The Torres Strait Islands are situated between Cape York in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. Ken Thaiday was born on Erub (Darnley Island), in the eastern group of the Islands. Thaiday’s childhood on Erub involved fishing for crayfish, coral trout and mackerel, tending gardens of sweet potatoes, cassava and sugar cane, and participating in ceremonial performances at weddings, feasts and tombstone unveilings. Like many Islanders, Thaiday’s family settled in Cairns on the mainland when he was a teenager. His father, Tat, was an important dancer, and as a young man Ken Thaiday attended dance ceremonies and made drawings and paintings that were the foundation of his later masks, headdresses, and hand-held ‘dance machines’.
In 1987, Thaiday began constructing dance artefacts for the Darnley Island Dance Troupe. These ‘mobilised artefacts’, as he calls them, are used in ceremonial performances, and connect with Islander traditions and clan identity. Each island group has its own performances, and although using modern materials (e.g. plastic piping and enamel paint) these objects are used as they were in the past. Some are percussion instruments that feature the sun and evening stars rising and falling, or hibiscus plants opening and closing, or large wooden fish with painted scenes of island life that switch from day to night at the turn of a handle.
Thaiday’s best known works are his hammerhead shark dance headdresses. These objects extend high above the dancer’s head and down to the upper chest. They are made of wire, plastic, plywood and strips of black bamboo, and are decorated with a ruff of white feathers that represents the foam breaking as the shark surfaces. Animated by the dancer pulling on strings, the jaws of the shark-effigy snap open and shut, as if swimming in search of food. The gyrating dancers in the shark headdresses are an impressive and menacing sight. Torres Strait Islanders have a maritime salt water culture, and the shark is an important totem. Not only is the shark a food source, but it is also a symbol of law and order.
In constructing these objects, Thaiday is contributing to the ongoing cohesiveness and strength of Islander culture. They have a pivotal role in ceremonial life, especially in sacred performances that reach back to the Malu-Bomai spirituality of pre-colonial times, and reaffirm Islander culture’s benign relationship with the supernatural.
George Alexander in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014