Internationally renowned Torres Straight artist, Brian Robinson will guide expedition guests through Cape York and Arnhem Land on a voyage combining the very best of Australia’s beautiful northern coastline with a unique opportunity to experience art and culture first hand.
Brian was born in 1973 and raised in the idyllic tropical surroundings of the Torres Strait Islands, located between the tip of Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Here, he gained valuable knowledge and appreciation of the culture of his people and was influenced by the myths and legends of the Torres Strait, and the traditional motifs and natural carving ability of the Islanders. Now based in Cairns, he commenced work with Cairns Regional Gallery in 1997 as a trainee curator through the Museums Australia Curatorial Internship program as the first Torres Strait Islander to be appointed through the program. Since then, Brian Robinson has worked on numerous exhibitions nationally and internationally, and is the founding artist of triebSTUDIO, a local art studio that specialises in Indigenous visual art and design that includes drawing, printmaking, installation, sculpture and public art as well as arts administration and curatorial projects.
Brian Robinson’s work has been widely collected both privately and through major institutions both in Australia and overseas.
Tell us about your cultural background and how this has influenced you in your creative career?
Indigenous culture, particularly my Torres Strait heritage has been infused within my arts practice for some time now, which I often draw upon when creating works of art. It provides the core inspiration that grounds my work but from time to time this focus shifts from Islander-centric themes to a more global view of cultural ideas and objects – hybrid imagery that infuses Indigenous Australian culture with a global exchange of ideologies that reinvigorates contemporary arts practice and traditional storytelling.
When and why did you start painting/creating?
I often say that I was born with a pencil in my hand because I was always creating things using whatever I could find: recycled materials such as cardboard boxes through to spray paint, pencils, pens, markers, timber and old bike frames as well as flotsam and jetsam from the surrounding shoreline. No surface around the house was taboo for me – I drew on everything much to my parents’ disapproval. Just like any other kid growing up on Thursday Island, the entire Island was our playground. We were always out fishing, diving, hunting and playing sport and some of these were seminal experiences growing up. Combined with cultural practice, learning the do’s and don’ts of my traditional heritage, I lead a very exciting and active life. Even though I was a child growing up in the Torres Straits, I was still influenced by television, by comic books and other publications. I used to sit at the kitchen table for hours on end sketching from imagination and memory, comic books of Spiderman, Superman and the Phantom and even Woman’s Weekly: just anything I could get my hands on. The laid-back island lifestyle gave me ample room and time to hone my artistic skills from a young age and a space to contemplate where my imagination could run wild.
Who influenced you growing up to enter the arts and which piece are you most proud of? What parts of Cape York or Arnhem Land coast have influenced your art?
I picked up my first art history textbook when I was a young primary school student on Thursday Island and I immediately became interested in the Renaissance period, particularly the Sistine Chapel’s creation story fresco, and the portrayal of the human figure as well as the grand civic marble and sandstone sculptures which echoed scriptures from the bible and book of revelations.
I became an avid fan of Michelangelo Buonarroti Simoni and Leonardo da Vinci who were master sculptors, painters, architects, inventors and poets of the High Renaissance who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art. I have several works that I still admire but one that stands out is a work titled Up in the Heavens the gods contemplate their next move  which is the first in a series of hybrid works that combine both 2 and 3-dimensional elements together.
What are your favourite parts of Cape York or Arnhem Land?
The parts of northern Australia that I’m more familiar with is Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait because this is where my indigenous lineage lies and I draw from these areas when creating works. Living in that part of the world, you can’t help but be inspired by the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape and seascape, the unique cultures and the amazing food.
How do you feel when you see the Indigenous Rock Art at significant indigenous sites? Why are these sites so special, and how is the art on display important in keeping the stories of the people alive?
I have seen some amazing rock art sites at Laura and even in the Torres Strait. These are very spiritual and magical places that date back for thousands of years and the artwork is truly spectacular. I have never had my work exhibited at Yirkalla, Nambarra, Elcho Island or Maningrida, the closest would be Darwin. People often say that a picture speaks a thousand words and in the case of Indigenous artworks, this is so true. Creation ancestors form part of a living landscape and practices such as hunting and foraging have an important place in contemporary Aboriginal life. There remains a strong belief in the land as sentient, or that ancestral spirits imbue the landscape, creating a situation in which spiritual and physical aspects cannot be altogether separated.
This intertwined connection allows the intellectual and creative spirit embodied within Indigenous peoples to manifest in the material objects that they create. This relationship with the land, through its direct physical qualities, and a mythological sense of place and time are transformed through the body and onto objects of art. This is a deep relationship and reliance on Country to establish identity and belonging is paramount.