The fascinating story of how a prince and an artist became fast friends started back in Monaco, 2016.
Esteemed Torres Strait Islander artist and lore man, Alick Tipoti, was one of the headliners in the ‘Australia: Defending the Oceans’ component of the Taba Naba - Australia, Oceania, Arts of the Sea People exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.
That exhibition, which featured large-scale ghost-net sculptures from the Pormpuraaw, Ceduna and Erub Island communities as well as works by celebrated artists Alick Tipoti, Brian Robinson and those from the Girringun Art Centre, was the catalyst for a following two years of shows across Europe and the Americas.
One key supporter of the exhibition held in the Mediterranean was H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco. So much so, he followed the works across to the Ocean Conference at the United Nations in New York City.
Taba Naba started something undeniable in terms of promoting contemporary Indigenous sculpture abroad, but also, it sparked an unlikely friendship between two great men from contrasting worlds. Both individuals, however— one highlighting his connection to the ocean via. fine art and the other via. global advocacy — are influenced by their ancestors to protect the world’s oceans.
Last year, H.S.H. Prince Albert II launched the expedition of Monaco Explorations’ Yersin, a research vessel, at the United Nations. This voyage of scientific exploration harks back to his ancestor, H.S.H Prince Albert I of Monaco and his famed commitment to oceanography. The ship is currently traversing the oceans collecting data on the effects of climate change. Of course, Prince Albert II’s homage to his ancestor stems beyond launching ships and exhibitions with nautical themes. He is best known for his work on the world stage in championing important environmental causes and initiatives. Prince Albert II is considered a great negotiator when it comes to influencing crucial environmental policies of the United Nations, he uses his influence to educate international corporations on the ramifications of their actions and to curb pollution.
Alick Tipoti, while not a prince, is most certainly royalty within the Australian art scene. He is widely considered one of the pre-eminent artists of the Torres Strait who marries contemporary mediums and traditional stories. Since the dawn of time, Indigenous cultures have woven lessons of practical survival and history together with the use of art, song and dance. It is this which makes Australian Indigenous art more than just admirable and collectable pieces. Through art, Tipoti is able to tell the stories of his land (which includes sea territories as well) and through the iconography which his works depicts he tells of the ways land and sea is intrinsic to traditional living. His art also expresses the methods his people continue to use today to ensure the protection and sustainability of their historic home. As an incredibly popular figure here and abroad, he takes these learnings to art lovers across the world.
The Torres Strait Islands are currently experiencing rising sea levels and changing ocean currents which threatens their coastlines and the landscapes. Illegal fishing and ocean pollution is also decimating the sustainability of the Islander’s traditional food supply and cultural fishing practices.
These two men come from polar opposite worlds. The glitz and glamour of the principality Monaco where the world forever watches the wealthy Grimaldi family in all their moves, to the tranquil, ancient islands of the Torres Strait and its blue and bountiful waters where Kalaw Lagaw Ya speakers have held stewardship over its natural assets for many tens of thousands of years. And it’s through the promotion of Tipoti’s art to Monaco that they met, but it is through their shared passion of defending the oceans that they became friends.
The friendship between these two environmental warriors and their work has not gone unnoticed. Their bond and shared vision to protect the world’s oceans is subject to a proposed, upcoming feature film.
The film, which is presently in the early stages of development, Alick & Albert, completed its first stage of filming a few short weeks ago on Badu Island, where Alick Tipoti calls home.
Just after attending the Our Oceans Conference in Bali in October, Prince Albert spent a few days with Alick and his family, delighting the local Torres Strait community with a royal visit, learning some of their cultural methods of fishing and the way they are protecting their sea territories. This was a crucial step for the Prince in understanding the culture and very tangible necessity regarding Alick and his people’s connection to land and sea.
Brisbane based filmmaker, Trish Lake, is at the helm of the project and Australian Indigenous director, Douglas Watkin, has also been brought on board. With landscapes such as Badu Island and the coastline of Monaco as the focus, it is easy to envisage the proposed film being a true cinematic experience.
Gallery owner and Assistant Curator of the Australia: Defending the Oceans project, Suzanne O’Connell believes the film— should it eventuate —will be the perfect compliment to the promotion of contemporary Indigenous art to Monaco and Europe over recent years.
“It’s exciting”, Ms. O’Connell told NITV, “It’s the perfect next step in promoting the work of our Indigenous artists. The world will know just how important their living culture is in the scheme of things beyond art to real survival of their traditional ways”.
If the documentary comes to fruition, it will not only epitomise the work and bond of the two men, but will also raise awareness of the myriad of challenges facing the health of the ocean and sustainability of the diverse and numerous communities and societies which live off the sea.
With the science around climate change being subject to an endless political tug-of-war and tangible outcomes always being at odds with the value of corporate profiteering, these two men’s story could play a huge role in getting things done. In doing so, one could not ask for a better union: a Prince at the forefront of modern science and policy, and, a Traditional Owner at the forefront of the affects of climate change and an ancient way of life which stands to be forever altered.
Jack Wilkie-Jans is an artist, writer and Aboriginal affairs advocate from the Waanyi, Teppathiggi and Tjungundji tribes of North Queensland.