Brian Robinson

Pacific Crosscurrents

9 Jul –
6 Sep 2016

Brian Robinson: Pacific Crosscurrents presents an artist’s view of how his Torres Strait Island homeland intersects with ancient traditions and modern histories of the Pacific. The crosscurrents reflect an exchange of ideas, beliefs, and cultural practices.

Traditional legends and archaeological evidence reveal that voyagers from around the world travelled the waters of the Torres Strait over many thousands of years. Islands of the Torres Strait witnessed millennia of human traffic between Papua New Guinea and the Australian landmass. Macassans and Muslim traders from Indonesia and beyond arrived from the west, and from the east the rich voyaging traditions of the southwest Pacific. From 1512, vessels passed through Torres Strait waters carrying cargoes of sandalwood, pearl goods, bêche de mer (sea slugs), and staple supplies between Europe and Asia. Torres Strait Islanders themselves were master mariners. 

Brian Robinson: Pacific Crosscurrents is an innovative art installation that presents one artist’s attempt to trace intersections between these ancient traditions and modern histories. Sea voyaging is historically a key vehicle for the exchange of knowledge, cultural practices and survival techniques, and it thematically flows through this exhibition, connecting people across time and place. The exhibition is unusual and experimental in terms of how it crosses national and ethnic boundaries. Robinson’s art picks up on the deep history of Austronesian Indigenous homelands that covered almost half of the world. Voyagers remembered in traditional cultural stories from this region travelled the seas between Madagascar and Hawaii, Taiwan and the Easter Islands. Cultural practices of today retain the imprint of this Pacific network that linked Indigenous populations in diverse ways. Local culture developed the stamp of unique identity, but crosscurrents continued to filter through the region, and still do so today.

Sea voyaging is a theme that the artist uses to relate historic Pacific interchange with the conditions of today’s global society. Robinson’s approach to the exhibition presents a Torres Strait Island perspective of the circulation of ideas and processes of exchange: between different cultures, and across time. Comic book heroes, Greek temples, and cheeky cupid figures jostle for attention within the rhythms of Pacific cosmology. Patterns and designs that register shared Pacific histories in trading goods, sea-faring, agriculture, and mortuary rituals emerge in his art as an undercurrent of global contemporary life.

The premise for Pacific Crosscurrents grew from Robinson’s ongoing artistic interest in traditional Indigenous navigation, and how and what it moved across the Pacific. During visits to museum collections he researched items conveying symbolism related to shared cultural knowledge and beliefs about such matters as gardening, weaving, and celestial navigation. Shared visual cues included recurring patterns associated with tattoo designs, and the motif of an abstracted elongated face often used in Torres Strait Island masks. His earlier art involved these elements, but museum collections provided a method of broadening the scope of these signposts and cues across the Pacific.

The idea that museum collections are crosscurrents in themselves features throughout the exhibition. This occurs both as an element of Robinson’s own art, and also with the exhibition’s inclusion of artworks demonstrating diverse carving and weaving skills from areas such as Fiji, Solomon Islands, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea. These items are sourced from the Australian Museum’s collection of historic Torres Strait Island and Pacific material, together with rarely exhibited Pacific artworks from several significant private collections.

Sally Butler, Associate Professor in Art History, University of Queensland, 2016

Exhibition catalogue
View online | Available at CAG Shop

Artwork Labels

Selected works


Installation images


The Cairns Art Gallery acknowledges the Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji and Yirrganydji as the Traditional Owners of the area today known as Cairns. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, names or voices of deceased persons in photographs, film or text.