Future-proofing an ancient culture under siege by the seas

While the world has eyes on the Torres Strait as it fights climate change, the Queensland Museum is displaying an extensive exhibition into the diversity of Torres Strait culture and identity which is both a homecoming and a future-proofing process.

Nov 05, 2021, updated Nov 05, 2021
The island of Mer taken from a passing plane (Image: QMN)

The island of Mer taken from a passing plane (Image: QMN)

Island Futures: What lies ahead for Zenadth Kes walks the line between art, science, culture, history, and future.

It is a mammoth exhibition with a mammoth task: to provide a glimpse into the 48,000 square kilometres and 274 islands which make up the Torres Strait.

A year-long exhibition, Island Futures arrives as Torres Strait Islanders sue the federal government for failing to act on the threat of climate change.

They cited the rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and the erasure of sacred cultural sites as severe threats to their homeland.

Island Futures is the reclamation of community, displaying over 200 objects from the State Collection, documentary films, community stories and commissioned contemporary artworks.

The exhibition is as expansive and comprehensive as the archipelago itself, intending to prevent the loss of Torres Strait Islander perspectives.

Torres Strait Islander and exhibition co-curator Rhianna Patrick, who has family connections to Zagareb (Mer) and Wagadagem (Mabuyag) clans of the Torres Strait said the exhibition is a powerful way to share the Torres Strait Islanders voices, leadership and resilience across the generations.

Rhianna Patrick (left) and Imelda Miller (right), curators of Island Futures standing in front of the exhibition (Image: QMN)

“Connection is the key to our culture. The way our culture connects us to what surrounds us, but also how it’s adapted to connect us when we’ve been born away from, moved from or been removed far from our Islands of origin,” Rhianna said.

“We hope Island Futures encourages the wider community to learn about Torres Strait Islander culture and communities and current challenges. It’s a reimagining of the future and the hopes for the next generation of Torres Strait Islanders.”

Imelda Miller, Queensland Museum’s Curator of Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Indigenous Studies, said the exhibition is about looking forward but also about Torres Strait Islanders having agency about their representation.

Miller said the exhibition explores themes of home, ancestors, old ways, new ways and new challenges.

The exhibition contains a full recreation of a Torres Strait Islanders’ living room, headdresses, masks, shark totems by Ken Thaiday Snr, a carved canoe created by Torres Strait arts centre Erub Arts.

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“The culture itself encompasses connection and seeing the past and the future within the present, so that’s part of their identity, their being and their thinking,” said Miller.

“When you’re talking about identity and the future, we have to come from a place of strength but also we want people to relate to the exhibition,” she said.

The Island Futures exhibition was created with the Torres Strait Islander community and artists (Image: QMN)

The exhibition displays ancient artefacts alongside commissioned and acquired art works by artists Ken Thaiday Snr, Chris Bassi, Murray Lui, Margaret Harvey, Dylan Mooney, and Kantesha Takai.

“It is also an acknowledgement of the colonial processes of global museum practices. Torres Strait Islander objects are situated all over the world making it difficult for people to connect to their artefacts,” she said.

These processes actively prevent younger generations from connecting to objects while knowledge holders are passing away, which Miller said threatens the longevity of Torres Strait Islands culture.

“This inclusion of art brings Torres Strait Islanders to the forefront to be able to tell their stories in their own way. Engaging with Torres Strait Islander talent, artists, Instagrammers, is part of that interconnection between old and new.

“It’s not just about sea levels rising, it’s also about identity. How are we going to continue our cultural practices when our islands don’t exist?”

Island Futures: What lies ahead for Zenadth Kes runs until 25 April 2022 at the Queensland Museum. 

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