AWAKENINGS

Stories from the Torres Strait

By Queensland Museum Network

Cultural Advice: Visitors should be aware that the exhibition and website may include names, images and voices of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is our intention to tell these stories and use imagery with good faith and with respect.

"“'Awakening' brings together the past, present and the future.”"

To Torres Strait Islanders, objects are imbued with the spirituality of their creator and the wisdom of ancestors. 'Awakening' seeks to reconnect the spirit between people and their objects, allowing them to communicate once more. 

The Torres Strait is home to a strong, vibrant, living culture that is thousands of years old. 'Awakening' explores aspects of this rich and diverse culture through objects of extraordinary beauty and significance from the Queensland Museum’s extensive Torres Strait Island collection. We hope that awakening these objects will shine a light on culture and custom of Torres Strait Islanders today.

Dance Headdress Dance Headdress, Wawee Tapau, 1988, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Feathered Headdress, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

"The Torres Strait Islands"

"“In Torres Strait you are surrounded by the sea. The water becomes your highways, the sky becomes your compass and your knowledge of the rules of the land, sea and sky influence the way you live your life.”"
Imelda Miller, ‘Awakening’ co-curator, 2011 

The Torres Strait lies between the tip of Cape York and the border of Papua New Guinea. It encompasses more than 270 islands scattered over 48,000 square kilometres. 

The islands are divided into five main areas. These geographical divisions are also used to describe major social groups and cultural differences.



Two Torres Strait communities are situated on the tip of Cape York Peninsula: Bamaga and Seisia, and there are also communities on the mainland at Cairns and Townsville. Only 17 of the 270 islands in the Torres Strait are inhabited.

The Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Museum, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

The islands are divided into five main areas:

• Eastern (Mer, Ugar, Erub) 

• Top western (Boigu, Dauan, Saibai) 

• Western (Badu, Mabuyag, Mua) 

• Central (Iama, Masig, Poruma, Warraber); and 

• Inner (Keriri, Muralug, Ngurupai, Wabien/Thursday Island).

"The people of the Torres Strait"

"“Torres Strait Islanders are a saltwater people, proud of their separate and distinct culture, rich in language, music and dance, strong in dignity and community solidarity, and exuberant in spirit.”"
M.C. Quinnell, Queensland Museum Honorary, 2011

Indigenous to the Torres Strait, the Islanders have a unique origin, history and way of life. Their art and culture differs from that of Aboriginal Australians. 

The Torres Strait Islanders are not one amorphous culture: practices, beliefs, clothing and objects vary between eastern and western areas.



The two main languages spoken are Meriam Mir in the east and Kala Lagaw Ya to the west.

Drum, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

"“Welcome to the Torres Strait of the past, present and future.”"
Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder, 2011

Queensland Museum has been collecting for over 150 years. Since its establishment as a government institution, the Museum has acquired objects from the Torres Strait region. The earliest donations of Torres Strait objects occurred between 1873 and 1880. These included a mask, bows, arrows, spears, a headdress and a comb.



In the last quarter of the 20th Century the Queensland Museum has begun to collect objects that mirror contemporary Torres Strait Island communities.

Turtle Shell Mask, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Turtle Shell Mask

Augumwali (Islander Dress) Augumwali (Islander Dress), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

"Past, Present & Future"

Prior to the late 1800’s, feathered headdresses, called dhari (Eastern language) or dhorei (Western language), were worn by men on ceremonial occasions and during warfare. Today they are only worn by dancers on ceremonial occasions.

Central on the Torres Strait Islander flag, the dhari has become an emblem of unity and identity, representing shared traditions and beliefs of Torres Strait Islanders.

Dance Headdress Dance Headdress, Wawee Tapau, 1988, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

"“Napau” dhoeri"

Napau, Frank Loban, 2010, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Napau

The story of the Dhoeri named “Napau”, made by Frank Loban, speaks to the strength of leadership in the contemporary battle for culture, and the appreciation of past and present ways of Islander men. 

The blue, green and black of this dhoeri represent the Torres Strait: blue for the water, green for the land, and black for the Indigenous Torres Strait Islander. The placement of the colours on the central framework refers to Islanders living in the Strait and on the mainland. The star represents the five island groups of the region. 

The pearl references males in Lohan’s family lineage, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the family ties of the past, present and into the future. The feathers symbolise the direction and source for the flight for Indigenous leadership.

"People: Men & Women"

"“Awakening represents the grass-root people belonging to the Torres Strait”"
Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder, 2011

Women continue to pass down weaving skills through the generations. Today, making baskets from coloured plastic packing tape is becoming widespread.  These skills and baskets have become symbols of identity for contemporary Torres Strait Islander women.

Palm spathe (Side View), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Palm Spathe (Front View), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Palm Spathe (Detail), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Palm spathe

Palm spathe

Collected by P.G.H. Guilletmot, from Erub (Darnley Island), between 1911 and 1912.

Packing Tape Basket (Detail), Sarah Stephen, 1996, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Basket (Packing Tape), Sarah Stephen, 1996, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Packing Tape Basket (Detail), Sarah Stephen, 1996, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Basket (Packing tape)

Made by Sarah Stephen, 1996 



Collected by Rae Sheridan, from Erub (Darnley Island), in 1996.

Cassowary headdress

Cassowary feathers (Casuarius casuarius), plant fibre

Collected by P.G.H. Guilletmot, from Erub (Darnley Island), between 1911 and 1912

Several items were worn by men during fighting, to evoke fear and respect. These included Cassowary headdresses, ornaments of pearlshell worn on the chest, and stone headed clubs, called gabagaba.

Today, many items used in warfare are now solely used in dance.

Head ornament, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Chest ornament, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Chest ornament (Pearl shell)

Dance Clubs, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Dance clubs

(Wood, stone, cane, synthetic polymer paint)

"Place"

Row of dingys in Mabuyag, Imelda Miller, 2011, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
,
Fishtraps off Erub Island, Imelda Miller, 2011, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Row of dingys (Mabuyag) Fish traps -   Erub
(Darnley Island)

"“As a Torres Strait Islander wherever you travel, when you come back to your homeland, you feel complete”"
Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder, 2011

People have always cared for this ‘place’.



Torres Strait Islanders had named the islands, the water, the animals, the plants, the moon, the stars and the seasons. They had established gardens, harnessed the sea and developed extensive trade networks.



Traditionally, canoes were an integral part of Torres Strait Islander life, essential to food collection, warfare, and the operation of customary exchange networks between local islands and with peoples from Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea.





The ocean remains the main ‘highway’ throughout the Torres Strait. Today, dingy’s are one of the main forms of transport; a common sight throughout the islands.

"Home"

Mats were very important to traditional ways of life. They provided shelter, were used to sit and sleep on, to teach from, and to welcome visitors and trading partners.  The also formed the sails of canoes. 



Women made these large mats by interweaving strips of pandanus or coconut leaf, which had been made pliable by scraping with a sea shell. 



Plaiting was also used to make fans, a well-used object in hot days on the islands.



Rest and recreation is important to people everywhere.



One recreation activity was top spinning. Competitions were confined to Mer, and held by senior men. The person who could spin the top for the longest time won. Special kolap songs were sung while they were spinning.

Mat, Sep-15, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Spinning top, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

"Purpose"

"“The lesson is learnt in the process, the reward knowing how you got to the end product”"
Uncle
Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder

Drum Drum, Jim Pearson, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Traditional art and craftsmanship have been passed down from generation to generation, and remain a key part of cultural practice today.

These skills continue to be taught, processes and tools adapting with the changing social environment.



These traditional skills can be seen in Torres Strait Islander contemporary art and performance today.



The drum is integral to the social, political and cultural events in a Torres Strait Islanders’ life.  

Drums took two main forms and could be played on the ground or carried during dance. One type of drum, the hourglass shaped warup drum had carvings of animals, which sometimes referenced the owner’s totem.  Shells and nuts attached to these drums rattled with the beating of the drum and were not purely decorative. This type of drum is seldom made today

Painted Drum (wide shot), Jim Pearson, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Drum - Collected by Chris De Vine, from Saibai, in 1978

Drum, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Drum - Collected by P.G.H. Guilletmot, from Erub, between 1911 and 1912

"Dance Machines & Headdresses"

Island dance is a major form of creative and competitive expression.

Dance machines (hand held mechanical moving objects), 'clappers' and headdresses vividly enhance Torres Strait Islander dance performances with colour, movement and sound.

They create striking visual representations of land, water, and celestial environments. Some are used in spectacular night dances, by firelight and moonlight, dancers moving together in unison.

Shooting Star Shooting Star, J. Pearson, 1973, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Dance machine - shooting star

Dance Headdress (Aircraft), James Eseli, 2003-04/2003-07, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Bomber Headdress (Extreme Detail), James Eseli, 2003, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
,
Bomber headdress (Detail), James Eseli, 2003, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
,
Bomber Headdress, James Eseli, 2003, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Traditional stories, as well as contemporary lifestyles are reflected in dance equipment, such as pearl luggers representing the pearling industry and World War II planes recalling the experience of watching planes take off for war.

James Eseli, the maker of this headdress, was born on Badu Island in 1929 and grew up in a traditional island society. Eseli drew on his experiences in the Torres Strait during the Second World War. Eseli choreographed an aeroplane dance, which features distinctive headdresses of bombers and fighter planes taking off from Nurupai (Horn Island) on their way to Japanese targets in New Guinea. 





These headdresses continue to be used by contemporary Badu dance troupes. The bomber dance is performed on Anzac Day.

"“The lesson is learnt in the process, the reward knowing how you got to the end product.”"
Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder

"Influences on living culture"

"“Bringing
the past forward, to create an understanding of the past for the future
generations”"
Uncle
Thomas Sebasio, Elder, Erub Island

Significant events in Torres Strait history have affected the maintenance and continuation of Torres Strait Islander culture: contact with Europeans, the development of the pearling industry and the arrival of Christian missionaries. These processes caused immense social, religious and environmental disruption and changed Islander way of life.

"The Coming of the Light"

Since the 1840s, The London Missionary Society (LMS) had been working to spread Christianity throughout the Southwest Pacific.



The LMS hoped to convert the peoples of New Guinea to Christianity. Rather than establishing a base in mainland New Guinea, it was decided to set up a base on an Island in the Torres Strait.



In 1871, The London Missionary Society arrived on Erub Island in 1871, bringing the ‘light’ of Christ to the ‘heathen’ darkness of the Torres Strait.





The year 2011 marks the 140th Anniversary for Coming of the Light. Major celebrations will occur on Erub, Darnley Island on 1 July 2011.

Church - Erub (Darnley island), Gary Cranitch, 2011, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Church - Erub (Darney Island)

"Pearling"

In the 1860’s the pearling industry began in the Torres Strait and marked the entry of the Torres Strait into the global economy.



Torres Strait Islanders, with their superior seafaring skills and knowledge of seas and seasons were essential to the pearling industry. Islanders played a major role in the development of the pearling industry in the Torres Straits.



Pearl and Trochus shells were gathered in large numbers to make buttons.

However, Islanders were also exploited. Pearling dealt a significant blow to traditional ways of life.

Model Pearling Lugger Model Pearling Lugger, George Mosby, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Model of Wanetta Pearling Co. Lugger “Paua”

Model of Wanetta Pearling Co. Lugger “Paua”, George Mosby, 2002, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Model of Wanetta Pearling Co. Lugger “Paua”

Trochus shell and button, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Trochus niloticus

Trochus shellers at Ross Creek, W Kirkpatrick, 1954, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

Trochus shellers at Ross Creek

Pearl shelling was concentrated in the Torres Strait, but trochus shells were also collected to make buttons. Trochus shellers ranged down the barrier reef, operating out of Cairns, Townsville and Mackay before returning to Thursday Island. The advent of plastic buttons spelt the end of the industry. The industry allowed  Islander men to become familiar with these mainland cities.

"Awakening"

"“Back
to our roots, on this day, and into the future”"
·        
Uncle
Thomas Sebasio, Erub Island Elder

Crocodile Head Mask, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Mask Mask, From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

“Awakening” seeks to reconnect the spirit between people and their objects. However this can be difficult.



Some of the earliest pieces collected by Europeans in the mid-1800’s were the stunning masks of the Torres strait, some of which were unique to the region and made nowhere else in the Pacific.

Crocodile Head Mask (Detail Top), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Crocodile Head Mask (Iron Detail), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more
Crocodile Head Mask (Feather detail), From the collection of: Queensland Museum Network
Show lessRead more

However, not much is known about these masks. Obtaining the artefact was considered to be more important than understanding the object’s context and story: the purpose of the object in Islander culture.



Masks, and all other objects, are enmeshed in a web of cultural meaning. When objects are removed from the cultural web, the web breaks. Only with understanding is it possible to rebuild the web for future generations.

References & Further Reading

Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, State Library of Queensland, Queensland Museum, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, 2011. The Torres Strait Islands. South Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art.



David, B., Manas, L., and Quinnell, M., 2008. Gelam’s Homeland. Cultural and Natural History on the Island of Mua, Torres Strait.  Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series. Volume 4(2)125-619.



Florek, S. 2005. The Torres Strait Islands Collection at the Australian Museum. Technical Reports of the Australian Museum Number 19.



Herle, A., and Philp, J. 1998 Torres Strait Islanders, An Exhibition Marking the Centenary of the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology.



Fernandez, R.,  and Loban, E., n.d. Zamiyakal Torres Strait Dance Machines. Thursday Island: Gab Titui Cultural Centre.



McNiven, I., and Quinnell, M., 2004. Torres Strait Archaeology and Material Culture. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Cultural Heritage Series. Volume 3(1)1-379.



Moore, D.R., 1984. The Torres Strait Collections of A.C. Haddon. A Descriptive Catalogue. London: Trustees of the British Museum



Moore, D.R., 1989. Arts and Crafts of Torres Strait. Haverfordwest: C I Thomas and Sons.



Philp, J. 2001. Past Time: Torres Strait Islander Material from the Haddon Collection, 1888-1905. A National Museum of Australia Exhibition from the University of Cambridge. Canberra: Goanna Print.



Mosby, T. 1998 IIan Pasin – This is our way: Torres Strait Art. Cairns: Cairns Regional Gallery Exhibition.



Quinnell, M.C. 2011. Torres Strait Islander Material culture collections in the Queensland Museum 1873-2011. In Torres Strait Islands Monograph.



Sharp, N. 1993. Stars of Taigai. The Torres Strait Islanders. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Credits: Story

Curator—Dr. Brit Asmussen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps