Between Tradition and Innovation

17 Oct 2020 –
10 Jan 2021

The exhibition highlights the significance of legacy in contemporary Indigenous art, where the generational transmission of cultural knowledge across time and place informs innovation and is intrinsic to artistic practice.

Grace Lillian Lee’s A Weave through time incorporates Torres Strait Islander traditional grasshopper weaving design to create a sculptural installation that explores notions of time past, present and future. To do this the artist created three women’s dresses using different materials - coconut fibre for the past, cotton for the present, and plastic for the future.

An integral component of this work is a video that shows three generations of women in the artist’s family, each embracing the sculptural dresses as they fade from one generation to the next to highlight the intersecting values of cultural knowledge with contemporary society. 

Brian Robinson is of the Kala Lagaw Ya and Wuthathi language groups of the Torres Strait. His printmaking practices stem from early wood carving traditions, and are based on oral stories. However, for Robinson it is the intersection between traditional stories and contemporary culture that gives his work complexity and opens up new ways of navigating cultural stories in a contemporary context. To this end, close scrutiny of his works will often reveal references that initially seem ironic or incongruous, such as popular culture comic figures and references to western art history. These inclusions are deliberate and are selected by the artist for their ability to extend complex narratives between traditional and contemporary ways of life and culture.

Ken Thaiday Snr is a Torres Strait Island artist whose work is inspired by Darnley Island culture. Thaiday’s innovative works include elaborate ceremonial headdresses (dhari) and dance machines (zamiyakal) that are used during traditional cultural practices in the Torres Strait. Like Brian Robinson, Thaiday seeks to create a contemporary context for seemingly traditional works by using present day materials and processes, including the use of automated devices to animate his sculptures.

Zamiyakal are ceremonial apparatuses used to provide a visual physical narrative to a particular dance. They are designed for manoeuvrability and when activated during a certain period in a performance become an illustration of the performance. Thaiday effortlessly incorporates traditional zamiyakal with ceremonial dhari to create contemporary sculptural forms, the symbolic imagery of which provides a commentary on Torres Strait Islander peoples and their lifestyles.

Image: Grace Lillian Lee, A Weave Through Time (detail), 2017, palm leaf, cotton yarn, plastic, cotton webbing, Donated through the Cairns Art Gallery Foundation, 2018


Selected works


Installation images

The Cairns Art Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we work and live. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. 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.