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Brian Robinson visits the Museum

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Brian Robinson visits the Museum

7 May 2015

by Judith Hickson

A welcome visitor to the Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program (ATSIP) recently was renowned Torres Strait Islander artist, Brian Robinson. Born on Moa Island (Wuthathi), Brian is from the Torres Strait's Kala Lagaw Ya language group, and now lives and works in Cairns.

Pat Williamson and Brian Robinson.
Sharing stories on the deck of the Museum on a cold Canberra day are ATSIP Senior Project Officer, Pat Williamson, with Cairns-based Torres Strait artist, Brian Robinson. Photo: Judith Hickson.
Brian Robinson
Brian Robinson at the entrance to the Museum's Torres Strait Islander gallery, Lag Meta Aus. Photo: Andy Greenslade.

A multi-skilled contemporary artist, whose practice includes painting, printmaking, sculpture and design, Brian's passion for experimentation is evident in his approach to making art that merges reality and fantasy and which is imbued with the customs, traditions and lifestyles of Torres Strait Islander people.

The National Museum holds three of Brian's works in its National Historical Collection. One of his most important etchings, 'August 23 1898 … ' is currently on display in the Museum's Torres Strait Islander gallery, Lag Meta Aus, meaning 'home' in the region's three traditional languages.

The etching depicts a collection of artefacts, some with labels attached, including wooden masks, pearl shell pendants, smoking pipes, a feathered dance object, a technical drawing instrument, pencils, and a USB flash drive.

Written below in pencil are the words, 'V1/X AUGUST 23 1898 – TODAY I COLLECTED WITH MUCH ZEAL ...'

The title of the work 'August 23 1898' references a quote by 19th-century zoologist, anthropologist and collector, Alfred Cort Haddon (1855–1940).

An etching of various items including wooden masks, pearl shell pendants, smoking pipes, dance objects and USB flash drive
Brian Robinson’s etching 'August 23 1898'. The full title reads: 'August 23 1898 – Today I collected with much zeal, through the barter and exchange of gifts, ancient artefacts belonging to a race of Indigenous Australians known as Torres Strait Islanders. Wooden masks, pearl shell pendants, smoking pipes, dance objects, and a strange device called a USB flash drive were among the items obtained. A.C. Haddon.' Courtesy: Brian Robinson.

Haddon was a key figure in the field of anthropology. His expeditions to the Torres Strait and the hundreds of objects he collected there in the late 1800s and early 1900s resulted in his prolific Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits. He also recorded songs and dance performances that contribute to the ancestral knowledge of Torres Strait Islanders today. This etching illustrates some of the material collected by Haddon in the Torres Strait. A modern twist is the inclusion of a USB flash drive.

Brian Robinson relates in his artwork story:

Many artefacts taken from Torres Strait in the nineteenth century are now housed in international ethnographic collections. The largest, and arguably best documented, collections from this period were made by AC Haddon during two visits to the area. He gathered more than 600 artefacts during his first visit in 1888–89, and on his more comprehensively equipped expedition of 1898 acquired a further 1250 objects. Haddon was convinced that the hundreds of art objects collected had to be saved from almost certain destruction by the zealous Christian missionaries intent on obliterating the religious traditions and ceremonies of the islanders. His findings were published in his 1901 book Head-hunters: Black, White and Brown.

'August 23 1898 …' will also be displayed in conjunction with Encounters – an exhibition of rare Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum, which will open in November 2015.

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