Landmark exhibition showcases art and culture of Torres Strait

City of Newcastle

Works of art never before seen outside of the Torres Strait will be displayed in Newcastle as part of a landmark exhibition focusing on the artistic traditions of the Torres Strait Islander culture.

The Torres Strait Island flag was raised at City Hall today for the first time in the building’s 92-year history to coincide with the Newcastle Art Gallery exhibition. It will be flown at City Hall permanently as a mark of respect for the local Torres Strait community.

Brayden Cedar, Genus Passi, Newcastle Art Gallery Director Lauretta Morton, artist Toby Cedar, Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, Newcastle Knights player Gehamat Shibasaki, WARWAR exhibition guest curator and artist Brian Robinson and Elijah Cedar (front).

Four years in the making, WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait was developed by Newcastle Art Gallery in collaboration with highly awarded artist and curator Brian Robinson.

It will include over 130 works of art drawn from the Gallery’s collection, as well as newly created pieces and key loans from, local, state and national institutions, artists and private collections.

Several pieces have not been seen outside of the Torres Strait, including new works from Badhulgaw Kuthinaw Mudh (Badu Art Centre), Ngalmun Lagau Minaral Arts (Moa Arts) and Erub Erwer Meta (Erub Arts).

Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the free exhibition provided an important opportunity to strengthen ties with local Torres Strait Islanders and showcase their traditions and customs to the wider community.

The exhibition title, WARWAR, is a traditional Eastern Island word in the Meriam Mer language, which translates into English as ‘marked with a pattern’.

“WARWAR is a landmark event for Newcastle Art Gallery and the Hunter region, representing the first time a Torres Strait Islander exhibition of this calibre and size has been seen outside of a major city in Australia,” Cr Nelmes said.

“It provides an important opportunity for City of Newcastle to engage with our large Torres Strait Islander community, some who have never seen these culturally significant works of art before, or seen their culture celebrated in such a significant way.

“To strengthen these ties further, we raised the Torres Strait Island flag at City Hall for the first time in a special ceremony today in front of members of the local Torres Strait community. It will remain there permanently, even once the exhibition ends.”

Newcastle-based artist Toby Cedar, who won the 2020 CAIF Ports North Sculpture Award, and teaches dance and culture locally, said the exhibition was an important acknowledgement of Torres Strait Island culture.

“It is extremely special to me to be a part of this exhibition as it will be showcasing our rich Torres Strait Islander art and culture,” Mr Cedar said.

“For many people, the exhibition will be the first time they have learnt anything about the Torres Strait Islands and our People, which is very important to me. The way Brian has curated the exhibition in separate stages explains our history and stories very well.

“It is wonderful that all of the local and surrounding Torres Strait Islander communities will have access to view many of the artifacts from our past here right in NSW, with many of the pieces being shown for the first time.

“I will also be very proud to see our Torres Strait Island flag flown at City Hall for the first time with my family as it makes me feel my people are being included and acknowledged alongside the other flags that are already flown there.”

Newcastle Art Gallery Director Lauretta Morton said the Gallery had been actively acquiring works of art from Torres Strait Islander artists since 2017, many of which will be on display for the first time. Works of art on loan from major Australian institutions that have also never been publicly displayed before make the exhibition an incredible opportunity for the community to experience and gain a new appreciation and understanding of the culture here in Newcastle.

“WARWAR features a diverse range of works of art that showcase the evolution and strength of Torres Strait Islander tradition and society through arts practitioners from the 19th century and the emergence of the contemporary art traditions of today,” Ms Morton said.

“It explores issues of cultural maintenance, Christianity, language and the impact of globalisation on the physical environment of the Torres Strait Islands, which are located in the narrow stretch of water between the land masses of Zai Dagam Daudai (Australia) in the south and Naigai Dagam Daudai (Papua New Guinea) in the north.”

Exhibiting artists include Joseph Au, Grace Lilian Lee, Glen Mackie, Billy Missi, Laurie Nona, Brian Robinson, Dr Ken Thaiday and Alick Tipoti.

Guest curator Brian Robinson said Warwar: The Art of Torres Strait is an important part of the unique Ailan Kustom (island customs) from which wisdom, strength and creativity is drawn from.

“It is through visual art, dance, and song that ancestral stories and legends are maintained and passed on to the younger generation, and it is important that exhibitions such as this are supported to assist in this preservation,” Mr Robinson said.

“Newcastle Art Gallery have played a pivotal role in the co-curation of this unique exhibition, which contributes to the development, enhancement and understanding of this amazing indigenous culture.

“For the local Torres Strait Island communities, the exhibition is a way of reconnecting back to the islands; back to family and friends; back to a rich and vibrant history defined by amazing customs imbued with ceremonies and rituals that have endured for thousands of years.”

WARWAR: The Art of Torres Strait will run from 29 May – 22 August 2021 at Newcastle Art Gallery and has been specifically timed to coincide with significant dates including Mabo Day, Reconciliation Week, ‘Coming of the Light’ and NAIDOC Week.

Newcastle Art Gallery will program bespoke events on each significant date in collaboration with local Torres Strait Island artists and performers, while a Curator and Artist Talk will be held on Saturday 3 July featuring exhibition guest curator Brian Robinson and local artist Toby Cedar in conversation with Newcastle Art Gallery Director Lauretta Morton.

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