Ricardo Idagi is a Torres Strait Islander artist who is combining the rich artistic traditions of his ancestors on Murray Island with his own personal stories to create award-winning artworks. But Ricardo only seriously turned to art several years ago, after kicking his drinking habit. Ricardo is a unique talent who is using his art to transcend his own personal demons and to reconnect with his ancestors. His recent artwork Upi mop le – Tail end man is a traditional mask with a twist. It has a projector inside, showing a film of Idagi performing a dance based on Islander traditions. This artwork won the New Media award at the 28th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, but the mask has a unique and painful story for Ricardo. “I worked on the mask in fine detail, searching for the innocence and beauty that is the soul of a child. But I conceded to the fact that the mask is an empty shell – the face is an imprint of my memory as a small boy. It is empty of the spirit of my youth, taken away by child abusers and molesters,” Ricardo says. “When I wear the mask I am ready to take back that spirit. When I dance my victory dance, I will break their spears and take the power away from them. I will reclaim my spirit that I lost as a child.” He says the Upi mop le Turrum, or albacore, is the large fish sculpture on top of the mask: “These fish run with the schools of king trevally, but, being a smaller size, they are often seen on the tail end of the school, hence the name Upi mop le. “On the beach at Mer Island when it’s king trevally season, when the sun is setting, the men are waiting with their spears at the ready, the school of king trevally come running close to the shore, the sardines explode and take the spearmen by surprise and sometimes they miss their prey, but they know that there is a tail ender (Upi mop le), so they are ready for him, and Upi mop le becomes the target of everyone’s spears. “I was a target for those men, and now there will be a backlash from families. Words as sharp as spears will be thrown. I interpret the sculpture of Upi mop le as the symbol of courage – that’s where I draw courage and strength from. That story is all about emancipation and courage. He comes back every year that fish. “I couldn’t talk about it – I had to let the art work speak for me. I still find it difficult to talk about. My art expresses those deeper emotions.” To bury these emotions, Ricardo turned to alcohol for many years. Only when he was free of it could he create his art with clarity and vision. He has only been recognised as a major artist in his fifties, but he says he has been making art all of his life. “When I was drinking a lot I had ideas, but I couldn’t put them into practice. I had to wait until I was over 50 to start making art,” he says. “Art is something peaceful that I do, but it is really about looking into myself. When you make your art you make your spirit visible for everyone to see. You’re vulnerable. It is your soul. You acknowledge your soul,” he says. “It is only in the last few years that I have found the medium I have been looking for – the turtle shells. It has traditionally been a Torres Strait thing, to make turtle-shell masks, but nobody has done this before me except for the ancestors. I started doing it to give voice to my ancestors – to give acknowledgment to them first before I did my own work.” Ricardo says many have not made masks before through fear of ‘the darkness’ of pre-history. While he was occasionally shown the old headdresses used in ceremonies, he was warned off and told: “That’s the darkness”. He had dreamed of the turtle shell, cut and woven with shells and feathers to make a mask such as his ancestors had made. “People are scared still to go back to pre-history because society has told them we were uncivilised then (laughs). Try and prove that. I am saying no – we had a civilisation. We had a society. We had beliefs. I went back there to prove something to myself and others. “It’s good others are getting it now, but the awards have only taught me that I paid my respect first. They tell me that I am on the right track and that I should keep doing my work – to let the heart speak for me.” Ricardo has some sage advice for young people contemplating exploring art as a release. “Young people need to find something that speaks to them. They could write songs to express what’s inside of them, paint… there are avenues to express yourself – find the right one for you,” he says. “Art will help heal you and fix your spirit. It is healing more than anything else. You do it to heal yourself. I come from Murray Island where old people make headdresses. You sit and watch them and they explain to you what they are doing. For years I never made headdresses. I had to go full circle. I had to find out everything else and that wrecked me. You come back to the start.” Idagi’s work is represented by the Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne.