Q&A/What to SEE/Visual Art

What to SEE: Evolution: Torres Strait Masks

25 July 2022

This month you can dive into the mystical history of mask-making in Zenadh Kes (the Torres Strait Islands) at the WA Maritime Museum, discovers Nina Levy.

This article is sponsored content.

For the First Peoples of Zenadh Kes (the Torres Strait Islands), masks are not just a representation of ancestral, supernatural and totemic beings, but a means of channelling and connecting with those spirits.

The WA Maritime Museum is giving you the opportunity to find out more about this fascinating art-form, and the rich culture of the Torres Strait, in an exhibition that delves into the craft and tradition of mask-making.

A travelling exhibition from the National Museum of Australia, “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks” has been developed in partnership with Gab Titui Cultural Centre, a contemporary art gallery on Thursday Island that offers visitors an insight into the vibrant art and culture of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula area.

Nina Levy spoke to John Morseau, Senior Project Officer at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, to learn more.

Nina Levy: Thank you for making time to talk to Seesaw Mag, John. Can you tell me the story of how the exhibition came to exist, and the role that Gab Titui Cultural Centre has played in bringing it to fruition?

A mask in the Evolution exhibition
Photo: Luke Riley

John Morseau: The Gab Titui cultural maintenance exhibition programme supports Gab Titui’s vision to research, conserve, interpret, exhibit and promote the cultural and heritage of the Torres Strait people

The exhibition was developed in collaboration with renowned artist Alick Tipoti, and with the support of the British Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (University of Cambridge), and the Queensland Museum Museum Development Officers (MDOs) Ewan McFee and Dr Jo Wills and NMA.

The exhibition aims to highlight the continued importance of Torres Strait masks, their evolution from the past, and influence on present day contemporary art forms.

The exhibition shows the evolution of masks in the Torres Strait and their significance in Torres Strait Islander cultural practices through historical images from the British Museum and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

NL: Why are ceremonial masks so important in Torres Strait culture and rituals?

JM: Masks are representational of ancestral, supernatural and/or totemic beings that form an important component in the traditional beliefs of Torres Strait Islanders.

The ancient knowledge, stories, practices and beliefs of our ancestors have been passed down orally through the generations and kept alive through language, ceremonies, song, dance, and art and craft.

Ceremonial masks possessed powers that allowed one to channel and connect with another realm, and were an integral part of the handing down of ancient knowledge.

NL: The twelve masks in the exhibition are made by contemporary Torres Strait artists – how were these masks sourced? Were they commissioned?

JM: Alick Tipoti was engaged as co-curator of the exhibition specifically due to his expertise in the area of ceremonial masks, and in co-curating his personal exhibitions.  As an established Torres Strait Islander artist his scope of works is extensive, including masks, prints, sculpture, headdress and more.

All the works were commissioned and include contemporary masks by Alick and six other Torres Strait Islander artists with mask-making skills.

A close up of some headresses, featuring white feathers that fan from an orange frame.
Photo: Luke Riley

NL: Mask-making is an ancient artform – why do you think that contemporary artists continue to be attracted to this form? Why is it so special?

JM: Our artists are influenced by culture and tradition and are constantly looking to the past for inspiration.

The artists researched traditional mask-making methods, and tools and techniques to fully understand and appreciate the craftsmanship and labour-intensive work our forefathers used when making masks.

In turn the artists themselves applied both contemporary and time-honoured techniques when making their masks.

The contemporary masks do not embody any spiritual or sacred elements from the traditional masks developed in the past but are each artist’s reverential rendering of this traditional art-form.

Mask-makers of Zenadh Kes today have held that artistry close with pride as we move towards reviving the ancient techniques, at the same time spiritually re-connecting with our forefathers and once again showing the world an ancient practice.

NL: What will visitors take away from this exhibition?

JM: “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks” will provide visitors with a small insight of a revived practice that was once unmatched by any other cultures of the world.

Visitors will hopefully be inspired by the exhibition to spark conversations, ask questions and want to learn more about the Torres Strait and its people.

“Evolution: Torres Strait Masks” continues at the WA Maritime Museum until 21 August 2022.

Pictured top: some of the masks in the exhibition ‘Evolution: Torres Strait Masks’. Photo: Luke Riley

A view of the exhibition. Photo: Luke Riley

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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