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Performance as past and future

Lag Meta Aus: Home in the Torres Strait

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Performance as past and future

Music, dance and storytelling

Life without culture is a life without life. Past must exist for present to create the future.
Adhi Ephraim Bani

Dancers at the opening of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre
Opening of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island during the Torres Strait Cultural Festival 2004. Photo: George Serras.

Music, dance and storytelling are alive and strong in contemporary Torres Strait culture. Before the coming of Christianity, performance reflected the cultural and geographical diversity across the islands. Ritual song and dance were regularly performed for all types of ceremonies.

Island dance and contemporary headdresses

Nathan Tabuai dressed in a Dhibal outfit.
Nathan Tabuai (Dhibal outfit), Sabai Island, Torres Strait. Photo: George Serras.

The arrival of marine workers and then missionaries, most of whom were from the South Sea Islands, introduced new traditions into the Torres Strait’s western Melanesian culture. At the same time, pre-Christian music and dance traditions were actively discouraged.

In the early 20th century, Islanders developed a hybrid form of these different styles called ailan dans, kabkab and girel (Yumplatok, Meriam Mir and Kala Lagaw Ya words for ‘island dance’). This form dominates contemporary Torres Strait dance today.

I dance, to carry on my culture.
Ken Thaiday Snr

Ken Thaiday’s articulated headdresses, or dance machines, are modern interpretations of the traditional turtle-shell masks made in the Torres Strait for hundreds of years. Beizam, meaning ‘shark’ in the Eastern Islands language of Meriam Mir, is the artist’s key totemic animal and a symbol of law and order among his people.

Thaiday has said this symbolism is ‘necessary and appropriate [for] the maintenance and transmission of traditional culture in the youth of today’.

A Beizam headress with a blue spiked fan at the back, three brown cane hammerhead sharks in front, above three shark jaws of wood and black and white feathers on layered boards, joined by central posts. Between the shark jaws and behind the top central jaw, are discs with thin metal wires coming out of the top of them. At the front are two blue and red fans with rounded ends extending from between the shark jaws. The fan at the back has bright coloured fish cutouts atatched to the blades. The sharks and the front fans are joined by wires.
Triple beizam headdress with reef fish, 2005, by Ken Thaiday Snr, Erub (Darnley Island)/Cairns, plywood, plastic, metal, paint, feathers. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Dean McNicoll. Collection record