Article By MELINDA TUPLING (Guest Writer)

CURRENTLY on display at the Grand Hotel is a replica of an ancient warup (drum), dating back to the 1600s, carved by Torres Strait artist George Nona of the Tupmul Clan.

George’s story began in 1971 on Badu, where he grew up without specific traditional Western Torres Strait knowledge. He became passionate about learning his cultural history, and so the search began. He searched archives, oral histories and antique photographs determined to revive the traditions of his people, the Torres Strait Islanders.

George says the hour glass-shaped totemic drum was one of the first ever made, originating in the Western islands. “This drum in particular is what makes the Torres Strait unique in culture, he said. “The drums were traded a lot between island communities,” “Overall the drums may look the same until the intricate markings are put on, then it becomes ownership of the clan group. “There are three totems symbolically represented on the drum: the dugong, the crocodile and the turtle. “The sound of the drum resembles doima – thunder.” “The cassowary and cowry are put on for spiritual reasons, not totemic.” “This is the first time this drum has been replicated - made to the same size and with the same materials originally used. “This drum was used for initiation ceremonies, in funeral rituals for releasing the deceased’s spirit, and in hunting ceremonies associated with cult and war hero’s.” “The cultural and spiritual significance of drums and masks go deeper than many people realise, for this reason some things cannot be disclosed for spiritual reasons.” George cited one example under the drum.

“The cassowary eats the berries from the tree, the tree is then cut down to make the drum,” George explained. “The cassowary feathers are used to make dhoeri’s (head dresses). “It is a whole cycle – like a butterfly. All is connected in the spiritual sense.” A mesmerizing storyteller, George has the power to transport the listener to another realm with his delivery of cultural myths and legends from beportaim, from times long past.

“My idea is to re-enliven our traditions,” George said. “As a young boy of about seven years of age, growing up on Badu, I often wondered about the significance behind wearing head dresses.


“We would dance with shakers and wear head dresses made from cardboard. “I could clearly see the significance of the shakers - to dance to rhythm, but why the head dresses? What did it mean? “This question led me to much researching and speaking with Elders. “Through researching I learned there was much lost information.” George's works are now held at the National Gallery of Australia, the National Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane and the Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island.

Clearly dedicated to revitalizing Western Torres Strait cultural heritage through his contemporary art practice, George explained the importance of fully understanding the cultural and spiritual significance behind symbolic tools such as the iconic masks, drums and headdresses of the Torres Strait.

“Headdresses are a spiritual thing. They are the key to the spiritual world,” George said. “Anthropologists who came here all those years ago spoke with Elders who spoke very little English, and as such the meaning of the masks and head dresses were simplified. The true meanings were never recorded. “I have met only three, maybe four Elders who know the depth of spirituality behind all this. “I want to re-release this information for the younger generations. “The concept of my art is to respect the markings, as the subtlety of the markings identify where the piece is from. “I want to go forward with respect to boundaries and I urge other young artists to do the same as the markings have deep, spiritual significance.”


Maluwap Nona traditional owner describes George’s art as giving a sense of belonging again. “This is the way forward to maintain our Torres Strait island customs and traditions. “With the 20th anniversary of Mabo upon us I feel George has given Native Title its true identity, not just in rhetoric but in the practical sense.

“His work is giving Torres Strait Islanders a sense of honour and dignity. “His unique style has given us scope to revive the whole concept of tribal drums, headdresses and other artefacts. Torres Strait Regional Authority chairperson John 'Toshie' Kris said George had created a new style of art that was vital to the continuation of traditional and cultural practices. “George’s contribution for raising awareness and respect for culture through his art is crucial for sustaining Torres Strait knowledge,” Mr Kris said.

“There is a strictness to his work and he abides by the values of tradition, giving explanations.” Mr Kris said that through George’s art, people had begun to realise there was deeper meaning behind dances. Winner of the 2009 Gab Titui Indigenous Art Award, George Nona's work is indicative of the raw talents in the Torres Strait arts community, Mr Kris said.

“George talks about history and is passing knowledge on for this generation and future generations to come,” Mr Kris said. “This process brings the wider community to understand the uniqueness of our culture.”

Chris Lemke, Publican of the Grand Hotel tells how he really loves the local art and likes to support artists of the Torres Strait.

“I have a lot of George’s pieces on display here at The Grand, with more dhoeri’s and masks to come,” he said. “I’m from Melbourne and I’ve noticed at the Melbourne Art Gallery the Torres Strait culture is pretty unrepresented. “I want to get the genuine pieces altogether in one place so people can have somewhere to really look at them outside from museums. “With this drum and other traditional pieces we’ll have the background story attached and on display for the public wherever permissible.”


Ait Koedal Initiation Ceremony

ON April 7 Marsat and Patrick Newman and Raymond Poipoi participated in a coming-of-age initiation ceremony in Bamaga in the presence of uncles and older men from the community. The initiation ceremony is an important stage of the life of a young male clan member. On the day of the ceremony, the young initiate is called “Kerngay Kazi” and his Uncles are called “Maway” and are the mothers’ brothers.

Knowing genealogy is very important as the participants must be blood-related. In the past these ceremonies were performed away from the presence of women and the whole village. In the 1800s, lots of practices such as these were banned and the knowledge went underground, although some Islander communities still practised, but not to a great extent.


Jeff Waia of Saibai Island, who is of the Ait Koedal clan, says in the modern day, Islanders are awakening their search to find their true identity and practices, and such initiations are again finding their rightful place in communities. “In order to interpret ones self the Totemic Islander must know the original languages,” Mr Waia said. “Yes, we adapt to suit today’s society, but we must also make it meaningful for the young Kerngay Kazi. “The ceremony performed is one of the main stages on the process of 'Minalay Waku', the mat of speciality, respect and royalty. “The Minalay Waku process is practised throughout Oceanic cultures.

“We, the Islanders believe that upon a mat the child is born, initiated, marriage takes place and important community decisions are made, then finally our loved ones are put to rest under the ground upon this mat.” Mr Waia said on the day of the ceremony, the initiates spent most of the morning with women folk and important female caregivers. “This symbolises the final time the young boy will eat and sit on his mothers lap,” Mr Waia said. “The male and female groups are not allowed to see each other.


“The initiations rituals take place on the main Maway’s residence or at a place of clans’ importance.” “When the time is right, the Maway will take the Kerngay Kazi out of his mother’s lap and led him to a specially built hut, Koedalaw Thikathik, the “House of the crocodile”.

The rituals in the Kod then take place around the Piti Muykun fire. “All the Maway is wearing the material wakaw around their waist,” Mr Waia said. “Older men outside the Kod will continuously sing crocodile chants and songs of Sager Gub. “Upon the completion of the ritual the Kerndgay Kazi is rubbed with coconut oil and Mai Shell is put around his neck. “The headdress Dhoery or Samu is tied on his head and a grass skirt is worn around his waist. “As the boys take the transformation to a young man of Ait Koedal, the women folks prepare themselves to receive the men. “A minalay waku is spread and women lay face down as the young men walk upon the back of the women.” Mr Waia siad the posture of lowering oneself symbolised the respect and the acknowledgement of the Torres Strait male dominant culture.


“It demonstrates the labour and burden of carrying and nurturing a male child to adulthood,” he said. “The wap (dugong/turtle spear) is presented to the Kerngay Kazi to symbolise that the young man is now independent. “He is now equipped to take care of himself and his family later in life. “Finally, the young man will sit amongst older men and perform the coconut drinking ceremony. “The night is enjoyed with feasting, Island dancing and singing.”


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