Art of the Torres Strait Islands

An introduction to the people, culture and history

Torres Strait Islanders are one of two distinct Indigenous groups of Australia, with the other being Aboriginal peoples. The Torres Strait Islands are located between the northern Cape York Peninsula and the borders of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. There are at least 274 islands in the Torres Strait, with 18 of these being home to present-day communities. There are two distinct traditional languages: Meriam Mir (spoken in the Eastern Islands) and Kala Lagaw Ya (spoken in the Western and Central Islands). Torres Strait Creole, a mixture of traditional languages and standard Australian English, is also spoken by most Islanders.

Many Torres Strait Islanders have relocated for work and education, and today about 80% of Australians of Torres Strait Islander descent live on the mainland, with large communities in north Queensland towns such as Townville, Mackay and Cairns. Although located away from the Torres Strait Islands, Islanders on the mainland maintain a strong sense of culture and identity, as seen in the works of Torres Strait Islander artists held in the Art Gallery of NSW collection.

Historically, Torres Strait Islanders have an oral culture, and stories are communicated through song, dance and performance. The sea, land, sky and waterways are central to many creation stories that predate colonisation and have a significant presence today.

Cultural practices in the islands can be linked to Papua New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia, and are characterised by a strong ceremonial life. The practice of making performance regalia and dance objects is a distinctive and celebrated part of Islander culture - illustrated on the Torres Strait Island flag. Torres Strait Islanders have a vibrant artistic culture, with printmaking, weaving and mask-making some of the most distinct mediums of contemporary Islander cultural expression.

Torres Strait Islanders are the only culture in the world to make turtleshell masks, known as krar (which translates to turtleshell) in the Western Islands and le-op (which translates to human face) in the Eastern Islands. These striking objects have attracted anthropologists and ethnographers to study the region. In 1898-99, the British anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon undertook an expedition to the Torres Strait Islands, collecting approximately 2000 objects, including examples of traditional pre-Christian material culture. Today, the Haddon Collection at Cambridge University in the UK is regarded as the most comprehensive, representative and well-documented collection of Torres Strait Islander material culture in the world. It is a key point of reference for many contemporary Torres Strait Islander artists and arts practitioners who view the process of reconnecting with culturally significant objects and stories as a way of continuing the culture of our region.

The Torres Strait Island flag

The flag was created to represent the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders. It was designed by the late Bernard Namok of Waiben (Thursday Island) in 1992. The use of green represents the land, black the people, and blue the sea. The white five-pointed star symbolises peace, the five major island groups and the navigational importance of stars to the seafaring people of the Torres Strait.

The flag is emblazoned with a white dhari, the distinctive feathered headdress worn by Torres Strait Islander men in ceremony and performance. The dhari is traditionally made from frigate bird and Torres Strait pigeon feathers but is now made from a wide variety of material including heavy cardboard, plywood, chicken feathers and cane.

Key moments in history

The islands are named after Spanish captain and pilot Luís Vaz de Torres, who sailed through the strait in 1606 on his way to Manila in the Philippines. This was the first recorded European navigation of the region. In 1770, after briefly passing through the islands, Captain James Cook claimed the eastern part of Australia for Britain at Bedanug (Possession Island). In 1879, the Torres Strait Islands were annexed by Queensland, then a British colony. In 1901, after the federation of Australia, they were incorporated under the Commonwealth of Australia.

The Torres Strait Islands experienced significant social, cultural and political change when members of the London Missionary Society arrived at Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871, during what has become known in the islands as the ‘Coming of Light’. As Islanders were introduced to Christianity, many cultural activities and items were changed or banned under the influence of Christian missionaries. Torres Strait Islanders accepted and incorporated Christianity into their existing political and cultural structures, and annual celebrations for the Coming of the Light take place on 1 July in island and mainland Islander communities.

Undoubtedly one of the most significant events of Torres Strait Islander and Australian history has been the Mabo case. In 1992, land rights campaigner Eddie Koiki Mabo, along with James Rice and David Passi, was successful in overturning the legal doctrine terra nullius, gaining legal recognition of traditional ownership of Mer (Murray Island) on behalf of the Meriam people. A historic case that lasted 10 years, the Mabo High Court decision changed the legal and political landscape of Australia, and was a significant advancement for rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as it acknowledged our unique connection with the land. The date of 3 June, which marks the landmark decision in 1992, is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islanders.

Questions and activities

Locate the Torres Strait Islands on a map of Australia. Make your own map showing all the islands of the Torres Strait. Find Erub (Darnley Island), where Ken Thaiday, Destiny Deacon and Ellen José come from. Find out the different names for the islands. Why do you think there is more than one name for each island?

Draw the Torres Strait Islander flag and identify the symbol in the centre. Look at pictures of important marine animals such as the hammerhead shark, tiger shark, dugong and turtle. Make models of these creatures using different materials and display them in class.

Find out about the climate, seasons, flora and fauna in the Torres Strait Islands. Learn about different weather events, such as seasonal winds and their names that are specific to this region. In small groups, develop a soundtrack for a windy day using percussive instruments. Play the score back to your class.

Watch the 2012 film Mabo. Research and write a brief report that explains how significant you think the Mabo case was for Indigenous and other Australians. Discuss your ideas with members of your class.


Key points in the interactions between the people of the Torres Strait Islands and non-Indigenous people

1606 Spanish captain and pilot Luís Vaz de Torres sails through the strait.

1770 Captain James Cook claims the eastern part of Australia for Britain at Bedanug (Possession Island).

1860 Commercial quantities of pearl shell are discovered throughout the islands, bringing immense cultural and social change. The boom in the industry brings an influx of people from all over the region who arrive for the promise of work and profit, with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people valued as divers.

1871 Members of the London Missionary Society land at Kemus on Erub (Darnley Island).

1879 The Torres Strait Islands are annexed by the British colony of Queensland.

1897 The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act is passed in Queensland, allowing Chief Protectors to remove local Indigenous people onto and between reserves and hold children in dormitories.

1898-99 British anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon undertakes an expedition to the islands, collecting approximately 2000 objects.

1901 Australia becomes a federation. The Torres Strait Islands are incorporated under the Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitution states that Aboriginal people will not be counted in the census, and that the Commonwealth has the power to make laws relating to any race of people in Australia with the exception of Aboriginal people.

1904 Torres Strait Islanders become subject to same controls as Aboriginal people on the mainland, following the death of John Douglas, the appointed government resident and police magistrate at Waiben (Thursday Island).

1964-73 In an expedition that stems from Haddon’s research, Margaret Lawrie travels to the Torres Strait Islands and records genealogies of various communities and documents the languages, history, culture and important ancestral stories. Her research findings are published in two seminal texts: Myths and legends of the Torres Strait and Tales from Torres Strait.

1992 After 10 years of hearings before the Queensland Supreme Court and the High Court of Australia, the Mabo High Court decision sees the overturning of terra nullius, as the Meriam people of Mer (Murray Island) are legally recognised as the traditional owners of their land through ‘native title’.

1993 Following the Mabo High Court decision, the Australian Parliament passes the Native Title Act 1993.

1998 The landmark exhibition Ilan Pasin (this is our way): Torres Strait art, organised by Torres Strait Islander curators Tom Mosby and Brian Robinson, is held at Cairns Regional Gallery to mark the centenary of the Haddon Expedition. It is the first major exhibition of contemporary Torres Strait Islander artists, and includes work by Ken Thaiday, Destiny Deacon and Ellen José.

2004 Gab Titui Cultural Centre is established, the Torres Strait’s first keeping place for historical artifacts and contemporary Indigenous art.

2008 Erub Erwer Meta (Erub Arts) becomes the Torres Strait’s first incorporated art centre.

2009 Badhulgaw Kuthinaw Mudh (Badu Island Arts) and Ngalmun Lagau Minaral (Moa Art) become incorporated art centres.

2011 The Gallery or Modern Art (GoMA), State Library of Queensland, Queensland Museum and Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane’s Cultural Centre stage Torres Strait Islands: a celebration, the largest celebration of Torres Strait Islander art, performance and culture to date.

Ken Thaiday

AGNSW collection Ken Thaiday Beizam (shark) dance mask (1996) 4.1997
AGNSW collection Ken Thaiday Beizam (shark) dance mask (1996) 4.1997

We are the sea people. We show the people of the world our culture. Our culture is very strong. God’s given us this culture to celebrate everyday . . . We have weddings, tombstone unveilings – we’ve got culture, we’ve got singing to do, we’re dancing all the time. We are happy people. – Ken Thaiday

Born in 1950 on Erub (Darnley Island), Ken Thaiday is an artist, performer, composer and choreographer. He is best known for his elaborately constructed dance machines, or 'mobilised artefacts' as he calls them. Traversing the realms of performance, sculpture and installation, Thaiday’s vibrant and celebratory works communicate the dynamic and enduring qualities of Torres Strait Islander culture and are embedded in its ceremonial life.

Thaiday’s practice fuses cultural tradition with personal history. Having spent his childhood on Erub, Thaiday grew up learning the traditional dances of his region from his father, Tat, a senior cultural leader and choreographer. Thaiday says: 'dancing is very important to me because of my father. He was a very good dancer so this why I dance, to carry on my culture, to stand in his footsteps as my sons will do for me. Every Torres Strait Islander is like this. We learnt from our grandfathers and forefathers.' (1)

As an adult, Thaiday worked in North Queensland as a builder for the railways. He says his experience in this occupation helped him develop the skills and techniques to construct his large-scale sculptural works. In 1987, he went on to become a founding member of the Cairns-based Loza Dance Troupe, which took on the role of performing for annual Coming of the Light celebrations in Cairns. He produced headdresses and handheld 'dance machines' for his dance troupe, which became the foundation for his art practice.

Thaiday says each of his works is like 'an engineering project. I make things move. I like to make things different.' Beizam (shark) dance mask is an example of his innovative and experimental approach to re-creating Torres Strait Islander dance regalia. The work takes the form of the hammerhead shark, an important family totem and a symbol of law and power in the Eastern Island region. Referencing media used to create traditional Torres Strait dance apparatuses, Thaiday uses bamboo and feathers, with the feathers symbolising the foam created in the water as a shark emerges from its surface. The work also features Thaiday’s signature pulley systems that activate and animate the work, while mimicking the function of traditional Torres Strait Islander dance objects which are used to enact important stories in ceremony.

(1) Quoted on Old-fashioned dance: the art of Ken Thaiday website

Other quotes are from artist interview, Canopy Artspace, Cairns, August 2012

Questions and activities

Study Beizam (shark) dance mask 1996 by Ken Thaiday and describe the colours, textures and shapes that you can see. List the different materials. What does the title tell you about the purpose of this object? How would it feel to wear? Would it be heavy or difficult to manoeuvre? How does it work? What might happen when you pull the strings? How do you think Thaiday made this sculpture? Explain your answers with evidence from your studies of the artwork. Discuss reasons why these objects are sometimes called ‘dance machines’.

How do you think the wearer of this headdress would move when dancing? Act out the role of the shark. What headdresses might other dancers wear? How might they interact?

Construct a three-dimensional sculpture that celebrates an important moment in your life. Think about the materials and scale, and how you might animate the object. Consider ways the object could be moved or incorporate internal movement systems such as pulleys, wheels or moving parts. Develop a performance to tell a story about why this moment is important to you.

Research the dhari. How does this artwork by Thaiday borrow from traditional techniques of making dhari? How does he innovate to create his own style? Discuss how this specific cultural practice of mask-making has been translated to a new medium in Thaiday’s work.

Find out about the use of dance masks in storytelling and ceremony in the Torres Strait Islands. Find and look at images of dance masks representing Japanese planes made in response to events in World War II. Talk about how traditional methods can be used to tell stories about the present.

Destiny Deacon

AGNSW collection Destiny Deacon Arrears windows (2009) 300.2009
AGNSW collection Destiny Deacon Arrears windows (2009) 300.2009

I just think the imagery of us as Aboriginal people is kitsch – it was and still is – how we’re seen, like not real people. So I enter that dialogue, but I like to change it around, so we’ve got some kind of say, and we’re making fun of it. - Destiny Deacon (1)

Born in Maryborough, Queensland in 1957, Destiny Deacon is a Melbourne-based artist, performer, videomaker, writer and broadcaster. A self-described ‘old-fashioned political artist’, Deacon is renowned for her performative photographs that explore Indigenous identity and race relations in Australia. Deacon’s work is characterised by her use of Blak humour, achieved through her photographic tableaus that satirise and lampoon Indigenous cultural stereotypes, a tactic Deacon employs to comment on issues such as racism. Having coined the term ‘Blak’ in the early 1990s, Deacon is credited for pioneering a new language for Indigenous self-expression. Today the term has been adopted by a generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who continue to reclaim contemporary Indigenous identity through art and cultural practice.

Deacon’s imagery blends fantasy with scenarios based on reality. Black dolls - objects associated with a racist past and a colonialist agenda - are a recurring motif in Deacon’s practice. Against the backdrop of her lounge room in often whimsical and bizarre situations, they are given a politically charged edge. Deacon says: ‘I just saw dolls as representing us as people because they weren’t able to say anything, and they were just looked at and things like that, so they were like an empty vessel for me to fill. I ended up liking dolls – I’ve never been a doll-lover in my life – I still am not. When I was growing up I didn’t like dolls or anything. I just saw them as representing us as people.’ (2)

Family is another recurring theme in Deacon’s practice. A key influence has been her mother, Eleanor Harding, a Torres Strait Islander woman who moved from the islands to the mainland, and became a politically involved and respected figure in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Early in her career, Deacon studied politics at university and worked as a history teacher, then later, inspired by her mother, pursued her passion for politics, working for Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins as a staff trainer in Canberra. After having her first show, Pitcha Mi Koori, as part of the Mebourne Fringe Festival in 1991, Deacon’s career as an artist quickly gained momentum.

Arrears windows is a 2009 work by Deacon that offers a satirical commentary on urban culture. Borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear window, Arrears windows sees Deacon re-stage the upscale New York apartment setting of Hitchcock’s film using trashy objects such as dirty and disused crates and her signature kitsch black dolls. In a deliberately low-budget and formulated setting that almost mimics a melodramatic soap opera, Deacon’s image contains an element of dark humour and irony, which underscores themes of class and the socio-economic implications of people living on the fringes of society.

(1) Artist talk, Half light: portraits from Black Australia (see video)
(2) Artist interview, Melbourne, November 2012

Questions and activities

Look at Arrears windows 2009 by Destiny Deacon and describe what you see. Consider materials, composition and lighting. To what does the title refer? How does Deacon use word-play to make a serious point?

Write a story about this photograph. Who are the different characters? What might they be saying to one another? Will it be a funny or serious story or both? Develop a dialogue and act it out in class.

Stage a tableau or a photograph that explores a political issue. Consider how you might use humour to get a serious message across. Decide how best to cast your tableau to communicate your ideas. You may choose to cast friends or family or to explore the expressive properties of inanimate objects such as dolls or puppets.

Develop a case study of Deacon's work, investigating her strategic use of humour. Survey the work of other Indigenous artists such as Richard Bell, Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt and analyse their use of humour as a way of critiquing stereotyping and racism. Is this a more effective strategy than straight political rhetoric? Support your answer with examples from contemporary life.

Ellen José

AGNSW collection Ellen José Life in the balance (1993) 207.1994.a-j
AGNSW collection Ellen José Life in the balance (1993) 207.1994.a-j

My identity as a Torres Strait Islander is infused in my paintings, sculptures, watercolours, installations, drawings, photographs, films, lithograph, linoprints, ceramics and woodblocks. It is an integral part of who I am. A line, a stroke, a symbol, a place, an idea unconsciously flows through my body into my work . . . It is as much as part of me as the sea, the earth, the sky is part of everybody’s story. – Ellen José (1)

Born in Cairns in 1951, Ellen José is a painter, printmaker, photographer and teacher whose practice explores Torres Strait Islander identity. Intersecting the realms of the personal, the political and the cultural, José’s practice deals with historical narratives of colonisation, dispossession and resilience. By interrogating Indigenous Australian histories and reflecting on personal experiences, her art explores the legacies of the past and the impact they have on the lives and identities of Indigenous people today.

José’s works are characterised by an innovative aesthetic, which fuses Torres Strait Islander, Asian (Sumi-e) and European techniques. They draw a focus to the intervention of other cultures into Torres Strait Islander culture throughout history. José’s family was forced to flee the islands during the Coming of the Light, and she often uses her practice to critically examine the introduction of Christianity to the islands and the profound ways in which it has become part of the lives of Islanders today.

José’s Life in the balance is a multimedia work that explores the struggle faced by Torres Strait Islander people trying to balance a traditional lifestyle with the modern world. Incorporating found and reclaimed objects, the pyramid-shaped assemblage is based on the nath, a type of platform used in the Torres Strait for spearing dugong. Although shell has many uses, in José’s work it is used to signify long life. The globe, minuscule in comparison to the bamboo construction framing it, represents how insignificant humans are in the universe.

(1) Quoted in The Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011, p106

Questions and activities

Look at Life in the balance 1993 by Ellen José. Consider the title. How has José suggested ideas of balance and movement, fragility and strength in the work? What materials has she used? How are they similar or different to the materials Ken Thaiday uses in his work? Research the use of materials such as bamboo, wood and string in Torres Strait objects used for dance and traditional hunting and fishing.

In class discuss the ways in which balance is important in your life. Think of examples such as riding a bike, dancing and playing sport, or areas such as sharing fairly and dividing your time between school and family and friends. What happens when balance disappears? Create a three-dimensional sculpture that explores the idea of balance. Think about the materials you can use to communicate your ideas.

Identify performative and theatrical elements in the work of José, Thaiday and Destiny Deacon. Research other Torres Strait Islander artists who use dance, drama and performance in their work. Explore and discuss reasons why this might be a strong feature of work from this region.

Selected references

• Torres Strait Regional Authority website
• Tom Mosby (ed), Ilan Pasin: this is our way: Torres Strait art, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns, 1998
The Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011
Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia: Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 2004
• Jonathan Jones & Amanda Peacock, Country culture community, education kit, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney 2009
• Gab Titui Cultural Centre website

This resource has been developed to support the Art Gallery of NSW's collection of Torres Strait Islander art. It considers three focus works from the collection and includes questions and activities for K-12 students.