Kenneth Thaiday Snr
Meet the maker - Ken Thaiday
Ken Thaiday was born on Erub Island in 1950.
His father taught him the importance of dance, and in 1987 he began constructing dance artefacts.
Originally made for traditional dance performances, these have evolved over time into elaborate articulated 'dance machines' that are now highly prized by collectors.
Best known are his beizams - shark dance headdresses.
Excerpts from an interview with Ken Thaiday by NMA staff, 6 December 2005.
NMA: You were born on Darnley Island. Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood growing up on Darnley?
KT: Yes, well growing on Darnley I was young fella and I love fishing. My father taught me how to fish and that's where I pick up all my skill. Cos where we live on Darnley, that is all we do, fishing, gardening, there's nothing proper like what we do down here in Australia.
Fishing is the most important thing for us people in Torres Strait, so that's how I start to do my art work. I know everything from my father who tell me what to do and what materials to use, and so wanem bamboo and all this other stuff, and that's how I do my artwork.
NMA: And then you went to Thursday Island from Darnley.
KT: I went to Thursday Island for school. Then I come down here to Australia. Most of us Torres Strait people come down here for working on the railway, Queensland railway.
NMA: Can we just go back one more to how all the fishing in your childhood affected your work later? How did it inspire your artwork?
KT: Well, when I was a little boy I saw my mother and my father teach all these island woman and men dancing. I was only a little fella and I would sit down and I watch them dancing. That's why today you sing any song from Darnley and everybody get up and dance - they know the action, you don't have to show them. Even all my sister, that's why I got my own group here, my father had a group on Darnley up there called Loza Dancing Group, who I named the same group here, Loza Dancing Group.
NMA: And what does Loza mean?
KT: Loza is the name of a couple of old ladies. There's Loza and another one Asu. Like two sister. But the old lady they always look towards the old people, we name something after them. This is our culture, we carry things like this, like family growing, when the little ones we name after our grandfather or grandmother.
NMA: I have been told that your father was the best dancer.
KT: Well he was one of the best on Darnley. He was the chairperson for a very, very long time and one of the best too, looking after the people. Like he had all the knowledge and understand what to do to get people to do this and that to make the island nice and clean. It was really good but today it's different. Different people do it, younger people but they don't understand. Like I've got the knowledge, if I go back I can do it but because of my artwork I do it here.
NMA: So uncle Ken, how old were you when you first started making, realising you can make these beautiful headdresses.
KT: I first came down to Australia when I was 15 years old and when I first came down here I work on the Queensland railway until I was about 28 or 29, I finished, I retire from there. I've got enough knowledge from Queensland Railway so I said I gotta do something so I come out of Queensland Railway and then I went to Western Australia, I was working in an asbestos mine with Lang Hancock but the mine was closed.
KT: I said I gotta do something so one day I pray and the Lord give me this, I start my dancing group. We were dancing for a big tombstone opening, my sister-in-law, and we get the group together and we dance. She said we got make all these, we call lugut, artefacts now, lugut mean marup, gor. 'I'm gonna have a go'. So I start to make these things. That's when I start. The Lord just opened the way and I go right through.
NMA: So when you were doing this headdress here, did you see it in your mind and then you just make it?
KT: Everything here (points to his head).
NMA: And you see it already done.
KT: I don't draw nothing here, I just put it in bow and I cut it and I put it straight.
I said to them that piece gonna be exactly what I am telling you here when it's finished, it's gonna be exactly like this. I said I am going to put coral trout, mackerel all the fish cos that's what we catch up on Darnley, all those fish there.
NMA: What's the fish there?
KT: Red emperor, coral trout, mackerel and trevally.
NMA: All those little one's at the back. They all run away when the sharks come, isn't it?
KT: No, that's where we fish and catch them right on the beach, we catch those fish right off the beach.
But my talent is God give me the gift and nobody can do that, no one.
This is long time ago. I made some little dance piece, little piece I show them and they moving, I pull the string and they go, oh you got put the price up. I said, what for? Oh because they are good, very good piece. They said, don't go I usually sell from $280 to $800 but I can't go over $1000. $1000 right up, go up. So that big piece in Melbourne he bought it for 32 grand.
NMA: That's good. And that's ten years ago.
KT: Oh this is a long time ago. It was really big yeah, so I make the shark under there, see the shark on the side here it can go sit in the headdress. But God he give me a lot of things on my mind when I come in here I can do anything. I said I'm gonna do this put something on the hand and you pull the string and it will move. That's how God give me a talent like this.
NMA: So you still dancing?
KT: Still dancing yeah. When you ready to dance, when I used to be the chairperson for the Coming of the Light celebration I worked there for five years. Every year I put all the grass house, grass hut you call kowotahaus, grass hut like that. I build all the house, we paint it ourselves, I joined with them, I am a chairperson, but I do all that reenactment, it was really good. Now other people take over, nothing, so one of the elders said to me, you're gonna pull out from this, this Coming of the Light, be dropped, nothing here now, no one do the same thing like I did. Grass house, cave, tell the story and it was really good.