The indigenous depiction of natural fauna in the areas of remote Australia are an endless source of fascination for Australian art lovers. As part of their Buruwan series of exhibitions, Carriageworks in Eveleigh commissioned renowned Torres Strait Islander artist, Ken Thaiday Senior, to showcase some of his most recent sculptural works.
This untitled exhibition gathers an assortment of wearable headdresses and animal sculptures from Thaiday’s previous oeuvre as well as new pieces created just for this collaboration. Together it invites the audience to journey to the eastern Torres Strait Islands where the remote community of Erub and its seafaring people maintain their cultural identity through the practice of art, music, dance and tradition.
According to Natalie, one of the gallery’s coordinators, this exhibition is a representation of his culture as well as “…the stories that bind the Torres Strait and where they actually live.”
Ken Thaiday Senior, whose works feature in public collections here in Australia and in galleries overseas, has arguably never had a solo show as large or prolific as this. What one can immediately deduce is that there is a strong continuity with his earlier projects where the heritage of his people and their interaction with the life of the land remain a strong focal point.
In the airy muted performance space of Carriageworks, Thaiday’s sculptures roar loudly. In the cold spring light of the morning I visited, the bold saturated colours of his sculptures against the gallery’s pale industrial décor gave them an intense crisp physical presence. Most of them are modelled on significant creatures of the region. These include crayfish, frigate birds and many many Hammerhead Sharks. Needless to say, these animals all have their own cultural myths relating to both ancestral as well as general significance, and the performances that go with the headdresses are a means to pass them down from generation to generation.
If these smaller pieces were not captivating enough, then the white elephant of the room certainly is. At four metres high, the centrepiece, a larger than life model of a Dhari, is as striking in scale as it is complicated in its exquisiteness.
This Dhari, a model of the most significant headdresses in the Torres Strait, not practically wearable of course, is presented as a symbol to emphasize the unity and peace of the islands as similarly depicted in the Torres Strait Island flag.
You have to move around the actual piece, viewing it at different angles, to fully absorb and appreciate the meticulous arrangement and intricate detail gone into it. It is worthy of architectural merit, let alone artistic wonder.
“This actual piece was only made this year in his garage. When he was here installing, he was here for 2-3 weeks and he was still adding pieces to it.” Natalie, the gallery coordinator, said.
Given the detail and intricacy of all these works, the curator has given them plenty of space and isolation between them to be appreciated individually, but remain compositionally unified as if they were the Torres Strait Islands themselves.
While having the presence of cultural artefacts, there is also a sense of motion and process in the works. Beyond being objects of contemplation, these works also consist of a complex array of strings and pulley components that allow them to be used as interactive props in a choreographed dance. Rather than just be calmly admired, the centrepiece of the exhibition is also a dynamic ‘dance machine’ which dancers can pull on to activate.
As part of the exhibition’s programme, Thaiday choreographed three performances for the opening weekend. Performed by a group of Torres Strait Islanders from his own community, including members of his own family, the performances featured live vocals and drums, and, by all accounts, was well received by the local community and those who attended.
There is a subtle irony in the artist’s intersection of cultural customs and traditions of headdress making with the contemporary techniques and modern materials used to make them. While traditional masks were made of shells, cane and feathers, Thaiday’s pieces use modern materials like metals, plastics and wood. But despite the line between cultural authenticity and its debasement being thin, Thaiday’s deep cultural knowledge and tactful reconstruction of such treasures is deft and has been praised by contemporary art critics and his own community alike.
“We showcase artists that don’t always follow the traditional lines of art and he doesn’t. That’s why it works so well for Carriageworks,” Natalie said.
This latest exhibition offers a golden opportunity to familiarize one self with one of the best Torres Strait Islander artists Australia has to offer. Make no mistake, there is an awe inspiring physical wallop to be absorbed. This exhibition is remarkably dense, not only in the techniques and aesthetic detail of the works, but also in its intellectual and cultural layering.
As a cultural artist, Thaiday’s reinvention of customary props and headdresses and his use of modern materials and methods not only passes on the cultural stories, knowledge and traditions to younger generations, but keeps the art of Torres Strait Islanders alive as a modern experience and not just as a museum piece banished to a bygone era. They are as real as they are magical.
Ken Thaiday’s exhibition at Carriageworks and Performance Space is on until November 23, 2014.