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.
Explore our artworks
See some of our featured artworks below