The show explores the longstanding importance of ceremonial masks in Torres Strait Islander culture and how they continue to influence contemporary art forms.
19 May 2017 - 4:03 PM  UPDATED 19 May 2017 - 4:03 PM

A new exhibition celebrating the rich and continuing tradition of mask making in  in Zenadh Kes, in the Torres Strait Islands, has opened at the National Museum of Australia. 

'Evolution: Torres Strait Masks' explores mask making as a contemporary expression of artisitc and cultural revival. 

Lead curator Leitha Assan says the masks play an important role.  

"They're a very significant object that comes with a lot of protocols that govern it, and women and children are actually not allowed to touch the masks, and not a lot of people know that. So you have to be very careful around complex artefacts like masks," she told NITV News. 

Ms Assan says the whole purpose of the exhibition is to tell the story of the masks before and after colonisation.

"How we used them prior to the whiteman coming into our region, and their journey around with religion being a factor, and other influences through the years," she says.

"Also with the missionaries coming through, a lot of archaeologists and anthropologists took our masks away. Some of them were burnt by the priests and most of them are now in cultural institutions in Europe or the UK."   

Made from a mixture of shells, wood, and feathers, the intricate masks, or moa, represent the different clans or language groups from each of the islands of the Torres Strait and hold a significant place in continuing and practicing culture. 

Cygnet Repu works in the culture, art and heritage program at the Torres Strait Islander Regional Authority on Thursday Island. 

He says each masks tells a story of their own. 

"Each mask tells its own story of its own clan or group of people, or even its own story of the way the ancestors moved from one place to another, and how that land is called and why that land is called the name that we hear named after people or named after the land, or the mountains," he told NITV News. 

"The mask with the eyes, with the different part of eyebrows taken, with the hair, and even wrinkles on the face, every little line on the face tells a different story."  

The masks were prepared by the Gab Titui Cultural Centre at Thursday Island, on the inner islands of the Torres Strait, which was established as a keeping place to house historical and cultural materials. 

Artists were commissioned to design the masks which were first displayed in the Ephraim Bani Gallery at Gab Titui in 2015. 

National Museum Director, Dr Michael Trinca, says the museum is blessed to have the exhibition.

"In the course of the life of this museum, you have plenty of moments that remind of you how lucky you are to work in a place like this, but today was one of the those single moments where you really think this is what places like this can be and what they can feel like," he said.  

Ms Assan hopes visitors to the exhibition see the cultural significance of the masks in Torres Strait Islander culture and how they continue to be play an important role. 

"The message is that our culture continues to thrive, our cultural practices and we're still very proud of our mask making and we still treat them with the utmost respect when they're used in our ceremonies and intiations," she says. 

The exhibition will be on display at the National Museum of Australia until 23 July. 

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