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T-Shirts + Turtles: Journeys to the Island of Erub

In May 2018 I visited the island of Erub, in the Torres Strait, north of Australia, to document the creation of Eip Kor Korr, a sculpture made of synthetic fishing nets. When I met the artists they asked me why I travelled so far to see what they were doing. I told them the reason goes back to 2002, when I came to Erub to attend what was meant to be the celebrations for a successful Native Title claim—a legal milestone that would have seen Native Title recognized over all the outer community islands in the Torres Strait. However, at the eleventh hour the federal court withdrew consent. On Erub, disappointment was replaced with the decision to celebrate their traditional ownership of the island despite the court proceedings being abandoned. I was privileged to witness the day-long celebrations. A commemorative t-shirt had been made for the occasion; it is now on display in MOA’s Multiversity Galleries. I left with a lasting memory of the islanders’ determined effort to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Indeed, Native Title was granted two years later.

Artist Florence Gutchen working with fishing net to make Eip Kor Korr. Erub Island, Torres Strait. Photo by Carol E. Mayer.
Jimmy K. Thaiday and Jimmy J. Thaiday crating Eip Kor Korr in Cairns to be shipped to MOA. Photo by Lynnette Griffiths.

After 16 years I journeyed back to Erub to witness this same determination as they once again came together to turn a challenge into a victory. This time the challenge came from the sea. North Australia is one of the last safe havens for endangered marine species. Marine turtles, in particular, are especially vulnerable to entanglement in ghost nets: fishing nets that have been lost, abandoned or discarded at sea. When these nets float on ocean currents they invisibly and silently entangle marine wildlife—hence the name “ghost.” Between 2005 and 2015, up to 10,000 turtles became entangled in ghost nets. For Erub islanders, turtles are a traditional source of food and an integral part of their belief system and culture.

Cait Pilon and Carol Mayer unpack Eip Kor Korr at MOA. Photo by Nancy Bruegeman.

 

The islanders began to gather these nets from the reefs and beaches, often with dead animals still entangled, and started to take them apart to see whether they could be used for crafts. They discovered the multi-coloured strands that run through the centre of the ropes and started to use them to weave figures of small animals and full-scale figures of turtles and other large creatures of the sea. These large sculptures caught the attention of the Australian Museum in Sydney, and one was commissioned for the collection. Today, these ghost-net sculptures are part of a worldwide movement, in which the artists of Erub work with local and international museums to create powerful installations that oscillate between art and the living environment.

When I first encountered ghost-net sculptures, at the Ghost Nets of the Ocean exhibition at the Ethnography Museum in Geneva, I was struck by the similarity of these sculptures and the Native Title t-shirt collected so many years before: both reflect the tenaciousness of a community in deploying its collective creativity to bring attention to outside challenges, political or environmental. The relevance of the ghost-net sculptures to MOA was emphasized for me by our commitment to exhibit contemporary art that speaks to similar challenges here in British Columbia. With monies from the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation fund for strategic acquisitions, we were able to purchase a hammerhead shark sculpture and commission a giant turtle.

Eip Kor Korr (MOA Collections 3306/1) installed in the Multiversity Galleries. Photo by Ken Mayer.

When I arrived back in Erub, I went to the Erub Arts Centre, where the artists work. Hundreds of metres of fishing nets were strewn everywhere, all waiting to become works of art. On the table in the studio, the metal framework for MOA’s turtle had been welded together by Jimmy K. Thaiday in readiness for the women to start their work. During my time I saw the shell, flippers, underbelly, and finally the head take shape. I also met Lorenzo Ketchell, the designer of the t-shirt. About halfway through the process, the decision was made that MOA’s turtle would be a middle-sized female specimen—a teenager—and her Erub name would be Eip Kor Korr. Before coming to MOA she first had another journey to make to the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, where she was exhibited alongside other ghost-net sculptures. Following that, she was re-crated and flown more than 7,000 miles to Vancouver, where she has been installed in MOA’s Multiversity Galleries opposite the Erub t-shirt collected so long ago. Today she swims above museum visitors’ heads alongside the hammerhead shark, where she is, as the artist Florence Gutchen who helped to make her says, “a beautiful piece of art declaring the message that we must keep the water clean: we look after the sea and the sea looks after us.”