A certain harvest

The River Cam flows gently through our little village. The ancient houses huddled around it as if for a secure purpose. In the days when ANDREA and I lived here it was still, more or less, a village in the traditional sense. The tiny village shop, the residents who only travelled into the nearest town on special occasions and had never made the journey to London, an hour’s train trip to the south.

'In my traditional language I asked them to come with me, to come with me, to make my work stronger'

Zugubal Dancers

There was the walk across the fields to the neighbouring village and its pub where the beer was still kept in barrels in the cellar. For the ancient landlord, the ordering of a pint meant a climb down a ladder and a precarious climb back clutching the precious liquid. We did however manage to suppress our guilt, eagerly awaiting the result of all this exertion.

Gradually, change began to impact village life, better access because of better roads and faster trains, the actors, the stock brokers, the frantic activity of renovating these precious old houses. No more going into the neighbour’s house and shooing off the chickens, ducks and even geese from the kitchen table amid loud clucking and flying feathers before sitting down to have a cup of tea.

We were only a short drive from Cambridge and the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, full of the culture of the Torres Strait Islands.

We leave the River Cam and go now to a very different body of water, the blue and turquoise sea with its coral cays and volcanic islands of the Torres Strait so many thousands of miles away.

As Victorian England stirred in its increasing industrial wealth and the desire to know about other places far away, ripples from this stirring lapped on distant shores and changed things forever. For the Torres Strait Islanders so far away, these ripples were to change their lives and their material culture.

The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds a collection of artefacts from the Torres Strait. These works were collected by ALFRED HADDON, his first expedition was in 1888, the second in 1898-99. In total around 1550 works were collected. HADDON continued collecting from these islands at a distance, sometimes commissioning new works. By the later of the two expeditions HADDON had commented on the increasing difficulty of discovering more traditional objects, particularly such things as turtle shell masks. Some of the works collected are housed in the British Museum but most remain in Cambridge.

Alick Tipoti: Mawa mask

The second half of the nineteenth century brought with it great change for these islands, changes that transformed many customs and beliefs. With the missionaries and with the Coming of the Light came the collectors of cultural artefacts, the enquirers of their age, to harvest Torres Strait Island culture for western museums.

Zugubal: a print by Alick Tipoti. Courtesy of the artist and Canopy Artspace

Torres Strait artist and internationally recognised printmaker and choreographer ALICK TIPOTI has this to say:

“We speak our language. I am 35 years old and I am blessed that my father and my grandfather taught me the language and I speak it fluently, I am so proud of it. Language is the core of the culture"

Crocodile mask: Alick Tipoti

"We are known today as Torres Strait Islanders after Captain Torres. Captain Torres and Captain Cook, they came through Zenadth Kes (the Torres Strait). That is when we discovered them. They didn’t discover us, we definitely discovered them”.

Ken Thaiday Snr, The sea, the feather and the dance machine, is a man who makes things move. Ken's masks can be complicated and ingenious machines with pulleys and leavers. Sometimes these works are more traditional and include Alag masks.

Ken Thaiday Snr with Alag masks

In present day Cairns, North Queensland, and the Director of Canopy Artspace MICHAEL KERSHAW. Michael had this to say:

“When I have accompanied Torres Strait Islander artists to view these objects in Cambridge the impact is extraordinary, you can almost see the hairs stand up on the back of their neck”.

DENNIS NONA, contemporary and artistic genius and re-interpreter of Torres Strait Island culture also stood in the museum in Cambridge.

Parul (detail), Dennis Nona, print on Arches Paper, courtesy the artist and Canopy Artspace, collection of Andrea and Peter Hylands

“When I went to the Cambridge Museum in the UK I saw there masks from the Torres Strait Islands and they really inspired me – all the masks that were in there. I was standing in the middle of them and just looking around and they were just staring at me.

I based on the Parul* – all the faces of the masks – almost all my ancestors were looking at me and I was just observing. At the same time I was sitting inspired by the spirits. In my traditional language I asked them to come with me, to come with me, to make my work stronger. It is our traditional custom when you see these things, ancient things, you stand there and observe them and then you and then you ask them to come with you in a good way, good spirit to help you in your work. So that time I stood among that artwork there’s all those faces – I just draw them out, they were lying in boxes.”

Today DENNIS NONA is part of the resurgence and re-interpretation of Torres Strait Islander culture through contemporary art practice now occurring across the Torres Strait. And once more their work is being collected by art galleries and museums around the world.

*That particular artwork refers to Parul (faces), an etching by Dennis Nona published in Brisbane in 2006 and part of the Creative cowboy films collection.