an American Jewish sailor, who likely arrived in Zenadth Kes through the whaling and pearling industries of the 1860s.
Oral histories have been handed down through the generations which recount how Yankee Ned was accepted by his island of Masig and its people and his role in bringing the first form of western civilisation and rule to Massig following Yankee Ned’s employment of a non-Indigenous school master to teach the island’s children.
Coral Sea Dreaming references Zenadth Kes pearling history and explores the extractivism* of Country. By using the form of a lugger, a vehicle that has literally transported the riches of Country across the seas, Mackie reflects on the international peoples who entered Country, particularly those who did so in an appropriate way to respect Country and culture. They are also a nod to the commercial success of Mackie’s great, great, great grandfather, who by the end of his life owned a fleet of five luggers and two cutters (illustrated across the top length of his print Kei Athe Mosby). Mackie’s minarr is incorporated on the sails, inside the lugger and the sea, reminding the viewer that these designs have been firmly attached to place since time immemorial. They also signal the artist’s responsibilities to keep Country and culture strong.
* Extractivism is the removal of natural resources particularly for export with minimal processing. This economic model is common throughout the Global South and the Arctic region.