Fiona Elisala Mosby’s recent print editions Kithalau Zageth (Pandanus work) is a way of talking about issues that sit at the heart of cultural life in the Torres Strait and the importance of living traditions - culture, family and spiritual life.
From Kithalau Zageth Fiona selected a range of monoprints for the ‘longwater : fibre stories’ exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. It included two series of monoprints collectively called ‘Ngurpay’.
Ngurpay is a Kala Lagaw Ya word that means both teaching and learning. In the preparation of these prints the dried pandanus leaves were passed directly through the print press. This differs from earlier times when the leaves were processed into bags and baskets and the process of collecting and preparing pandanus leaves resulted in objects for use around the home. In Ngurpay the pandanus leaves retain their cultural significance by telling ‘origin’ stories instead. They talk about the importance of history, the role of pandanus and weaving in Zenadth Kes culture, and the work of women in passing on cultural knowledge.
In many ways the pandanus leaf is a symbol of the individual. Not the individual in the sense of one’s self, but rather the self in relationship - relationship with family, with clan and community, in concord with lore and cultural identity and in the reconciling of flesh and spirit. It also reflects the individual in a permanent state of transition within the environment, of always becoming. Fiona was taught how to harvest and prepare pandanus by her grandmother from a young age, so for her the pandanus is emblematic of a personal experience of life. It refers to her deep Christian faith and a spiritual way of being. Meaning and value are found at the intersection of the two, like fibres crossing.
For Fiona, the act of weaving is a process of creating order out of chaos, form from the formless. This was the central theme of her work at the IMA. The first series Ngurpay – Aramytidamay shows the pandanus in its raw form, the ‘first state’ of the natural world; disordered and unmediated systems that find their own way of fitting together. Ngurpay – Uman is a series of prints made by passing woven mats through the print press. It is the second state, representing the point at which order emerges from chaos, symbolised here as coming from the hands and hearts of women. Weaving, mending, making; these are the traditional roles women fill and so these activities are one way that women bring structure and order to the world.
The prints in both the Kithalau Zageth and Ngurpay series combine a number of printing techniques. In Intrinsic Links for instance, the paper is first embossed with traditional minaral, the Melanesian mark making that originates in wood and turtle shell carving. The pandanus leaves are then inked and passed through the press onto acetate before being transferred onto the paper. In the intermediate state, while the inked pandanus shapes wait on the acetate, the colours are smoothed by hand, moved around with the same care and attention to detail as you might see in the weaving of mats or baskets. The final step in the process sees the newly formed pandanus image pass through the press for a final time, transferring colour onto the embossed paper.
The pandanus then speaks of the origins of weaving in nature, while the background acknowledges the origins of Melanesian culture as something intangible but inseparable from contemporary life. The pandanus in Intrinsic Links is barely visible, only a trace lingering behind the grid of ordered life. It reminds us of the organic origins of woven forms and that the sense we make of things will always draw us back to the natural world from which we come.
Growing up in the Torres Strait, our Elders, the older ones and even aunties would explain the process of weaving. When we think of weaving, it’s about intertwining and connecting. It tells a story. The mat is a strong part of our culture. It is used from birth, the start of life until when you die. That weaving plays a strong part in our story.Fiona Elisala Mosby in conversation with Freja Carmichael for the ‘longwater : fibre stories’ exhibition, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Sept 2020.
Main image credit: (detail) Fiona Elisala Mosby, Orange Flames of the Pandanus, Ink on 300gsm cotton rag paper, 57 x 76cm. Image Moa Arts