By Carol E. Mayer, PPP Board Member
From February 24 to March 16, 2019, ghost nets are the centre of attention at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, British Columbia. This is when MOA is hosting Lynnette Griffiths and Florence Gutchen, two artists from the Island of Erub (Darnley), located in the Torres Strait between the northmost tip of continental Australia and the island of New Guinea. The Ghost Net exhibition will become a permanent MOA exhibition.
I first met Lynnette and Florence in May 2018 when I visited Erub to document the creation of Eip Kor Korr, a sculpture made of synthetic fishing nets. They and the other artists asked me why I travelled so far to see what they were doing. I told them the reason really goes back 15 years earlier, 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 Australian Federal Court withdrew consent, leaving the islanders with nothing to celebrate.
On Erub, disappointment was replaced with the decision to go ahead and celebrate their traditional ownership of the Island despite the court proceedings being abandoned. I was privileged to witness and film the day-long event. A commemorative t-shirt had been made for the occasion; it is now on display at MOA. 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.
Now I journeyed back to Erub to witness this same determination as the islanders 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 remaining safe havens for endangered marine species. Marine turtles are especially vulnerable to entanglement in “ghost nets”: fishing nets that have been lost at sea, abandoned, or discarded when they become damaged. 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 such nets.
For Erub islanders, turtles are a traditional source of food and an integral part of their belief system and culture. The islanders began to gather these nets from the reefs and beaches, often with dead animals still entangled in the webbing, 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 began using them to weave figures of small animals. They then simply decided to go big, creating full-scale figures of turtles and other large sea creatures. These sculptures soon caught the attention of the Australian Museum in Sydney, and one was commissioned for the collection. The rest is history. 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.
I encountered ghost-net sculptures for the first time in 2017, where they were installed in the exhibition Ghost Nets of the Ocean at the Ethnography Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. I was struck by the similarity of these powerful sculptures and the Native title t-shirt collected so many years before: both reflected the tenaciousness of a community in deploying its collective creativity to bring attention to outside challenges, whether 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 and elsewhere in the world. With monies from MOA’s O’Brian Strategic Acquisitions Fund, we were able to purchase a hammerhead shark sculpture and to commission a giant turtle. I journeyed to Erub in May 2018 to document the making of our turtle and to talk with the islanders about the impact of the ghost nets on cultural life.
I arrived at the Erub Arts Centre, where the artists work, to see hundreds of metres of fishing nets strewn everywhere, all waiting to be unravelled and transformed into 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. There was no question of her travelling home with me, though, as she first had another journey to make. She was wrapped, crated, and shipped to Cairns where she was exhibited alongside other ghost-net sculptures at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. She was then re-crated and flown more than 7,000 miles/11,000 kilometers to Vancouver, where she was unpacked at MOA in readiness for her installation in the Multiversity Galleries opposite the Erub t-shirt I collected so long ago.
Today Eip Kor Korr swims above museum visitors’ heads alongside the hammerhead shark, where she is, as Florence 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.”
Lynnette’s and Florence’s MOA residency is funded by the Andrew Fellowship, which also funded the 2006 MOA residency of Teddy Balangu from Palembei, Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. Since then, MOA and the Pacific Peoples Partnership (PPP) have worked with Teddy and others to raise global awareness about impending mining activities at the headlands of the river, and in 2017 co-hosted the visit of three artists: Claytus Yambon, Nancy Wani, and Edward Dumoi. During this visit the artists, PPP, and Elaine Monds (Alcheringa Gallery) gave presentations at an international symposium being held at UBC. These events, and more, point to the depth of commitment PPP has shown to Indigenous rights, especially as they pertain to the cultural and environmental damage caused by resource extraction, overfishing and the abandonment of fishing gear that has trapped and killed innumerable marine species, bringing many to the brink of extinction.
During their time in British Columbia, Lynnette and Florence will be giving public workshops at MOA, Musqueam Reserve, and schools in the Vancouver area. They will also be meeting representatives from Global Ghost Gear Initiative Secretariat and the Vancouver Aquarium, and will then travel to Vancouver Island as guests of PPP. There, they will participate in a video about their experiences, plus visit Alcheringa Gallery and the Royal British Columbia Museum. They will also host a public program organised by PPP. For this, they are bringing the frame of a large barracuda so that workshop participants can “dress” it with scales they create from fishing nets.
Underscoring its global relevance, this project was started in Geneva; it will continue in British Columbia and then be taken to England, carrying with it the ethos of collaborating across continents and countries. At the same time, the project will deliver new skills and create an opportunity for people to talk, discuss, and share. Both MOA and PPP consider themselves fortunate to work alongside such powerful advocates. We welcome the prospect of creating relationships that will reach into the future.
Carol E. Mayer is the head of the curatorial and interpretation department at the Museum of Anthropology and an associate to UBC’s Department of Anthropology. In 2006 she began a long association with Alcheringa Gallery when she travelled with Elaine Monds to the Sepik River. Soon after that she joined the Board of the Pacific Peoples Partnership. Her research interests include the history of Pacific Islands collections in Canada, the exploration of intellectual property rights, and the building of collaborative networks between the Pacific and the Pacific Northwest. In 2013 she organised the PAA International Symposium in Vancouver, Canada, and curated the exhibition and authored the publication Paradise Lost? Contemporary Arts of the Pacific. She also co-authored (with Anna Naupa and Vanessa Warri) the book No Longer Captives of the Past: The Story of a Reconciliation Ceremony on Erromango. Her recent exhibition and publication, In the Footprint of the Crocodile Man, opened in March 2016. She has been granted numerous awards, including from the Canadian Museums Association and the International Council of Museums. She has also received the President’s Medal of Excellence and the Independence Medal from the Republic of Vanuatu.