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Embracing culture

Embracing culture

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this exhibition includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Bipotaim celebrated the history of Torres Strait Islanders and the importance of transferring cultural knowledge before that knowledge is lost. The exhibition included cultural and historic objects from the National Museum's Torres Strait Islander collection.

Torres Strait Islander traditions and culture

Wooden drum with two slightly conical shaped ends, joined at the centre by a short stout cylinder with a hand grip. The body is painted mostly yellow and features two eight-pointed white stars on the side near the top. A panel of white diamonds on a red background is around the base. The drumskin is snake, bound to the top of the drum with a band of printed cloth.
Snakeskin drum, about 1987, made by Allson Edrick Tabuai, Saibai Island. National Museum of Australia.

The traditions of the Torres Strait Islander people have been strongly influenced by proximity to mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Culture permeates everyday life in the Torres Strait.

Customs and knowledge continue to be passed on from generation to generation, while also keeping pace with modern ways.

Although progress has been embraced, there is respect for the old ways.

Today the different Torres Strait Islands are home to rich and diverse cultures and histories with many common elements.

Music and dance

Dance performances are vibrant expressions of Torres Strait Islander culture and a source of cultural identity and community pride. Different islands have distinct dances and accompanying attire. The National Museum's collection includes rattles and drums from the Torres Strait and dance apparel from Saibai Island.

Dharis and tropical dresses

Three brightly-coloured dresses on mannequins. These loose-fitting dresses have rounded collars with ruffled trims and low, drop waistbands. The dress on the left is made from orange fabric with a white and green hibiscus print. The centre dress is predominently green with a blue, paler green and white flower print. The dress on the right has a yellow background with blue hibiscus flower print, and smaller red and white floral print. It has white lace trim on the collar and sleeves.
Island dresses, or augumwalis, from the Torres Strait.
Photo: National Museum of Australia.

Dhari headdresses were traditionally worn by warriors in battle, but today they are a symbol of unity rather than hostility. The dhari has become synonymous with kastom (or shared traditions) and appears in a stylised form on the Torres Strait Islander flag.

The loose and colourful floral dresses worn by Torres Strait Islander women reflect the Pacific Islander influence and the influence of missionaries. For bags and necklaces, contemporary artists sometimes replace traditional fibres and shells with modern materials. The Museum's collection includes contemporary baskets woven from plastic strapping tape by artist Jenny Nye.

More on headdresses from the Torres Strait

Dugongs – mammals of the deep

Dugongs, or sea cows, are marine mammals with tails and flippers similar to those of dolphins. The seagrass beds in the shallow waters of the Torres Strait are a favourite habitat for these creatures.

Long prized for their meat and oil, dugongs are now listed as a vulnerable species, although limited traditional hunting is permitted in the Torres Strait.

Bipotaim featured two large hardwood dugongs carved from the timber of the rain tree (Samanea saman) by artist Dennis Nona.

The carvings are incised with intricate patterns that relate to the stories and ceremonies of the dugong in the waters of the Torres Strait.

A maritime tradition

Torres Strait Islanders traditionally used canoes for trade, fishing and warfare. During the heyday of the pearling industry, many Torres Strait Islanders worked as divers, crew members or ship's captains on luggers.

This maritime tradition continues today. Torres Strait Islanders ply the waters between the islands much as mainland inhabitants travel the highways between cities and towns.

The 'Kulbasaibai', a large double outrigger canoe carved from red cedar wood and with bamboo sail masts is on show in Bipotaim.

Pearling industry

Diving for pearls and shells is strenuous and dangerous. Even in the industry's heyday in the Torres Strait, good pearls were found only in a tiny minority of shells. Trochus and pearl shells were sent overseas by the sackful to be made into buttons. But the depletion of stocks, the rise of cultured pearl farming and the manufacture of plastic buttons led to the demise of the pearl and shell diving industry in the Torres Strait.

Wood from near and far

A carved wooden sculpture of a dugong, with two drilled eye holes containing black inlay, possibly plastic. The carving is made from Wongai wood which is coloured a pale yellow-brown, and there are tool marks visible on the surface of the carving.
Wongai wood dugong, 2000, made by Paul Tom, Moa Island. Photo: Lannon Harley.

In the Torres Strait, wood for large items such as drums and canoe hulls is traditionally sourced from Papua New Guinea. For small carvings, wood from native trees like wongai (Manilkara kauki) is used. Coconut shells are also used to make functional objects.

Objects on show in Bipotaim included a comb made of ebony, a coconut shell water container, a wooden fishing spear and harpoon and wooden sculptures.

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