Dance mask, 'Beizam Shark Mask with Bait Fish', plywood / wire / metal / shark's teeth / feathers, Ken Thaiday, Cairns, 1995
Ken Thaiday (b. 1950), a Torres Strait Islander from Darnley Island in Torres Strait, currently living and working in Cairns, is recognised as a key figure in the making of contemporary versions of traditional dance-masks and his work is included in many exhibitions and state and national collections. He is now also working on a few large scale versions, and one that is motorised, but this mask is an excellent example of his work, with a delicacy and lightness in its design. He grew up on Darnley Island in the 1950s, moved to Cairns in the 1960s and by 1987 was known as a dancer and designer of dance masks and other dance equipment, based on his Beizam Shark totem. He has exhibited regularly during the 1990s.
'According to the artist, the shark is a symbol of the law from his Darnley Island homeland in Torres Strait. Masks like these are worn for public dancing by Torres Strait Islander people in Cairns today and are based on earlier mask types used in sacred religious cults. One of the characteristics of the Darnley Island masks is their moveable parts, and this one has a number of pulleys that the dancer can manipulate to open and close the shark's mouth, move the fan of smaller reef fish backward or forward so they move into the shark's jaws, or swing the shark effigy from side to side to simulate its feeding motions.' (Margie West, AATSI Art Award catalogue, MAGNT, Darwin 1995).
In this mask, the blue feathers represent the sea, and the white feathers the foam. In notes for the Ngaramang Bayumi exhibition (1997) Belinda Nemec notes that: '"Island Dance" as we know it today emerged from the early 1900s. One influence may have been military drill, such as Islanders would have seen from the small Thursday Island garrison. Sabaians claim it began with the King Fish Dance, the song of which refers to soldiers, but the majority give credit to Mabuiag's Football Dance. Sports such as tennis may also have been an influence. These influences resulted in regular co-ordinated movements, with little if any room for improvisation or solo virtuosity.' Other influences in music, dancing and mask-making come from Papua New Guinea and Pacific cultures, and contact with Dutch (since 1605/6) and English (from 1770) ships, where the influence of rigging has sometimes been connected with the stringing of the mask pulleys. (See Lindsay Wilson, 'Kerkar Lu: Contemporary Artefacts of the Torres Strait Islands Material Culture', Brisbane Dept Education 1988; and other books listed in Nemec's notes; see file.)
See Designed. Thaiday has adapted his contemporary masks in a number of ways, including the use of contemporary paint and plywood.
Exhibited in the 12th Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Darwin (and touring) in 1995. It was also shown at Casula Powerhouse and Object galleries in 1998, and toured to Japan in Contemporary Australian Craft, developed by the Powerhouse Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art (see catalogue), in 1999.
From the collection of the artist.