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 as his people searched for improved educational and work opportunities. Here he became a founding member of the Darnley Island Dance Troupe.
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, these art practices moved into the secular domain, providing a powerful impetus to cultural expression. The shark headdresses for which Ken Thaiday became renowned, demonstrate the thread of continuity that contemporary art practices carry. They are at once, visually impressive as manifestations of ancient supernatural forces, and technologically and artistically inventive, as they adapt to cultural and historical shifts.
The increasingly ingenious methods Thaiday employs to construct his dance masks and handheld dance machines have 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 employed new lightweight materials such as plastic piping, plywood, twine and bright enamel paint, skillfully 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.
Ken Thaiday Snr. is an artist of rare talent whose works only infrequently make their way in to commercial galleries. For many years he has remained unrepresented and, in fact, has lacked the facilities required to make his often delicate and complex dance machines and headdresses. A small number of private collectors have willingly purchased almost everything that he has produced that has not been commissioned by art institutions.
As his art practice has developed over time, Ken Thaiday’s creations have become 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.
copyright. Adrian Newstead
Alexander, George, ‘Ken Thaiday’ in Tradition Today, Indigenous Art in Australia, Art Gallery of NSW, Australia
Jenkins, Susan,’Ken Thaiday’ in The Eye of the Storm, Eight Contemporary Indigenous Australian Artists, (book accompanying exhibition) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1996
Mosby, Tom, (curator and editor of exhibition and accompanying book) Il Pasin; this is our way, Torres Strait Art, Cairns Regional Gallery, Qld.
Subject & Themes
Shark, Dugong, Ceremonial Head Dress
Australian Embassy, Washington DC USA
Australian Museum, Sydney
Artbank, Sydney Australia
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
National Museum of Australia, Canberra
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC), Lyon, France
Musée des Confluences, Lyon, France
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Museum Victoria, Melbourne
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Otago Museum, Dunedin New Zealand
Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Queensland Museum, Brisbane
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
Cambridge University Museum of Anthropology, Cambridge UK
Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns
Ipswich Art Gallery, Ipswich
Gold Coast City Gallery, Surfers Paradise
2014 Ken Thaiday, Carriage Works & Performance Space, Sydney
2013 Ken Thaiday Snr.: Erub Kebe Le, A Survey Exhibition from 1990 to the Present, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns
2020 Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
2019 Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, Mildura Arts Centre, Mildura
2019 Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, Museum & Art Gallery of Northern Territory, Darwin
2018 Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial,University of Queensland Art Museum
2017 Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
2016 Australia: Defending the Oceans at the Heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Oceanographic Museum of Monaco
2016 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
2016 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, Orange Regional Gallery, NSW
2016 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, VIC
2016 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery, NSW
2016 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, NSW
2015 Country & Western: Landscape Re-Imaged, S.H. Ervin, Sydney NSW
2015 Country & Western landscape re-imaged, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville
2015 Saltwater Country AAMU: Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands
2014 Arts d’Australie, Arts d’Australie • Stephane Jacob / Barclays, Paris, France
2014/2015 Saltwater Country, Australian Embassy Washington DC, USA
2014 Saltwater Country, The Arts Centre Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise
2014 Lag Meta Aus Home in the Torres Strait, National Museum of Australia, Canberra 2012 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, Te Manawa Art Gallery, Palmerston North, NZ
2012 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, Pataka Museum and Gallery, Porirua City, NZ
2012 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu Art Gallery Nelson, NZ
2012 CIAF Exhibition, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns
2011 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, Southland Museum and Gallery, Invercargill NZ
2011 Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane
2011 Menagerie, Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs
2011 Menagerie, Cairns Regional Art Gallery, Cairns
2011 Menagerie, Brisbane Museum, Brisbane
2011 Menagerie, Wagga Wagga Regional Art Gallery, Wagga Wagga
2011 Menagerie, Gladstone Regional Art Gallery & Museum, Gladstone
2011 Menagerie, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo
2011 CIAF Exhibition, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns
2010 Parcours Nomad’s en Australie, Arts d’Australie • Stéphane Jacob, Paris
2011 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns
2010 Malu Minar (Sea Pattern) Art of the Torres Strait, Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia
2010 Menagerie, Melbourne Musem, Melbourne
2010 Menagerie, Queen Victoria Musem & Art Gallery, Launceston
2010 Menagerie, Tandanya: National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide
2010 Menagerie, Western Australian Museum, Perth
2009 Dreamtime – Temps du Rêve, Musée d’Art Contemporain Les Abattoirs, Toulouse
2008 Parcours des Mondes,, Arts d Australie Stephane Jacob, Paris, France.
2006-2007 Gifted: Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Mollie Gowing Acquisition Fund, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
2006 23rd Telstra National Aborigainal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
2003 20th Telstra National Aborigainal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin; Tactility: two centuries of Indigenous objects, textiles and fibre, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
1995 12th National Aboriginal Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.
1994 Urban Focus, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
1993 – 1994 ARATJARA, Art of the First Australians, Touring: Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Denmark.
1991 Flash Pictures, National Gallery of Australia.
2017 Red Ochre Award
The sea, the feather and the dance machine
Saltwater People of the Torres Strait
2006 Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris
2009 New Flames, Canopy Artspace, Cairns
Red Ochre Award 2017
The Conversation 28/05/17
ABC News 27/05/17
Aboriginal Art Directory 28/05/17
Creative Cowboy Films 27/05/17
The Australian 28/05/17
Cairns Post 28/05/17
Carriageworks & Performance Space 2014
ABC Arts News 8/10/14
Sydney Morning Herald 2/10/14
Daily Telegraph 2/10/14
The Guardian 15/10/14
Ken Thaiday, Carriageworks and Performance Space exhibition Catalogue Country & Western landscape re-imaged, Exhibition catalogue curated by Gavin Wilson, Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, Townsville
Ken Thaiday Snr.: Erub Kebe Le, A Survey Exhibition from 1990 to the Present, Cairns Regional Gallery exhibition catalogue
‘Aboriginal Art’, National Gallery News, 10th Birthday edition, September/October 1992, p. 5-7.
Aird, M.,1993, Campfire Consultancy, Queensland
Aratjara, Art of the First Australians: Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists, exhib. cat. (conceived and designed by Bernard Luthi in collaboration with Gary Lee), Dumont, Buchverlag, Koln, 1993
Caruana, W., 1993, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London.
Cochrane Simons, Susan, ‘Virtuoso flashes of inspiration’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1992, p. 46
Wilson, L., 1993, Kerkar Lu: Contemporary Artifacts of the Torres Strait Islanders, Queensland Education Department.
Wallace, D., Desmond, M., Caruana, W., 1991, Flash Pictures, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Australian National Maritime Museum. 100 Stories from the Australian National Matitime Museum. 2012 p.21
JACOB (Stéphane), GRUNDMAN (Pierre), PONSONNET (Maia), La peinture aborigène, Nouvelles Editions Scala, Paris, 2012
CARUANA (Wally), GLOWCZEWSKI (Barbara), GRUNDMANN (Pierre), JACOB (Stéphane), LARGY HEALY (Jessica de), MORVAN (Arnaud). Aborigènes. Collections australiennes contemporaines du Musée des Confluences, Musée des Confluences & Fage éditions, Lyon, 2008