The Ghost Net art project

Program Director for Ghost Nets Australia Sue Ryan describes how the Ghost Net Art Project began and what it is all about - people using eco-trash to share stories and express their creativity.

In my role as the program director for GhostNets Australia I have had the privilege to visit and work with people from many indigenous communities and listen to stories about their land and their connection to it. The sorrow experienced by saltwater people watching their beautiful coastlines change within their lifetime to a dumping ground of plastic and witnessing first-hand the senseless death of marine creatures, often their totems, would break the hardest of hearts. Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been abandoned at sea, lost accidentally, or deliberately discarded. They travel the oceans of the world with the currents and tides, continually fishing as they progress through the waters. As they are unattended and roaming they fish indiscriminately, not only catching threatened species but undersized and protected fish as well.

As Gertie Levi from Moa Island put it: I feel so sad that these creatures are being caught in things that man has made and just tossed away without any regard to the ocean. That was very hard for me. We've never had this sort of problem before. The sea is part of our life. If we don’t take care of it who will?

The Ghost Net Art Project is about people using this eco-trash to share stories and express their creativity in all shapes and forms. Community members have become inspired to pick up the rubbish and make it into new things. Friendly competition often breaks out between communities with artists wanting to make something bigger or kookier, more delicate, more practical or more unpredictable than the others. We pick them up these ghost nets. They are rubbish. What are we going to do with rubbish? They wreck the place, said Angela 'Mahnah’ Torenbeek from Moa Island, who not long after sold her beautiful basket made from rubbish to the British Museum.

The ghost nets - you can make good things out of it. It’s about awareness and it reminds everyone what they are doing to the environment and marine life. But you know.. .we are getting there... I think.

Although we all share a sense of despair about the ghost net issue there is something about the Art Project that, wherever it goes, generates a feeling of goodwill that makes you believe anything is possible.

The first workshop I was involved with was in Aurukun in mid-2009. Gina Allain and I went in to work with senior weavers Mavis Ngallametta and Doreen Mapoondin (now deceased). Mavis and Doreen applied the traditional techniques they use with natural plant materials to the ghost net. Their traditional baskets are fine and delicate but when using net the baskets they produced were knotted and lumpy. The weavers struggled with the material, initially unhappy with the untidiness, but as the baskets grew they began to develop a fondness for the ghost net and excitement over these new strange objects they were making.

The nets are a big problem for us. They might get caught in our propellers and they are killing our wildlife. There is 150 kilometres of coastline for us to manage. If we don’t manage the beaches this problem will continue here in Aurukun. Some of the ghost nets we find are buried, there’s a lot of material wasted, said Mavis.

The project aims at producing items made from ghost nets. By producing art it helps people feel better about themselves and this has a flow on effect for the community. The initial baskets made at Aurukun went into the first Cairns Indigenous Art Fair in August 2009. They were so new and inspiring that they attracted a great deal of attention and sold quickly to collectors. Mavis and Doreen also conducted well-attended public ghost net weaving workshops and from that auspicious debut appearance the project blossomed.

With odd bits of funding we started to run more workshops. We gathered a selection of skilled fibre and contemporary artist facilitators to work with saltwater communities developing new works. Workshops were held in communities from the Northern Territory, around the Gulf of Carpentaria and through the Torres Strait. We also involved artists from different communities in artist exchange programs, festivals, exhibitions and public workshops. Artists created everything from baskets, mats, dolls, sculptures and cushions to hats and jewellery. St Pauls Community on Moa Island created a ghost net puppet performance. Films were made, songs were sung and stories told.

It was a day like this and we went to TI and on our way back we were going that fast we didn’t take notice, we didn’t see anything and the dinghy just stopped. Vera and I fell backwards. When we looked over the side there was this big black thing under the reef. When we pulled the outboard back a net was caught in it and it was BIG! I’d never come across things like that before. I was glad we didn’t have any kids with us. Marie Newie from Moa Island told in one story and went on to point out. We use our dingys like cars. We depend on the sea. It has to be safe for us. We need it to be safe.

Indigenous Rangers have removed over 8,000 ghost nets to date across the Top End coastlines. Some of the nets are so large that they require heavy machinery to move.

We found a very big net. We went in close to check it out and saw lots of sharks. I couldn’t count how many sharks were in the net. Heaps of sharks! Saw a little turtle in the net too. We took it out and released it. We tried to tow the net but we couldn’t. The net was too big. recalled Ezra Kris from Moa.

The ghost net too has a story, from its birth in a factory, shiny and new to its working life at sea where it catches hauls of fish. Somehow it is left, snagged, or washed overboard in a storm, and as it drifts it catches many things. For years it can travel across different oceans carried by currents, waves and wind. Frayed by the giant washing machine sea, encrusted in barnacles and seaweed, within it entangled bleached bones and living things, Taiwanese toothbrushes, the odd children’s toy, lures, floats and driftwood, it eventually heads for the coast. Rangers or community people find it and pick it up or dig it out of the sand, put it in a dinghy or in the back of a ute, take it to town. Hands form it into a new object and that object has its own story. It has been places, it tells the whole ghost net story, the community’s story, the artist’s story. That one object made by those hands contains it all.

The network between communities, artists, galleries, NGOs, government and the general public weaves and twines and breathes life into itself. Gaining new momentum it expands like a ghost net creation. Maybe anything is possible. Perhaps together we can make the problem go away.

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