【Museums Link Asia-Pacific】AU KAREM IRA LAMAR LU / Ghost Nets of the Ocean: Torres Strait Islanders’ Ode to the Sea
Jimmy K. Thaiday and Lorenzo Ketchell carrying the hammerhead shark sculpture, Irwapaup, 2017
Author: Lim Chye Hong, PhD (Curator for Au Karem ira Lamar Lu, Asian Civilisations Museum)
Image credits：All photographs are by Lynnette Griffiths and Erub Arts unless specified otherwise.
The Torres Strait lies between the north of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. At least twenty-two of some 200 islands here are inhabited by Torres Strait Islanders, one of two distinct Indigenous groups of Australia. This article Au Karem ira Lamar Lu / Ghost Nets of the Ocean, introduces the art of one of the most remote communities in Australia, living on Erub (also called Darnley Island), and two of their non-Indigenous collaborators. Fish, turtles, and other marine creatures are key symbols and vital food sources for the islanders. Inspired by the ocean and stories of indigenous life in the region, the artists have recycled “ghost nets”, destructive, abandoned fishing nets, turning them into powerful works of art that celebrate island, reef, and ocean.
Keywords: contemporary art, indigenous art, ghost nets, Torres Strait, Australia
The art of the Torres Strait Islands is visibly different and stylistically distinct from that of Aboriginal Australians on the mainland. Torres Strait Islanders have a maritime saltwater culture. They are very much influenced by their intimate knowledge of the sea, accumulated over thousands of years. Islanders are said to be “one of the most marine-oriented and sea-life dependent indigenous societies on the planet.”1 Thus, it is not surprising that fish, turtles, and other marine creatures are key symbols, vital food sources, and totemic animals for Torres Strait Islanders. Inspired by these fantastic creatures, Au Karem ira Lamar Lu, or literally Ghost Nets of the Ocean, is a celebration of island, reef, and ocean. Made from ocean debris, including abandoned fishing nets, rope, and recycled plastics, these magnificent sculptures created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists from Erub, one of twenty-two inhabited islands in the Torres Strait and home to one of the most remote communities in Australia, retains an underlying unity of inspiration—the sea and the peoples’ relationships with it. While the installation strives to generate awareness of ocean pollution, recycling, and conservation of the marine environment, it also offers a glimpse of Indigenous Australians’ enduring cultural heritage and a manifestation of its myriad contemporary expressions. Marine creatures tell stories, frame meanings, and take us to other places.Sharks are an important part of cultural and spiritual life for saltwater people. They are creator beings, ancestors, and totems, as well as a mighty power that represents law and order. Their life cycles reflect the seasons, the landscape, and sea country. Large hammerhead sharks are often seen off the north-western side of Erub where the reef drops off quite sharply. They swim up from the deep water into shallow water to feed on stingrays. In the eastern Torres Strait Islands, the hammerhead shark is a totem for a number of tribes, and it has also been portrayed in traditional dance whereby the dancers wearing either facemasks or headdresses representing the shark mimic its movement. Made from marine debris and supported by steel frames, using a combination of traditional weaving techniques together with selected methods of sculpture, Irawapaup brings to life the majestic hammerhead.
During certain times of the year, usually around December, great shoals of sardines come round the eastern islands of the Torres Strait. The Islanders call these sardines tup. Often sharks may be seen darting here and there through the shoal, making a meal. At times, a variety of large trevally cuts through them, creating a feeding frenzy. There are various ways of catching the sardines—spearing, using a throw net, or scooping them up in big funnel-shaped baskets made of split bamboo, called weres.2 Juxtaposing Lynnette Griffiths’ Tup–Sardines with the Weres by collective Indigenous artists from Erub offers a glimpse of a moment in time.
Turtles also hold special significance for the people of Erub. It is both a tribal totem and a traditional source of food for feasting and celebrations. Near the northern end of Erub is a reef called Emarr. Marion Gaemers’ coral panels, fashioned from marine debris using a combination of weaving techniques, afford an intimate close-up of such reefs. Interestingly, Emarr is also a well-known turtle hunting ground. Islanders are mindful of taking only what they need. Part of the respect rendered to the sea is about making sure that marine stocks are available for feature generations. Emarr Totol is one of the most impressive works for the installation. Like the Irawapaup, it is made from marine debris and supported by a steel frame. Bits of net and rope were unknotted and undone beforehand to form multi-coloured clusters of fibre which were then meticulously sewn together using a technique reminiscent of felting to make up the flesh and core of the body. For the shell, a combination of coiling and weaving techniques were employed. Through the hands of the artists, marine debris was magically transformed into the splendid and dignified Emarr turtle.
The schematic layout of the exhibition mirrors, to a certain extent, the ecology and the relationship of various marine creatures in the sea country. In constructing these sculptures, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists are contributing to the ongoing cohesiveness and strength of Islander culture. Understood and interpreted through the symbolic language and context of marine creatures, these colourful images reveal not only the artistic talents but also the Islanders’ knowledge about the sea, environment, and the people. The Islanders’ connection to the sea, a theme dear to a port city like Singapore, and its expression, vis-à-vis these magnificent sculptures, also speak of the power of art to express sensitivity to the world in which we live, and its ability to bring people together.
- Torres Strait Islanders are marine specialists par excel They are said to know of and use more than 450 species of marine animals. R. E. Johannes and J. W. MacFarlane, Traditional Fishing in the Torres Strait Islands (Hobart: CSIRO Division of Fisheries, 1991).
- Weres is a traditional fishing tool used to scoop schooling sardines. It is generally made from slatted bamboo and assembled with rope made from beach hibiscus and vine.
- Asian Civilisations Museum, http://acm.org.sg/exhibitions/ghost-nets-of-the-ocean
- Erub Arts-Darnley Island, https://www.facebook.com/Erub-Arts-Darnley-Island-404714109587933/
- Erub Arts & Tropic Productions (5 June, 2017). Au Karem ira Lamar Lu / Ghost Nets of the Ocean 【YouTube】https://youtu.be/H2eAhMU5ei4