The story of a voluntary mass migration of a community from Saibai Island in the Torres Strait to the mainland after World War II, is explored in a new exhibition by Vincent Babia.
Babia is a descendant of the Ait Kodal (Crocodile clan) and Samu (Cassowary clan) from Saibai Island and his family is one of many that relocated from Saibai to mainland Australia in the 1940s and 50s. He is a highly regarded sculptor of ceremonial masks, canoes and drums with works represented in the National Gallery of Australia. In this exhibition, Babia traces the stories of Saibai Island culture and the pearl luggers’ journeys from the island to the mainland, through sculptures and related vinyl cut prints.
Saibai is located in the northwest region of the Torres Strait, approximately five kilometres from the Papua New Guinea coastline. It is a low-lying island made up of mud flats, swamp and mangroves, and prone to severe tidal and monsoonal inundation. Following several king tides in the 1940s which caused severe flooding, the community decided to move to safe ground at the tip of Cape York Peninsula which had been identified by Saibai Islander soldiers during the war. The Queensland Government agreed to the relocation in recognition of the significant contribution of Torres Strait Islander communities to the Australian war effort.
Two pearl luggers, M.V. Millard and M.V. Macoy, were used to transport the first Saibai Islander families from seven clan groups to abandoned Australian Army Defence Barracks at Muttee Heads, on the lands of the Injinoo people in Cape York. By the 1950s, more than 250 Islanders had relocated to the Cape, and the township of Bamaga in the Northern Peninsula Area was established as a permanent refuge for the people of Saibai.
Images: Vincent BABIA, Kuki Sagulaw Mawa 2015, mixed media, 16 x 92 x 73 cm. Gab Titui Cultural Centre Collection. Photo: George Serras © National Museum of Australia