Tagai is the name of the constellation used to navigate from island to island in the Torres Strait. In former times, bamboo star charts detailing water currents and land masses assisted navigation by Tagai's stars. A small handheld map would have been given to visitors to the islands so they could navigate the waters during their stay. Tagai also dictates the timing of practices associated with planting, harvesting and hunting. The bamboo used to create this work was collected by Mabo and her family from the grounds of James Cook University in Townsville. Her father planted this bamboo when he was a groundskeeper at the university and as a child Mabo would often assist her father in caring for the plants.
The constellation of Tagai takes the form of a man standing in a canoe with his hand holding a spear and pointing. The Southern Cross is located in the left hand of Tagai and within this (at the bottom left) is Koiki, the star named after Mabo’s father, Eddie Koiki Mabo on 3 June 2015. This dedication marked the 23rd anniversary of the historic Mabo decision in which the High Court of Australia overturned the doctrine of terra nullius (meaning a land belonging to no one). Tagai was significant to this determination for he points to the horizon at the time for harvesting in the Torres Straits, an activity informed by Malo’s law, which was used as evidence of familial connection to and ownership of Country in the Mabo case.
The black stars within the work, which detail the figure of Tagai, refer to ‘star sand’, a type of sand derived from a marine organism that has died, that looks like a star. The sand is found in the channel between Mer, Dauar and Waier islands in the Torres Strait and it washes up on the western beach of Mer. A grain of this sand has been digitally magnified, and 3D printed to create the black stars within the work. Mabo recalls being shown this sand by her father when she was a young girl visiting the Torres Straits. She also recalls learning of Tagai through the stories of her father.
bamboo, cotton, shellac and plastic
287.0 x 290.0 x 15.0 cm (approx)
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Purchased with funds provided by Vicki Olsson 2020
© Gail Mabo
Shown in 1 exhibition
Under the Stars, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 21 Mar 2020–07 Feb 2021