‘Island Currents: Art from Bentinck Island and the Torres Strait’ in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Watermall until 1 November celebrates the art and culture of some of the state’s remote island communities.
Large, vivid paintings by women artists from Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria appear alongside masks, headdresses, handheld objects and sculptures — all with performative qualities — by artists from five islands of the Torres Strait, in this vibrant Collection display.
Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda (Mrs Gabori) (c.1924–2015), who lived on Mornington Island until her recent death, affirms her emotional and spiritual connection with her husband’s country on nearby Bentinck Island. Her vivid landscape, Dibirdibi Country 2008, though seemingly abstract, charts the creative journey of the Rock Cod ancestor along the Bentinck coastline; defines Warnbuli, a swampy site rich in damuru (water nut); and describes in prominent black forms the ancient stone-walled fish traps used by the Kaiadilt people.
Performance is vital in Torres Strait life, and Islanders express their culture and identity through singing and dancing, both at ceremonies and for entertainment. Group dances mark significant events such as family tombstone unveilings, the annual ‘Coming of the Light’ ceremony, commemorating the arrival in 1871 of the first missionaries on Erub (Darnley Island), and Anzac Day commemorations.
Ephemeral Torres Strait dances are made tangible through objects that embody island affiliations in their design. These feature significantly in ‘Island Currents’. Well known for his innovative dance accoutrements, leading choreographer and performer Ken Thaiday simulates the graceful movements of Beizam (hammerhead shark) in dramatic performances, manipulating the strings and pulleys of his intricate mechanical devices. His Beizam headdress (Black bamboo triple hammerhead shark) 1999–2000 holds all the menace and drama of the awe-inspiring ‘king of the sea’.
Allson Edrick Tabuai’s spectacular Wene-Wenel/Gauguau Mawa (very powerful witchdoctor’s mask) 2001 reproduces ritual regalia worn by the legendary Mabaig — a man chosen to be a witchdoctor in times of war. The central carved wooden sagaia (white heron feather), which extends from an arc of cassowary feathers, sways vigorously with the dancer’s movements, while the brightly coloured psychedelic eyes and prominent nose and tongue are intended to instil fear.
The ubiquitous feathered headdress — dhoeri in the western islands and dari in the east — still holds considerable status in the Torres Strait. Its presence on the flag symbolises the Torres Strait people and its image is widely used to signify cultural ownership and pride. George Nona from Badu Island makes dhoeri using designs and techniques unseen for almost a century. As well as local pigments, shells, feathers and fibres, he includes cassowary feathers sourced from New Guinea through customary trade practices. Nona’s dhoeri depict rich narratives, as in Koewbuw (War) dhoeri 2008, in which the red and orange ochres coating the cane framework refer to rituals involving warriors mixing their blood with earth pigments to gain spiritual power in battle.
In a departure from normal practice, the Gallery collaborated with Patrick Thaiday in 2011 to faithfully reproduce 20 of his Zugub zamiyakal (articulated dance machines) in its workshop. Zugubal spirits lived with humans but now inhabit the celestial world, controlling winds, tides and other elemental forces from their home in the Southern Cross constellation, whose stars are shown here emerging in a rainbow-like arc from a cloud.
In embracing the Gallery’s iconic Watermall, ‘Island Currents’ evokes the environment in which these artists live and work. Remote island communities can be isolated by distance and geography, but here we gain some insights into their unique cultures through their art.