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Robert 'Tommy' Pau has come full circle, transitioning from student to teacher to help more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people explore and celebrate their culture through art.

Tommy, a Torres Strait Islander man, grew up on Thursday Island and spent his early career working as a school teacher and in security before he decided to focus on his art.

"I've been drawing since I was a little boy and I was influenced by comics. Growing up, that was the only reading material we had. I started reading comic books and copying the art and I've been drawing ever since," Tommy said.

"I was doing art at home as a hobby and I thought it was good art. I then decided that I wanted to test myself out in the real world, so I took all my stuff and went around Cairns to various places to promote myself."

Tommy said in the early days, it was hard to have his work recognised.

"I didn't have formal art training when I started out and it was challenging to network and sell my art."

In order to succeed, Tommy turned to TAFE Queensland, completing numerous artistic qualifications including a Certificate IV in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Arts (CUA40615) and a Diploma of Visual Arts (CUA51115).

Tommy said his TAFE Queensland training helped him improve his technique and make strong connections with the art community.

"My training got me into the arts industry and I started getting recognised and building my profile," he said.

"During my studies, our class was encouraged to put in works for the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. None of us got in, but it gave us inspiration and the courage to put our work out there."

Tommy admits sharing work publicly can be a vulnerable time for some artists.

"The main thing artists, especially emerging artists need to remember is they shouldn't be scared or frightened or ashamed to share their work with others."

"Art is a personal thing and can be really subjective. So the way I look at is if 100 people come and see my artwork, I only need that one person to like my work and purchase it. As long as my work is connecting with that one per cent, I'm happy."

"As my career progressed, I kept putting my work forward for art awards and eventually I was shortlisted and even ended up winning a Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award," he said.

Accolades and countless exhibitions later, Tommy wanted to give back and share his technical skills with others.

"I started a teacher internship program at the TAFE Queensland Cairns campus and completed a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment (TAE40116)."

Now, Tommy is teaching cultural art studies across northern Queensland and said it's incredibly rewarding.

"I would say most Indigenous people have some art skills and some are very good, but talking about materials, techniques or elements and principles can be challenging. It's one thing to create art, but to talk about art in technical terms is a whole other thing and you need that knowledge out in the industry."

"I want to give that knowledge to people and give them the ability to know the materials they're working with. For example, a pencil is not just a pencil. You've got different grains and they work differently. How to hold a pencil matters and there are different ways to hold it. Sharpening a pencil is also a really important skill and then there's paint, which is a technology in itself."

"That's my passion at the moment: to bring the technical know-how to cultural arts and help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists talk about their work on a whole new level."

Tommy said he wants to inspire his students to be part of a movement in their own communities to encourage and empower more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to use art to express themselves.

"If more people use art to tell stories the industry will become more vibrant and creative. From that, innovation and new styles will emerge and more art centres will open up, creating more job opportunities in communities."

"Thanks to the internet, people can stay in their communities and promote and sell their art online. They don't need to leave the Torres Strait or where they live and move to a city."

"Selling art or working in an arts centre aren't the only job opportunities for cultural artists. Art is everywhere, it's in industrial design, computer graphics, gaming, public works and so many other avenues. I want people to know that the career opportunities available in cultural arts are immense."


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture dates back more than 50,000 years. Since then, First Australians have been using art to tell stories, share history and strengthen cultural identity and wellbeing. Through culturally appropriate training and specially designed art facilities, TAFE Queensland is proud to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote and share their culture through art.

Learn more about studying cultural arts

Information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

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TAFE Queensland

Tommy Pau cultural art teacher
Robert "Tommy" Pau
Leading Vocational Teacher, Cultural Arts

Torres Strait Islander artist Tommy Pau began drawing from an early age, taking inspiration from comic books. Tommy has won national art awards and his work has been showcased around Australia. He teaches cultural arts, helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students hone skills in printmaking, vinyl cutting, painting and sculpture - just to name a few. Tommy has a number of art qualifications and has also completed courses in micro-business operations and small business management.