An art lover’s guide to Torres Strait culture
If you’ve ticked off Rome, Florence and Madrid and have seen the works of Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Pablo Picasso, next on your bucket list should be a trip to Tropical North Queensland to experience the world-class artwork produced by Torres Strait artists.
THE CULTURE BEHIND THE ART
Torres Strait Islanders have a rich cultural and seafaring history. Being surrounded by the ocean, it was and still is the main source of food and income. And, elders continue to pass on customs and traditions to younger generations to ensure that they know how to navigate by stars, read the changing tides and live off the sea.
The Torres Strait is spread over four island groups; the north, east, west and central. Each group has their own respected totems and distinctive languages. Kalaw Kawaw Ya (KKY), Kala Lagaw Ya (KLY), and Meriam Mer are the common native languages. And, while most Islanders are multilingual, all are fluent in Torres Strait Creole (Broken English).
The vibrant heritage of the Torres Strait, its people, their ancestors and totems are celebrated and portrayed through various art forms.
Each island has a unique set of songs, dances and ways to illustrate their island’s stories. The differences could be as subtle as the tempo and movements or as obvious as the costumes, headdresses and props used.
Visual aids include bow and arrow replicas, mini canoes and crafted sea creatures. And every performance is governed by the beat of the iconic Warup (drum).
Ditch the standing ovation – loud whistling and showering the performers in baby powder are the standard signs of audience satisfaction.
A popular Torres Strait art form is lino print and when you visit the Canopy Art Centre, these art pieces will immediately catch your eye. Torres Strait artists such as Alick Tipoti are renowned for their intricate lino art and their work is on display in museums around the world.
And, if you’re more of a sculpture-enthusiast, visit the Cairns Art Gallery to admire handmade masks, traditional artefacts and headdresses.
Wood carving is also a favoured art form. Made famous by Torres Strait artists like Edwin Turner, it’s quite common for commemorative carvings to be gifted to friends and family members.
From grass skirts (Zazi) to coconut leaf hats, Torres Strait Islanders have been producing wearable art for decades. In fact, the multi-purpose coconut leaf can be woven into baskets and mats. It can even be woven into kid-friendly crafts such as windmills and fish.
The famous headdress (Dheori) is also a central fashion piece. It has found its way into contemporary clothing and even graced the catwalk through the designs of Torres Strait fashion icons like Grace Lillian Lee.
THE BEST PLACE TO EXPERIENCE TORRES STRAIT ART
Although you can find it across the globe, Tropical North Queensland is the home of Torres Strait art.
In fact, it’s the only place in the world with both of Australia’s Indigenous cultures; Aboriginal and Torres Strait. And, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, is the best event to see these cultures and their artwork on show. It also gives you an opportunity to meet the artists and learn about the history behind their work.
If you’re heading to this year’s art fair, be sure to see these events:
MY NAME IS JIMI
Be there for the world premiere of My Name Is Jimi, a film featuring Torres Strait actor, Jimi Bani. It centres around four generations of one family and tells tales about totems, traditions and childhood memories.
CIAF FASHION PERFORMANCE – WANDAN
Forget New York Fashion Week, Tropical North Queensland is where it’s at! For one night only, you’ll see Indigenous models own the catwalk in outfits that perfectly blend cultural garments and designs with contemporary fashion. And unlike ordinary fashion shows, it integrates performances by Indigenous dancers as well.
BIG TALK ONE FIRE FESTIVAL
You won’t wanna miss this free, family-friendly concert headlined by traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island dancing. Bring your camp chairs or picnic mats and pick the best spot on the grass to watch the performances live. During the intermissions, explore the stalls on the outskirts to pick up a cultural souvenir or art piece to commemorate your experience.
Where else can you see Torres Strait artwork?
- Gab Titui Cultural Centre – Thursday Island, Torres Strait
- Queensland Museum – South Bank, Brisbane
- Queensland Arts Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art – South Bank, Brisbane
- Tanks Arts Centre – Cairns, Tropical North Queensland