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Visual art and Torres Strait Islander knowledges

The information on this page may assist in meeting the aims of Australian Curriculum: The Arts, particularly: ‘understanding of Australia’s histories and traditions through the arts, engaging with the artworks and practices, both traditional and contemporary, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’.

Torres Strait Islander art is art developed by a Torres Strait Islander artist or artists.  These artworks take many forms, and are sought-after nationally and internationally:

  • paintings and drawings on board, canvas, paper, sculptures and ornaments
  • sculptures and carvings in traditional materials such as stone, wood, bone, and other plant and animal products, and in contemporary materials such as metals, plaster, found objects and synthetic textiles
  • site-specific installations, including in caves and in sand
  • fabric arts including printmaking, lino-cuts and weaving
  • body art such as body scarring and painting, and wearable art such as ornaments, jewellery, headdresses, and costumes
  • traditional and contemporary dance
  • traditional and contemporary songs
  • digital art and multimedia artworks incorporating graphic arts, photography, motion film, computer-generated forms, etc.

There are a number of well-known Torres Strait Islander artists who have exhibited globally, and a growing number of emerging Torres Strait Islander artists, and organisations promoting local artists from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Below are some established Torres Strait Islander artists:

Traditional and contemporary knowledge

The natural environment of the island is a major inspiration for many Torres Strait Islander artists – as artist Rosie Barkus  says, ‘When you see where I live here, well, how can you not be inspired to draw?’  The marine environment is also very important, both spiritually and practically.

Much of Torres Strait Islander mythology and culture has deep links with the ocean. Marine life such as turtles, fish, dugongs, sharks, seabirds and saltwater crocodiles are considered to be totemic beings, and feature significantly in the art created in the region.

Artists’ practices may traverse visual and performing arts, such as dance, installation and sculpture, embodying cultural customs with modern materials.

Maryann Bourne, Emma Gela and Nancy Nawwi use traditional and modern weaving and knotting techniques to make artworks from sea-borne debris, including ghost nets. Their sea blanket, for example, which also incorporates the Western idea of patchworking, is held in the Australian Museum collection.

Striking dance ornaments such as the Dhari headdresses were traditionally made for rituals and performances, and are now also made as highly coveted sculptural art objects. Ken Thaiday Snr  is famous for his shark dance headdresses. Made with plywood, bamboo, plastic, feathers and string, these sculptures (also known as ‘dance machines’) illustrate stories and recent history – hammerhead sharks are combined with WWII combat planes.

Dance is a very important form of story-telling in the Torres Strait Islands and a strong part of contemporary life . Performers such as Keriba Mabaigal Women’s Dance Company  and Malu Kiai Mura Baui Company  work professionally, sharing their culture beyond their island homes. Other artists welcome people to the Torres Strait to learn about Torres Strait Islander dance and other arts. This three-part video series documents a group of students from NAISDA Dance College, near Sydney, who travelled to Saibai Island to learn firsthand about the history, culture and dance  of the island.

Supporting Torres Strait artists

Torres Strait Islander arts are now supported by several key arts organisations.

  • Umi Arts is the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultural organisation for Far North Queensland, supporting cultural practices, visual arts and crafts, dance, ceremony, storytelling and music.
  • The Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA) works with communities to ‘protect, promote, revitalise and maintain Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal traditions and cultural heritage’ through arts development and cultural maintenance initiatives, and through the Gab Titui Cultural Centre.
  • Gab Titui Cultural Centre, located on Thursday Island, is a contemporary art gallery and repository for cultural artefacts.

Protocols for using Torres Strait Islander artworks

In the Torres Strait each language group’s traditional knowledge is held by specific people, usually Elders. These custodians are responsible for protecting the special knowledge and skills needed to translate art symbols and stories into ceremonial objects, body art and art forms such as paintings, rock art, song and dance. These are passed on during special ceremonies or other community processes to the appropriate people within the language group.

It is important to understand that the full spiritual and ceremonial connections of artworks often remain ‘inside knowledge’ for a particular community. Inside knowledge, which is taught and passed on within a Torres Strait Islander community, may not be shared with people outside the defined group. See Inside and outside knowledge.

Torres Strait Islander people’s artworks should not be reproduced in any way unless permission is first given by the artist/s involved in its development. Symbols used or seen in books or reproductions should not be copied, as they may involve sacred and spiritual figures that are only meant to be reproduced by selected members of a language group.

More information

Art in the Torres Strait Islands, by David Wroth (2015), for Japingka Gallery, outlines how some innovative modern arts workers practices derive from traditional art-making skills and styles.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann’s 2015 guide offers practical cross-cultural support: Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property.

For more information regarding the significance and importance of art for Torres Strait Islander peoples explore the Stories under Tagai  video.

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