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Senior, Ken Thaiday

Senior, Ken Thaiday


 During the traditional practice of Torres Strait Islander art, ritual objects, and masks in particular, give material reality to the formlessness of the spirit that resides between the eternal and transitory streams of existence. When Christian colonizers preached against traditional spiritual beliefs with the fear of hell’s fire and brimstone, such art practises moved into the secular domain, giving a powerful impetus to cultural expression. The shark headdresses for which Ken Thaiday has become renown, demonstrate the thread of continuity that contemporary art practices carry; visually impressive as manifestations of ancient supernatural forces, but also technologically and artistically inventive as they adapt to cultural and historical shifts.  In many ways, Thaiday’s life and work has been spurred on by history’s watershed. From communal traditions that foster a group identity to the individual expressiveness of the modern art ethos, Thaiday has successfully navigated contrary currents, becoming an inspirational figure to his people in the re-invigoration of their cultural identity. As a youngster on his home island of Erub (Darnley Island), Thaiday lived the traditional life, fishing, gardening and participating in ceremonial life. His father was an important dancer in the region and from a young age, Thaiday was involved in the design and use of ceremonial artefacts. The islands are situated off the northern tip of tropical Queensland and midway between other lands and cultures. Thaiday moved to Cairns as a teenager, as part of a general islander shift to the mainland in search of improved educational and work opportunities. Here he became a founding member of the Darnley Island Dance Troupe. The increasingly ingenious methods he employed to construct dance masks and handheld dance machines developed in response to the larger forum of public dance in Cairns, in contrast to the more private islander community. The social status generated by the creation of a new and eye-catching mask has always been a competitive impetus among islander artisans.  As his art practice developed Thaiday emloyed new lightweight materials such as plastic piping, plywood, twine and bright enamel paint,  skilfully incorporating these in to the design and mechanisms for moving parts that operate in tune with dance choreography, such as the opening jaws of the shark headdress, the flapping wings of a large seabird,  the sun moving across a landscape of a handheld dance machine or through a hole pieced through the pages of a bible.  In doing so he  has encouraged a new generation of artists within the expatriate islander community  that has coalesced around Cairns in far north Queensland. As they developed over time, Thaiday’s creations  rapidly became more spectacular and sculptural. The shark headdress, rising high above the dancers head and stabilized upon the chest with a wire frame, is an awe-inspiring symbol of law and order. Being the most dangerous and feared creature in the ocean, it is something islanders always have in mind. It is also a source of food. The shark has a pivotal role in dance performances, swaying from side to side, a plume of white feathers around the jaws mimicking the foaming water of its feeding frenzy. The supernatural forces are appeased, their powers aligned with human activity by the rituals that attend this major ancestral totem. Such tradition still strongly informs Thaiday’s work but his emphasis now moves more towards exploring aesthetic qualities and his own artistic trajectory. The cultural resilience of the Torres Strait people has long depended upon their ability to accommodate and work with outside influences and, (after European colonization) with imposed change. The question of adherence to strict tradition always poses a fine line for indigenous artists. They can risk being labeled as inauthentic. The veiled quest for a lost spirituality or a ‘paradise lost’, possibly sensed in the assuredness of traditional indigenous art, can demand conformity. Many issues are stirred when an artist seeks to experiment while still satisfying cultural requirements. Thaiday’s work has contributed greatly to the affirmation of a strong cultural identity of Torres Strait Islanders yet at the same time, in keeping with the sea-faring character, he has remained unfettered by tradition. He inhabits that nebulous territory between the traditional and the urban artist, showing us the excitement of invention as well as the grounding narrative of his cultural history. Both the old and the new provide the framework for his artistic creations that have been internationally appreciated and exhibited.    

Ken Thaiday Snr. is an artist of rare talent whose works infrequently make their way in to the primary and secondary markets. For many years he has remained unrepresented and, in fact, has lacked the facilities required to make his often delicate and complex dance machines and headdresses. A small number of private collectors, have willingly purchased almost everything that he has produced that has not been commissioned by art institutions. Nevertheless on those rare occasions when major pieces appear at auction they always attract attention and admiration. The first to be offered for public sale appeared as late as 2003 the year his current record was set. Beizam, Shark Dance Mask 1991, a piece made from plywood, metal, plastic, rope, glass and cockatoo feathers sold for $18,000 against a presale estimate of $5,000-7,000 at Sotheby's in July (Lot 185). It was one of three lots offered in the same sale all of which found willing buyers. The other two still hold his  second, third and fourth highest results to date. In fact the second and third highest results were actually achieved for the same piece. When first offered in 2003 Beizam (Hammerhead Shark) Headdress 1999, measuring 79 x 92 x 95 cm,  sold for $12,000 when estimated at $10,000-15,000 at Sotheby’s (Lot 187). Two years later, it carried an estimate of $12,000-18,000 in Sotheby’s July 2005 sale but only did fractionally better selling for $13,800. Another shark headdress failed to sell at Sotheby’s in November 2005 when offered at $5,000-7,000 (Lot 248) before finding a buyer willing to part with just $3,600 at Sotheby’s  which had dropped the estimate to $3,000-5,000 in October the following year ( Lot 263). And a small Seagul headdress with articulated wings sold for $1,140 at Lawson~Menzies in November 2005 (Lot 289) but disappointed the investor who put it up for sale the following year and achieved just $780. Overall, with three repeat appearances amongst just 12 offerings only nine individual works have appeared for sale to date and all but two have appeared at Sotheby’s. These results belie Thaiday’s importance as the master technician, sculptor and visionary of contemporary Torres Strait Islander art. His pieces may be rare but the growing interest in art from far north Queensland should ensure that whenever major pieces do appear for sale discerning collectors will make their presence felt in the salerooms.  

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