Art Centre: Ocean Going

Reaching far-flung audiences across the globe, Erub Arts brings to light the environmental and cultural issues at play within the thriving Torres Strait Island community.

Words: Louise Martin-Chew

Erub Arts on the Torres Strait’s Darnley Island has become best known internationally for producing distinctive ghost net sculptures. Created from the drifting fishing nets so damaging to the marine ecosystems which sustain life on the island, the work celebrates traditional culture with sculptural depictions of sharks, turtles, and large installations of sea creatures.

However, Erub Arts is not only about ghost net art. Other media include ceramics, painting, printing (on paper and fabric), installation and sculpture, all from a craft group established by Diann Liu at the school on Darnley Island in the early 1990s, with support lent from the local TAFE where Lynnette Griffiths was coordinator. By 2002 Griffiths had moved to Erub and together Lui and Griffiths worked towards creating an Art Centre based on sharing facilities with the school. In 2008 Erub Arts became the first Art Centre incorporated in the Torres Strait Islands; at its heart is a focus on intergenerational learning which drives the revitalisation of Erub culture.

This is evident in the variety of exhibition opportunities offered to local artists. Erub ghost net sculptures are currently part of WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait in Newcastle, Island Futures: What lies ahead for Zenadth Kes? in Brisbane, and an exhibition at Le Havre Natural History Museum in Normandy, France which showcases the collaborative nature of the movement in which Erub Arts has been so active.

At the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, a bloom of ghost net jellyfish will fill the Erub Arts booth and their ghost net work that explores the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy (a rodent resident on the coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef until 2009) is among the Telstra NATSIAA 2021 finalists. Following that, at Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, a major work celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Coming of the Light to Erub in 1871, when Christian missionaries from Lifou (New Caledonia) first landed and the word of God was accepted on their island. This sculptural installation marks the importance of this event to the community. Artist Nancy Naawi said, “It is always good to take our work down to the Cairns community. We can work and share stories together – others can see what we do.”

Also in Cairns, works from Erub Arts are included in a survey of fabric from northern Australia. This work depicts an island feast related to the 150th Anniversary of the Coming of the Light. “The artists use multiple screens to formalise patterns in a very Pacific tradition as an important way of expressing cultural practice within community,” says Griffiths. “The meaning and story of the piece develops as each individual screen is layered and printed, all the while the artists are discussing their connections, special stories and funny anecdotes.”

The momentum continues into 2022, when ghost net art and a moving image projection from Erub Arts will be exhibited in Jakarta to raise awareness of the dangers of floating fishing nets. Also overseas, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Canada has recently added ghost net daris (headdress) to its growing collection from the Torres Strait Islands.

Erub Arts is driven, according to Griffiths, by the longstanding commitment of the artists and the management team. “There has always been a clear vision fully supported by the community,” she says. The success of this model is visible in its ever-growing reach.

Image above: Erub Arts, Darnley Island from the air. Photo: Lynnette Griffiths. Courtesy: Erub Arts.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 97, July-September 2021.