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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art

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Beizam (shark) dance mask



Ken Thaiday


1950 -

Language group

Meriam Mer, Torres Strait region


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, 2004

© Art Gallery of New South Wales


Other Title

Beizum (shark) dance mask

Place where the work was made

Cairns Queensland Australia



Media category


Materials used

plywood, black bamboo, string, plastic, paint, glass, feathers


86.7 x 106.0 x 71.0 cm

Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.


Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund for Contemporary Aboriginal Art 1997

Accession number


Artist information

Ken Thaiday

Artist profile

Works in the collection



Where the work was made

Shown in 6 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 10 publications


George Alexander, Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia, 'Ken Thaiday', pg. 132, Sydney, 2004, 132, 133 (colour illus.).

Grace Cochrane, One sun one moon: Aboriginal art in Australia, ‘Cross-over: Two-way influences in contemporary Indigenous design’, pg. 261-269, Sydney, 2007, 269 (colour illus.).

Jonathan Cooper (Editor), Exhibitions events - Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Nov 1998-Jan 1999, 10 (colour illus.). Educational brochure produced by the NSW Department of Education and Training as teaching resource for primary school teachers.

Jonathan Cooper (Editor), The Art Gallery of New South Wales Bulletin, 'Yiribana Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Gallery', pg. 14-15, Sydney, May 1998-Jul 1998, 15 (colour illus.).

Franchesca Cubillo, Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 1984-2008: celebrating 25 years, 'Ken Thaiday Snr', pg. 178-181, Darwin, 2011, 179, 181 (colour illus.).

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Australian Collection: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art', pg. 208-241, Sydney, 1999, 241 (colour illus.).

NSW Department of Education and Training, Speakers of Aboriginal English and the Year 5 Basic Skills Test 2002, Sydney, 2002, 12 (illus.).

Hetti Perkins and Ken Watson, A material thing - objects from the collection, Sydney, 1999, 2 (colour illus.).

Hetti Perkins., Contemporary Aboriginal art: The Mollie Gowing acquisition fund, 'Gifted Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Mollie Gowing acquisition fund', Sydney, 2006, (colour illus.). not paginated

Lisa Slade and Rachael Kirsten, Enter Art, Sydney, 2000, sheet number 14 (colour illus.). Education kit produced by the NSW Dept of Education and Training as teaching resource for primary school teachers.