Ken Thaiday is a renowned Indigenous Australian artist but this wasn’t always the case. Born on Erub (Darnley) Island in the Torres Strait, Ken’s father was an important dancer in the region so, from a very young age, Ken learned how to construct ceremonial dance masks and headdresses.
As a teenager, he moved to Cairns in search of work and this led him into the shark finning industry. Fuelled by the buoyant Chinese market for ever more shark fins, Ken made a good living from hauling these magnificent creatures from the ocean and slicing off their fins.
But even as a fisherman, Ken continued his love of dance masks and while in Cairns he founded the Darnley Island Dance Troup.
As time went by, Ken began to realise what the finning industry was doing to shark populations and the impact it was having on the finely-tuned eco systems in our oceans.
With growing awareness of their plight, he sought out a different way to make a living and drew on his traditional skills; the skills he had learned as a child. He had an epiphany. It was then he realised that he could still make a living from sharks – not by killing them, but by using them as subjects for his art.
It was in his role as an important Indigenous artist that I came to meet Ken. He told me about his passion for shark conservation and his desire to inspire people – not to fear sharks, but to respect them.
Ken’s work is currently exhibited at Canopy Artspace in Cairns and will be on display as part of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, running 17-19 August, 2012.