DETAIL: Mary MARABAMBA Fish trap No 27 #3017-01 2001 jungle vine, bush string Purchased 2002

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The majority of nineteenth-century Indigenous material culture collected in the earliest days of colonial contact — commonly without the permission of the traditional owners — resides within the collections of ethnographic institutions and historical, as opposed to art, museums. Most major public collections in Australia comprise some historical Indigenous cultural material, but the greater part is held overseas, ‘captive’ far from home.

Two regions were severely affected by deleterious early collecting practices. The bulk of objects collected from the Eora/Yura clans of the Sydney region during the late 1700s were destroyed during a devastating fire in 1882 at the Garden Palace built for the Great Exhibition in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Sydney Cove. In the case of pre-contact material culture from the Torres Strait Islands, very few of the objects assembled during the early collecting incursions remain in any institution in Australia, the vast bulk being in Britain. The most comprehensive, representative and well-documented collection of 2000 artefacts was collected by Arthur Cort (A.C.) Haddon during the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait, and is housed at the Cambridge University Museumof Archaeology and Anthropology.1

Torres Strait Islander works in Tactility include traditional carvings, dynamic dance masks and headdresses incorporating the transition between traditional and contemporary practices, and screen-printed textiles which vividly depict the colours of marine and island life in the Torres Strait. One of the most striking recent additions to the National Gallery of Australia collection is a nineteenth-century stone shark carving from Mer (Murray Island), probably collected by Haddon. The identity of the object’s artist unknown, this unusual carving was acquired in 2002 in Europe, through an international auction house, to ensure its return to Australia. It was also acquired to honour Eddie/Koiki Mabo — a Meriam man from Mer (Murray Island) whose totem was the shark — on the tenth anniversary of the Mabo Act.2

Other ceremonial and traditional works represented in Tactility include early twentieth-century objects from the rainforest region of Far North Queensland: a beautiful bicornual basket and a pair of stunning shields by unknown artists. Also included in the exhibition is a woven basket, circa 1940s, which was part of Margaret Preston’s Indigenous archives; ancestral carvings and sculptures from the Tiwi Islands, Arnhem Land and Cape York; carved pearl shell pubic coverings from West Kimberley in the north of Western Australia; bush-honey collecting bags, dillybags and weaving from Arnhem Land; fish traps from Arnhem Land and the Riverland of South Australia; and a contemporary water carrier and sinuous woven baskets from Tasmania.

1 Mary Bani, Torres Strait Islander collections in Australian and overseas museums, in Ilan Pasin: This is our way – Torres Strait Islander Art, Cairns Regional Art Gallery, Cairns, 1999, p.128.
2 Eddie Mabo and Others v. The State of Queensland was a decision of the High Court which found that Indigenous native title was not extinguished — or wiped out — by British colonisation and that Australia was not terra nullius, ‘empty land’. For further reading see the Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1994.

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