Exhibition offers long overdue spotlight on Torres Strait Island art

Artist Brian Robinson has curated an extensive look at the art from Torres Strait Islands, connecting distant shores to Newcastle’s diaspora community, and giving visibility to this unique Australian Indigenous culture.

Developed in collaboration with internationally celebrated artist and curator Brian Robinson, WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait, is an exhibition that takes its cue from the Meriam Mir language of the Eastern Islands, a word meaning, ‘marked with a pattern’.

‘Just as you see the dot or rrak (cross-hatching) traditional patterns with Aboriginal Australia, there is a patternation distinctive to Torres Strait Island that is closely related to Melanesian culture,’ explained Robinson. 

He continued: ‘It is a very unique culture, and it is Australia’s second Indigenous culture, and yet not many people know what it is, what it looks like, and how to connect with it.’

WARWAR will undoubtedly be a landmark exhibition, with over 130 works on loan from public and private collections to enrich the collection holdings of Newcastle Art Gallery.

‘If you come to view this exhibition with no knowledge of Torres Strait Island art and culture, you will gain an incredible understanding and appreciation,’ said Lauretta Morton, Director Newcastle Art Gallery.

‘You can see that connection with the tradition of mask-making of the 18th and 19th centuries and the artistic development that follows on quite methodically to the material culture that is being created today, the emergence of contemporary Torres Strait art, which has been slowly evolving since the 1960s and 70s until present day – the mark making and use of particular patterns and designs is the same,’  explained Robinson.

A number of the artworks on display have not been seen outside of the Torres Strait, including new works from Badhulgaw Kuthinaw Mudh (Badu Art Centre), Ngalmun Lagau Minaral Arts (Moa Arts) and Erub Erwer Meta (Erub Arts).

Robinson was the first Torres Strait Islander artist to be collected by Newcastle Art Gallery in 2017, and the gallery has been actively purchasing Torres Strait works of art since to build that narrative, and to connect with Islander communities living locally.

He told ArtsHub: ‘There is probably 70% or more of all collections globally that sit in repositories and art storage facilities. It is really important that these works that have been acquired by institutions across the country and overseas have their chance to be exhibited to the public.’

Glen Mackie, (Kei Kalak) Kubar E (copper on black) 2011. Les Renfrew Bequest 2019 Newcastle Art Gallery collection Courtesy the artist.

As a former printmaker, Morton has long been attracted to the art making of the Torres Straits. ‘I was really disappointed when I came to Newcastle that there was no representation of Torres Strait Island artists – so we started by acquiring.’

Morton said there are a lot of layers to this exhibition, and while it includes work by celebrated artists like Robinson, it also turns to young local artists like Toby Cedar, who won the 2020 CAIF Ports North Sculpture Award, and teaches dance and culture in Newcastle.

A living culture; a living community

In a first, the City of Newcastle will fly the Torres Strait Islands flag to mark the exhibition’s opening – it even installed a new flagpole to do so!

We have third generation Torres Strait Island community, born and bred in Newcastle, who have never been to the Torres Strait Islands so this exhibition will be a powerful way for them to connect back to their culture and traditions,’ said Morton.

‘When you leave the Torres Strait you bring a little piece of it with you. Over time you build on that connection, that longing for home – dancing, cooking, language – which slowly grows once you connect with other families, developing your own community,’ continued Robinson.

‘Coming together and celebrating with this exhibition really ignites that idea of cultural maintenance, which leaks into all aspects of custom and culture including the arts. By remembering the past – the stories, the people, the practices – we are ensuring that it continues, regardless of where you live on the globe,’ he added.

Ken Thaiday Snr, Hammerhead shark (Beizam). National Museum of Australia. Courtesy the artist; Photo: Dean McNicoll.

Robinson added that he wanted the exhibition to feel like ‘an explosion of all things Torres Strait.’

Morton continued: ‘A lot of the works we are borrowing from across the country are not shown in their own museums, but some are so significant they needed board approval. This means the exhibition will not tour unfortunately.’

‘But we like to build these big shows so people will come to Newcastle to see them,’ she concluded.

WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait opens at Newcastle Art Gallery, 29 May – 22 August.

Exhibiting artists include Joseph Au, Toby Cedar, Grace Lilian Lee, Glen Mackie, Billy Missi, Laurie Nona, Brian Robinson, Ken Thaiday and Alick Tipoti.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina