WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait

The connection between the remote Torres Strait Islands (TSI) (Zenadh Kes) and Newcastle in Zai Dagam Daudai (Australia) is not immediately apparent. But an important exhibition of TSI art and culture has just opened at the City’s gallery – the first serious show outside the Strait since Brisbane’s multi-institutional ‘The Torres Strait Islands’ in 2011.

The rather less-prosaically named ‘WARWAR’ – meaning ‘marked with a pattern’ in the Meriam Mer language – is happening at Newcastle Art Gallery because Director Lauretta Morton came to Newcastle in 2017 with a history of printmaking and realised that the burgeoning art of TSI printmaking was largely unrepresented in the city’s collection. She began buying and collared a master of the art, Brian Robinson – both artist and curator – to begin planning an exhibition that has ended up with 130 items on show.

Toby Cedar, Op Nor Beizam (Shark Mask) White, 2018, bamboo cane, twine, raffia, pearl shell, acrylic paint, feather object, 80 x 56 x 31cm. Les Renfrew Bequest 2019 Newcastle Art Gallery collection

Robinson explains that a number of TSI families had also lived in Newcastle for generations – ‘We travel well!’ – and were enthusiastic about rediscovering their culture. ‘Toby Cedar, for instance, who makes beautiful dari (headpieces) and won the 2020 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair sculpture prize, teaches Ilan dance in Newcastle, and the community is really coming together around this exhibition.’

The marine blue and green TSI flag will fly in Newcastle as a result. And the unpredictability of the sea plays a big part in the need to placate the gods and to laud ancestral heroes in TSI art and ceremony. Perhaps it also explains the Islanders’ eager embrace of a god who walked on water with the ‘Coming of the (Christian) Light’ in 1871. Fortunately, British anthropologist Alfred Haddon came at the same time and collected the traditional artefacts that missionaries were rejecting, and his collection in Cambridge has been studied by many of today’s artists.

Collecting goes back to 1606 when the Spaniard de Torres sailed through the Strait, which carries his name, taking dance masks back to Manilla. Robinson has not tracked them down though, despite finding 16 artefacts dating back to the 1850s in Brisbane and Melbourne museums. ‘The old turtle-shell masks are my favourites’, he mused, ‘the level of detail in their fabrication and the aesthetics of the arabesque patternation is just exquisite.’

Ken Thaiday Snr, Hammerhead shark (Beizam) headdress, n.d, wood, bamboo, feathers, paint, twine, 94 x 111.6 x 112cm. National Museum of Australia. Photograph: Dean McNicoll. Courtesy the artist

Then there was a period of two-dimensional, imported artistry by painters like Segar Passi, encouraged by Margaret Lawrie in the 1960s for her book, ‘Myths & Legends of the Torres Strait’. There are amazing dance machines by the likes of Patrick and Ken Thaiday that are far too technically complex to, in fact, be danced. And the school of linocut printmakers who grew up in Cairns in the 1990s, headed by Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti, have brought the traditional stories of TSI to the widest possible audience with ever-larger works.

Out on the eastern islands, Erub and Mer, a ceramic tradition has mutated into sculpture employing the hated ghost nets discarded by fishermen, contaminating seas and beaches. This work has travelled widely following an invitation from Prince Albert of Monaco to alert the world to the ghost-net problem.

Robinson himself is modestly represented by three prints and a mixed-media work involving colourful plastic elements, enamel spray paint, raffia, cowrie shells, cassowary feathers and wooden beads.


Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.


Newcastle Art Gallery
29 May to 22 August 2021
New South Wales