Art can serve as a method of healing, especially now. Art also serves as an expression of challenges faced by a community or a representation of their vibrant and traditional lifestyles. For the Erub community, art is both a cultural celebration and symbol of community resilience.
Darnley Island (or its traditional name: Erub) is home to the Erubam Le (population less than 400). It is one of the North Eastern Torres Strait Islands off the East coast of Australia at the tip of the Great Barrier Reef. One of the two Indigenous peoples of Australia, these Torres Strait Islanders observe the presence of the ocean and the reef in their way of life.
“For other people, it might be the land, but for us, it is the sea we are deeply connected to. It is like the tide moves within us,” shared Ellarose Savage of the local Erub Arts community.
The ocean is present throughout Erubam Le history. It is in their stories and songs and even today, as their source of food. Marine life is more than simply a source of protein. It is valued and respected.
“The turtle is symbolic in Torres Strait life and it is one of our totems … In Torres Strait, turtles are also central to traditional ceremonies and feasting,” said Jimmy John Thaiday.
Another artist said, “They are hunted and cooked in traditional ground ovens called Kup Murri. This practice continues as a custom carried out by men. During this time, men come together and share skills and stories with younger men. They pass on knowledge.”
With the paramount importance of the ocean, it comes as no surprise that marine creatures such as the turtle convey an emotional and spiritual value to the people’s identity and livelihoods. Today, the marine turtles that are so important to their way of life are under threat. Thaiday notes, “The deadly ghost net, which now floats across our waters in much greater amounts than ever before. [It] claims the life of marine animals as it drifts along trapping, entangling and drowning them. It is estimated that 80% of catch by nets is turtles. As custodians of the land and sea we have a huge responsibility to ensure the survival of the turtle.”
One way the Erub community is responding to the growing concern of marine debris is through art. Drawing inspiration from their vibrant and colorful culture, Erub Arts emerges with the vision to maintain a strong Erubian identity and to promote our culture in a contemporary way through art.
“Creating a message from the ghost net we can show the world and use art to tell this new environmental story,” said Lynnette Griffiths, Erub Arts co-founder and artist. “It may not be our generation that stops plastic and creates change but hopefully it is the young people.”
Erub Arts began as “Ekkilau,” a women’s craft group. Today, this program has expanded to explore the Erub repositories of vibrant cultural traditions and blends it with modern art tools to create meaningful and interactive art. Their beautiful artwork is created from the very same ghost gear nets that endanger their environment. Importantly, the ghost gear art is a form of recycling that is often forgotten in the discourse around a circular economy. In the process of interactive community engagement, they are also raising awareness on marine pollution and communicating to their audience a critical conservation message.
Furthermore, Erub Arts has collaborated with non-indigenous artists to help develop artistic skills using the ghost net. This collaboration between indigenous and non-indigenous people sharing and working together communicates a critical message within the global context. Erub Arts is a member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), an alliance committed to addressing abandoned and lost fishing gear worldwide. As a member of this vast network, Erub Arts participates in critical conversations and leads art workshops to share their message and creative practice with other impacted communities. Reflecting their community traditions, Erub Arts emphasizes the importance of ocean voices in responsiveness action for our ocean.
Everyone is connected under our shared challenge of the issues affecting our ocean. Building a sustainable future requires many things that we can collaborate on such as hope, creativity, resilience, a set of shared values and purpose. But most importantly, we need action.
Hope remains in this community, and shows up constantly in their work. In his masterpiece, “Kus Ekweida II,” artist Jimmy John Thaiday talks about hope and new life through a sprouting coconut. “This work was created to show that from death comes new life. A coconut has sprouted to life beside the remains of a turtle.”
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