At this point in time the subject matter of shifting cultural boundaries and identities has become part of the staple diet of mainstream media. Interpretations of the 'other' are central to populist movies such as Avatar just as they are to Amazon Watch’s website, where viewers can monitor the progress of Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric power project. Although at other ends of the media spectrum, both Avatar and Amazon Watch clearly take moral stands with regard to indigeneity, unambiguously condemning the loss of indigenous lands and traditions. Everyday experiences are not always so unequivocal.
How, then, to approach an exhibit of the breadth and scale of The Torres Strait Islands: A Celebration, the first major arts event collaboratively organised by Brisbane’s South Bank Cultural Centre. Timed to coincide with the 140th anniversary of the London Missionary Society’s arrival in the Torres Strait (known as ‘The Coming of the Light’), in a strange way the exhibitions seemed to further legitimise these institutions’ collections of Torres Strait Islander contemporary art, artifacts and ephemera. After spending a day taking in the three wonderful major exhibitions, I found myself questioning whether I might be celebrating the westernisation of the Torres Strait Islands, the conservation of traditional culture, or something altogether different.
The focal point was GOMA’s Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands, the largest exhibition of contemporary art from TSI ever mounted - and a gorgeous and sensitively curated overview of the creative vitality of this largely diasporic community. Works like Segar Passi’s luminous, otherworldly suite of seascapes on paper documented the deep knowledge of nature that has been so necessary for a maritime people’s survival. Painted in an almost familiar Pop-poetic style, and based on powerful observation and personal reflection, the artist’s passionate connection with sea and sky transports the viewer into another realm.
Ghost net baskets and gear bags (2008-2010) woven from huge commercial fishing nets abandoned at sea, employed traditional knotting and weaving methods. From sea-worn polypropolene fibres, artists Mahnah Angela Torenbeek, Reggie Sabatino and Frank Petero have created intricately elegant, intimate objects that incorporate aspects of life and death, survival and destruction, celebration and loss. Destiny Deacon’s installation gently blitzed late Victorian ethnographic documentary films by juxtaposing D-tales from Erub 1899 (2011) with Cousins and Melbourne girls in their Marys in Frieze Frames (2011). D-tales, a short video projection loop spliced from 1899 footage, consigned polite Islanders to an eternity of handshakes with a paternalistic government official; Cousins and Melbourne girls, inkjet prints full of vitality and colour, liberated contemporary Islander women to enjoy themselves unselfconsciously before the camera.
A stunning, hallucinogenic balance of darkness and light in the linoprints of Dennis Nona, Alick Tipoti, Joey Laifoo, Billy Missi and others, portrayed the seamlessness of existence as told in the traditional stories of bipotaim - ‘before time’ – the age before the LMS and Christianity arrived. Gods and goddesses, heroines and warriors, sea creatures and plants sinuously curl and morph through flat, planar black and white spaces.
The sheer material inventiveness brought to the elegant fabrication of dhoeris/daris – traditional warrior headdresses – that are now integral to dance and performance, by artists such as Allson Edrick Tabui, Ken Thaiday Sr, James Eseli and Ricardo Idagi was matched by the artists’ impeccable craftsmanship. The installation of entire walls of groups of dhoeris produced a mesmerising effect that was hypnotic.
Leah Lui-Chivizhe, of the Koori Centre at University of Sydney, presented The Coming of the Light: Re-enacting the Zulai Wan in Urban Australia as part of the SLQ’s Strait Home exhibition. Her research into ‘The Coming of the Light’ celebrations in contemporary urban contexts examined how such cultural events still function to provide meaning. "Intrigued that re-enactments continue to happen every year," she feels that Zulai Wan ceremonies, “highlight the importance of Islander/European contact, shape how non-Islanders and Islanders see each other and themselves, reaffirm pan-Islander identity and mentally transport Islanders – particularly older people – back to home.” This multi-dimensional and cross-disciplinary group of exhibitions offered a rich, deep, complex and sometimes contradictory insight into our understanding of the cultures of the Torres Straits. A far cry from the planet of Pandora indeed.