Deadly Threads

3 Dec 2021 –
23 Jan 2022

Where did you get that shirt?

What we wear is not just clothing - it can also be a statement. Deadly Threads is an exhibition from the State Library of Queensland that explores this concept and brings together more than 190 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander designed singlets, t-shirts, polo shirts, and jerseys. 

From colourful sporting jerseys, to protest and artists T-shirts, Deadly Threads explores how the shirt has helped express views, declare identity, support community, show allegiances, and champion political, social and other causes. 

In the 1970s, the T-shirt in Australia assumed a new and powerful role as a social and political statement which could quickly convey, through simple words and images, an urgent call to action. Whether worn collectively or as an individual statement the T-shirt provided a visual commentary on differing viewpoints and were conspicuous at street rallies, sit-ins and other protest movements. For Indigenous peoples, shirts featuring their art have also become an important way of making a statement about culture, country and identity.

Louise Hunter, Deadly Threads curator, explains that the exhibition explores the stories behind the garments in the exhibition. 

‘For First Nations people these items have been created for many reasons. They help spotlight issues of cultural and historical significance, sporting endeavours and community initiatives,’ she says.

Highlights of the exhibition include rare shirts from the Mabo Family Collection that celebrate Mabo Day and the famous 1992 Mabo decision when the High Court of Australia overturned the doctrine of Terra Nullius that had supported colonisation of Australia. Today the portrait of Eddie Koiki Mabo on shirts continues to operate as a powerful social and political symbol.

Other highlights in the exhibition include memorial T-shirts designed for tombstone openings in the Torres Strait Islands, political shirts designed by Indigenous artists including Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell and Libby Harward, and sporting shirts and even a pair of rugby boots worn by the great Johnathan Thurston.

Image: Libby Harward, ALREADY OCCUPIED T-shirt 2017, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Acc. No. 32136
Photo: Shiloh Nakachi, Toik Meriam Samsep woman, residing on Gimuy Walabura Yidinji country at Gimuy (Cairns) Photo by Brian Cassey


List of Works


Selected Works



From 17 December 2021, proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required to enter the Gallery.

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.