The sea, the feather and the dance machine

As we approach Erub we can see the joy in KEN THAIDAY Snr, the joy of coming home. We bank and approach the very short and sloping hillside runway – bang, we are down, brakes on hard again, park the plane and greet the welcoming party. A paradise of smiling faces, we are off to meet the Sea People of the Torres Strait.

'Ken was welcomed home and the days we spent with him on Erub were very beautiful. They were days of exploring the island and collecting seeds for his artworks and attending dinners and dance performances'

Ken Thaiday Snr

Brakes on hard – the engines of our little plane roar – brakes off, sling shot, we lift quickly off the short runway, the wind takes control. Then we are looking at the blue green sea below, with all its coral cays and reefs.

KEN THAIDAY Snr takes us on a remarkable and personal journey to Erub in the Torres Strait.

Home to one of Queensland’s most remote communities, Erub is on the edge of Australian territory in the eastern group of Torres Strait islands. Papua New Guinea is only a short journey away in a tinnie*.

Erub is a place where music and dance are important foundations to cultural practice and creativity, once more on the rise through a revival in artistic activity and the development of art centres in the Torres Strait.

The sea, the feather and the dance machine

As we travelled around Australia looking at its museums and galleries we kept coming across works by someone called KEN THAIDAY. Interesting we thought.

I managed to get KEN’s phone number (well it was his wife ELIZABETH’s mobile) and eventually contact was made with KEN himself. That would have been about four years ago. Since that time we developed the idea of taking KEN on a journey back to his home, Erub in the Torres Strait. In late 2010 the time for talking was over and ANDREA HYLANDS, our crew and I, headed off to Cairn’s to start filming KEN at work.

I understood what KEN was doing, mobilising his artefacts and contemporising his own cultural traditions in an increasingly inventive way. What I did not realise was how much detail and precision and constant evolution there was in a work in progress.

Peter and Ken on Erub

Every day as we filmed KEN at work in Canopy Artspace, he would arrive early, always sitting on his chair by the open roller doors at the rear of the impressive Canopy building, the breeze cooling the warm tropical air. There he would remain until quite late in the evening, receiving the occasional visitor, fellow artists, family members to bring him lunch and curators eager to commission a work, or just watched by curious onlookers.

KEN is passionate about his culture, about preserving his culture when it is removed from Torres Strait, that is, to the large centres on the mainland of  Queensland where Torres Strait Islanders come to find higher education and employment. His work extends beyond the making of artefacts to dance and performance where his dance machines provide a powerful symbolism. KEN is also a musician, bringing the songs of the Saltwater People to a much wider audience.

One of Ken Thaiday Snr's famous shark headdresses packed for an exhibition

KEN is passionate about his family and family life in all its extended forms, he is highly respected by his children and grandchildren in a way that many of us would wish for. His thoughts about his homeland of Erub are never far away in his dreaming and in fuelling his creativity. Like many people from his culture, KEN is religious and his Christian beliefs are entwined with all the other cultural memories in his life and it is this fusion of ideas and experiences that make him such an inventive artist.

Finally the day came, we all met very early one morning in late September at Cairns Airport. We checked in all the camera equipment and soon we were lifting off the runway on our way to Horn Island. KEN was very happy to be making that journey. Once we had arrived at Horn Island our adventures really began. There sitting on the runway was the small plane we had chartered, its mission was to get us to Erub, KEN’s original home.

We are on our way on the last part of this journey, the beautiful coral reefs and cays below us. Out of the left window, York Island, easily identified with its island dissecting runway and then, eventually in front of us, the tiny hillside runway of Erub. KEN is overjoyed to be returning home. The emotions of return are very powerful.

He was welcomed home and the days we spent with him on Erub were very beautiful. They were days of exploring the island, collecting seeds for his artworks, watching KEN fish and attending dinners and dance performances. We even found one of KEN’s early dance machines in the art centre display room.

Ken on Erub

Working with KEN for three weeks was an experience that we will never forget. KEN worked very hard to make his film an extraordinary experience for the viewer, his passion and caring for his culture, people and home, is there for everyone to see.

When it was eventually our turn to leave KEN sitting back in his chair at Canopy Artspace, patiently making another Dari, it was with heavy hearts that we left him there.

He had made an impact on us all.

Places where KEN THAIDAY Snr’s work can be viewed include:

Australian Embassy, Washington DC:  Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane: National Museum of Australia, Canberra: Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin: Museum de Lyon, France: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra: Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane : Queensland Museum, Brisbane: Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney: Cambridge University Museum of Anthropology, Cambridge UK: Ipswich Art Gallery, Queensland: Museum of Victoria, Melbourne.

Ken’s work is also featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, exhibition of recent acquisitions. The works are two shark headresses (dance machines) and a dari.

The sea, the feather and the dance machine can be viewed on this website on creative-iTV and is also available on DVD and can be purchased online from Creative cowboy films on this website.

*Small boat, often made from aluminium, commonly used to travel between islands in the Torres Strait.