Billy Missi was one of the Torres Strait islanders whom I got to know of recent years through his involvement in the Arts. We were delighted when he agreed to run a workshop in linoprinting during the Go Troppo Arts Festival in 2010. Billy loved teaching and the success of his workshops was testament to those teaching skills as were the many friendships, world-wide, that resulted from them and from exhibitions of his prints.
I always intended to write an article, on this website, about Billy and his artwork. Little did I think that it would take the form of an obituary.
The Arts community is shocked and greatly saddened at the news of his death, at such a young age, in December 2012.
Friend and artistic collaborator, Theo Tremblay, talks about Billy as a person, as an artist and as a spokesperson for his people in the following tribute.
Billy Missi, renowned Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islander) visual artist and printmaker, whose tragic death occurred on December 22, battling with chronic diabetes, internal infections and eventual heart failure. Just 42 years old, Queensland’s arts community is deeply stunned and mourning his passing.
Billy Missi was known to his friends as Pal’n, a pidgin derivation of McFarlane, after an uncle by the same name, handed down in honor of early mission pastor John McFarlane (the family name Misi is derived from mission). Like many young men, Billy travelled to the outer islands, fishing, visiting Papua New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula, seeking work as he could find.
He had three children with wife Norma. Adventure to see the mainland of Australia and the necessity for a steady income saw him and his mates as plant operators for Queensland mines. He later went diving for pearls in Townsville and returned to Moa Island, to island life and a much stronger resolve for community participation in the mid-1990s.
“I first became interested in art when I saw a display of paintings by local Torres Strait Islander artists in 1992. I was so inspired that I wanted to do the same. Having a family to support, I had to continue crayfishing, as I needed a regular income. So, making art had to wait, although deeply inside I really wanted to express my traditional culture through art - including dancing and singing. Later when I met Dennis Nona and saw his beautiful prints, I was encouraged to give up diving and studied under him. Together, with printmaker Theo Tremblay and Sydney gallery director Adrian Newstead, we established a printmaking workshop called the Mualgau Minaral Art Centre through the Kubin Community Council on Moa Island.”
Inspired by his cultural heritage and traditions of Mabuiag Island, Billy showed a deep concern for the environment and his people through his huge output of original prints, paintings and recorded interviews over the past fifteen years.
Billy won national recognition as the recipient of the Lin Onus emerging artist award in the 5th Indigenous Heritage Art award, held in Canberra in 2000.
Not shy to promote a cause, Billy collaborated with many curators and artworkers, working larger and bolder with contemporaries such as Arone Meeks, Alick Tipoti, Brian Robinson, Dennis Nona, Sharon Phineasa, Kei Kalak and Rod Ramage.
Defended artist’s rights and invited to join executive boards to impart critical views and advice included the Art Print Network, Kick-Arts, Djumbunji Press, UMI Arts, (Arts Queensland) Inkmasters Cairns Inc. and most recently, The National Indigenous Commercial Code of Ethics. He was a passionate mentor for those who came in contact with him and loved to teach, though never gained any formal training qualification.
He had some of the best artists and countrymen at his side always – and his affectionate smiles and inviting laughter made everyone he came in contact with immediately warm to him.
Billy poetically explained art as being a self-managed ‘vessel’ of the imagination – ‘controlling and directing the rudder of experience, conveying knowledge, illuminating a beacon on the horizon of memory, recording journeys, charting the soul…’
Billy Missi had seven solo exhibitions, including Urapun Kai Buai (One Big Kin) curated and presented by Kick-Arts Contemporary Art; Buai Dagamgnu Garpalagi (Along Ancestral Lines) curated and presented by Pandanus Gallery, Palm Cove, Qld; Selected Exhibition at UMI Arts Gallery.
He has also been invited to participate in numerous group and invitational shows in the USA, Belgium, Korea, Germany, Japan and the UK. Self-taught and determined to represent himself in matters of business and distribution of his works, Billy partnered with many galleries including Kick-Arts, Pandanus Gallery, Sundance Gallery, Australian Art Print Network, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Gab Thitui Art and Culture Centre, UMI Arts Indigenous Art Gallery, Boomali, The Sydney Maritime Museum and Cairns Regional Gallery.
Purple was Billy’s favourite colour. His family have asked those attending to wear it to his funeral, to be held at 10am, Friday 18 January, St. John’s Anglican church, corner of Lake and Minnie Streets, Cairns. A wake will be held at 6pm on Friday after the funeral at Cairns Railway Halls, Mcnamara St, Manunda. If you wish to extend your sympathies to Billy’s family, you are invited to attend.
Also, a cloth printed with Billy’s totem is being printed for the funeral ceremony. Sea shells will be sewn around the edges of the cloth. You are invited to call in to Canopy Artspace and write a message or your name on one of the shells available there.