An Introduction to Torres Strait Islander Art

The Torres Strait Islands are located between the northern Cape York Peninsula, and the borders of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The Torres Strait Islands are known for their distinct culture that is made up of a unique mix of influences from both Papua New Guinea and mainland Australia. Just like their culture and traditions, Torres Strait Islander art is stylistically distinct. They have a vibrant artistic culture of printmaking, carving, weaving, mask-making and dance (NGA, 2021).

Torres Strait Islanders dancers wearing Dhari. Courtesy of Deadly Story, 2021.

The Torres Strait consists of 274 islands, 8 of which are inhabited. There are two languages, Meriam Mir, spoken in the Eastern Islands, and Kala Lagaw in the Central and Western Islands. The Islands have always been a place of trade, with people visiting from countries such as Japan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Europe. The arrival of missionaries in 1871 was a significant historic event and is still celebrated today as ‘The Coming of the Light.’ This new religion was blended with traditional Torres Strait Islander mythology and beliefs, which have deep links to the ocean and natural environment of the islands. Marine life such as turtles, dugongs, sharks, seabirds and saltwater crocodiles are totems and feature heavily in the art of the region (Art Gallery NSW, 2021).

The Torres Strait Islands are well known for a number of unique artistic traditions and mediums. Some of these include wood carving, weaving, lino printing, etching and the making of unique sculptures and wearable art, such as their incredible headdresses. These traditional feathered headdresses called Dhari, are worn by Torres Strait Islander men for ceremony and performances. The Dhari is so significant in Torres Strait Islander culture that it features as the centrepiece on the Torres Strait Islander flag. Many Torres Strait Islander artists have branched out into creating unique sculptures that use many of the techniques and natural materials featured in traditional headdresses. Erub artist Ken Thaiday Snr. is famous for his shark dance headdresses. Thaiday’s creations are unique for their incorporation of dynamic components that can be moved in time with dance choreography. These unique sculptures, such as the one pictured below reference Thaiday's family totem, the hammerhead shark. Contemporary headdresses and sculptures for Torres Strait Islanders serve as an important form of cultural continuation so that the younger generations can continue to learn about their heritage (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2021). 

Beizam (2001) by Ken Thaiday Snr. Sculpture made with black bamboo, plywood, nylon line, plastic paint and feathers. Courtesy of Cairns Art Gallery, 2013.

Printmaking is a more recent artistic form that Torres Strait Islander artists have mastered. Artists draw upon their knowledge of carving and storytelling traditions to create incredibly dynamic, intricate prints. These beautiful prints have become nationally and internationally acclaimed, with Alick Tipoti and Badu man Dennis Nona being some of the most recognised artists for this printing style. Nona’s artworks range from etchings and prints to large-scale bronze sculptures and skateboard carvings. The Badu man was a pioneer in developing highly intricate linocut prints, in which the Islands are well known for. Instead of creating works based on a single image - which is typical in traditional Torres Strait Islander art - Nona introduces many images to weave a story together. He also branches outside of the basic black and white printing style by incorporating tonal colours in his prints to create a beautiful, almost tie-dyed effect. Nona’s work celebrates island myths and legends, incorporating the plants and animals of the ocean (Art Mob, 2021). So, as we can see, print-making has become an artistic practice that Torres Strait Islander creatives have made distinctly their own. 

Gauatau Ural (2007) by Dennis Nona. This work depicts the magpie geese migration from Papua New Guinea to Badu. Courtesy of Aboriginal Art Network, 2015.

Zug Ngurrpai (2020) by Dennis Nona. This work depicts a young man hunting his first dugong. Courtesy of Art Mob, 2021.

Weaving has always been a part of Torres Strait Islander culture. Traditionally, woven items were mostly made for practical purposes, such as weaving baskets to carry harvested fruit and vegetables or fans to keep cool. Weaving materials include coconut leaf, banana fibre and pandanus, and in recent years plastic strapping has been used to produce a range of items (Queensland Museum, 2021). In contemporary times, weaving is not only used for practical purposes, but also as a form of artistic expression. Grace Lillian Lee is an artist and designer who explores her diverse cultural heritage through weaving and adornment. She uses traditional Torres Strait Islander weaving techniques to create beautifully crafted pieces of wearable art. One of her mentors is Ken Thaiday Snr. who taught her how to grasshopper weave, a technique she further developed within her body sculpture works. Grace Lillian Lee’s practice combines her Torres Strait Islander heritage with her love of fashion, bringing traditional Torres Strait Islander craft into a contemporary sphere (Australian Design Centre, 2021).

Woven necklace made by cotton tape, coral and beads by Grace Lillian Lee. Courtesy of the Australian Design Centre, 2021.

So, as we can see, Torres Strait Islander art is intrinsically linked with their unique culture and way of life. Whether it’s through artists incorporating parts of traditional ceremony or weaving techniques into their works, the artists continue to share and maintain their culture. These artists have greatly extended the range of Indigenous art recognised within Australia, sharing different artistic techniques and vibrant creations that speak of their island homelands. Torres Strait Islander art is both beautiful and distinct, something that should be admired and celebrated!