October 2, 2014


By Andrew Taylor

Towering four metres high in the foyer of Carriageworks, it would take a very large head to wear the dhari created by Ken Thaiday.

But the size of Thaiday’s installation reflects the importance of the traditional form of headdress to Torres Strait people and their culture, according to Carriageworks curator Beatrice Gralton.

“It was traditionally known as a warrior symbol, but now it is a symbol of the Torres Strait people,” Gralton says. “It is on the Torres Strait Island flag and a symbol of peace and harmony and the islands.”

The dhari was traditionally made from cane, pearl shell and frigate bird feathers, but Thaiday has fashioned his larger-than-life headdress from plastic, plywood, cardboard and fishing line.

Gralton says the headdresses are “incredibly intricate yet functional”.

“Over the years, his work has become more ambitious but still these more human-scale headdresses are made to be worn and made to be activated,” she says. “Every pulley, every string has a purpose.”

She points to the red-and-white feathers decorating the edge of the giant dhari sculpture that can be moved by tugging the right line.

“They come in and out and those feathers are actually in the shape of sardines,” Gralton says. “The little fish that live in the shallows of the Torres Strait and are really important bait and for food.”

Thaiday’s modern interpretation of the headdress references the landscape of the Torres Strait as well as the emphasis the artist places on family, faith and culture.

“This is a very special headdress,” he says. “You need permission to wear the headdress. Not everyone can wear it.”

The Cairns-based Thaiday is renowned for creating dance machine headdresses that are both sculpture and part of a dancer’s costume.

His work is held in major public collections in Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia, Artbank and Parliament House in Canberra, as well as overseas.

Thaiday’s religious devotion is integral to his art practice.

“God is my secret,” he says. “The lord Jesus. He makes me make this.”

The director of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah, says Thaiday’s practice spans visual arts and performance and is strongly influenced by his faith.

“Ken is one of the most interesting contemporary Aboriginal artists practicing in Australia today,” she says. “What I find really interesting about his work is it emerges from a traditional practice, but it also talks to our contemporary lives.”

The exhibition of Thaiday’s headdresses was commissioned by Carriageworks and will also include two dance performances choreographed by the artist and performed by his nephews on Friday at 6pm and Saturday at 11am.

Thaiday has also fashioned hammerhead and frigate bird dance machine masks for the exhibition.

The frigate bird is a harbinger of the weather, with its flight and feeding habits, while the hammerhead shark is the totem animal of Thaiday’s family and a symbol of law and order.

“When you flip up the fins of the hammerhead, there is a landscape Ken has painted of Darnley Island and a little tiny church,” Gralton says. “The feathers represent the frothing of the waves and really I think it’s a lifetime that Ken has had of living in and observing the landscape.”

Ken Thaiday is at Carriageworks until November 23.

Image: Artist Ken Thaiday with Torres Strait Island dancers Erub Kebile at Carriageworks. Photo: Dallas Kilponen