'We see our ancestors': The history of masks in the Torres Strait Islands

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By Will Higginbotham

Posted

June 25, 2017 05:27:41

In the Zenadth Kes, also known as the Torres Strait Islands, the art of ceremonial mask-making has been around for centuries.

Made from materials such as woods, shells and feathers, the masks play an important role in uniting the diverse groups of the Torres Strait together.

“Through these masks we know our stories, our ancient ways of life, our families, clans and tribes,” Cygnet Repu, from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, says.

“In them we see our ancestors, our heroes, our totems and the connection back to the land and sea country.”

Evolution: Torres Strait Masks is a new exhibit at the National Museum of Australia that celebrates the historic and spiritual significance of the ceremonial mask.

Ceremonial mask making is a common practice in the Pacific, especially in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

The cultural linkage is not surprising — at their closest point, Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait are only four kilometres apart.

“When you study the face carvings [on the masks] you see and notice similarities [between PNG and Torres Strait masks], in the deepness of the grooves and the way the eyes are drawn and carved,” Mr Repu says.

“But both of us use the same material, the same style and really, for the same purposes.”

The new exhibit focuses on Torres Strait mask making by showcasing twelve contemporary masks created by artists at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Waiben island [Thursday Island].

The contemporary masks are displayed next to ancient examples of the practice.

Lead curator, Letha Assan, says the exhibit shows how Torres Strait culture and artistic practice has evolved over time.

“It takes you on a journey from time immemorial when masks were used in ceremonial rituals involving art, theatre and dance by our ancestors,” Ms Assan said.

“And we show how these historic artefacts have inspired new works that are constantly developing and changing.”

Ms Assan told the ABC that the exhibit highlights the resilience of Torres Strait culture after European colonisation.

“We wanted to show that our cultural practices are still very much alive, even though a lot of our masks were taken away post-colonialism,” she said.

“[And] we wanted to show the journey of them coming around, and that our artists continue to make these masks and that they continue to be used.”

Director of the National Museum, Matthew Trinca says the exhibit is timely and that it speaks to a broader Australian story.

“The story of Australia’s first peoples is a deep important part of our collective cultural experience,” Mr Trinca said.

“It is important to honour that, especially at this time in what is an anniversary year for all Australians.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 25th anniversary of the Mabo land rights decision.

Evolution will be at the National Museum Canberra until July 23 before embarking on a national tour.

Topics:

indigenous-culture,

arts-and-entertainment,

torres-strait-islands,

australia,

pacific



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