Ghost Nets of the Ocean

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Marine creatures handwoven from ghost nets, as showcased at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore (Image courtesy Asian Civilisations Museum Singapore)

Deathly debris spun into works of art

Text: Sarah Chew

The northern section of the Australian landmass points upwards towards Papua New Guinea, a crooked finger jutting into the Torres Strait, its tip some 150 kilometres from the coast of the latter. Within this channel are the 270 Erub islands. Among them sits Darnley Island, a slice of paradise with white beaches and glassy turquoise waters encircled by a thriving reef. Here, a vision was born.

Au Karem ira Lamar Lu, or “Ghost Nets of the Ocean” is a collaboration between the Erub Arts Group, a collective of indigenous and non-indigenous Torres Strait artists, and the non-profit organisation, GhostNets Australia, funded by the Australian High Commission. The project aims to raise awareness for the Erub Art Group’s work to audiences everywhere. Launching the initiative involved months of coordination, with the artworks taking a year to be completed. The final result showcases artworks by 18 Erub artists, as well as Lynnette Griffiths, Marion Gaemers and Jimmy K Thaiday (one of the Erub artists). The media preview of the exhibition recently took place at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) in Singapore, which gave Asian Geographic the opportunity to meet the artists and tour the exhibition.

Some of the many sardines on exhibition at the Asian Civilisation Museum. Fishermen from the Torres Islands use scoops to fish. The one here pictured is deliberately oversized to symbolise the massive fishing operations that devastate our oceans today (Image courtesy Asian Civilisations Museum)

The exhibition’s intentions are made clear from the outset through the choice of materials and subject matter. “Everything that you see in this room is made from net and rope, and it all comes out of the ocean,” says Griffiths, the Erub Arts Group’s artistic director. “People ask, ‘do you dye it?’ because there’s so much colour, and the thing is, we don’t.” The nets have been contributed by from the Australian Navy, who have a task force collecting marine pollution and stray nets from fishing activities in the Torres Strait. The refuse used to be burnt, but today, it is repurposed through the Ghost Nets project.

We are standing next to a pillar bathed in colour with woven marine life, and Griffiths reaches out to touch a section of jade-green detail in the artwork. “This green one here is the really deadly gillnet, and it’s kilometres long, sometimes. It drifts down, and breaks away,” she says. According to Griffiths, the narrow Torres Strait is a major migratory route for marine turtles; six of the seven species pass through the Erub islands on their journey. “This net has the most destructive power in terms of collecting lots of turtles and fish,” she adds.

The creation of the Ghost Nets exhibit is as impressive as the finished product. Gaemers, a fibre artist and artisanal basket weaver, is single-handedly responsible for all the corals in the exhibition. She describes how traditional Erub craft elements have been infused in the designs and combined with various weaving techniques such as the “God’s eye”, which has been used to emulate barnacle scars on the surfaces of corals. Where solid sheets of material are needed – to outline the bodies of animals, for instance – nets and rope are unwoven into thinner fibres, which are then matted together in a process called “felting”. More fibres are are then threaded through the blend to fasten it to a net, which helps the fibres keep their form.

Gaemers shows us a large design of a hammerhead shark bearing the intricate patterning of traditional Erub engraving – a testament to Thaiday’s meticulous work. Hammerheads are commonly found in the western waters of Erub, where they swim up from the deep and into the shallows in search of stingray. The hammerhead is one in a group of totemic animals that the Erub islanders celebrate through masked dances at traditional festivals that reflect the community’s deep connection with the ocean.

The artists amidst their artwork, which Griffiths describes to be an “underwater field” of animals and corals (Image © Sarah Chew)

Accompanying the exhibition is a programme called “Tiny Turtles”, an educational project involving school children from both Torres Strait and Singapore; the programme also partners with Pathlight, an institute for autistic children. School children are guided in weaving over 700 miniature turtles of different shapes and sizes, which are now on display on the ACM lawn overlooking the Singapore River. The arts and crafts class is accompanied by a lesson on the importance of protecting marine life.

“I was a teacher before I became the Arts Centre’s exhibitions manager, and I believe in the power of educating children,” Griffiths shares. “We have to start environmental education at a really young age. Children everywhere are using screens nowadays. Technology has taken over, but the tactile – that chance to reconnect and do something with your hands – is really important.” The programme has a defined environmental angle, combining hands-on problem solving, creativity and art practice. “All of those things, I think, are incredibly important in today’s curriculum,” says Griffiths.

As an Erub islander, Thaiday hopes that the exhibition will draw attention to the lives of those who depend on the sea for survival. His home, Darnley Island, does not bear the biggest brunt of marine pollution, but he knows full well the drastic impact of marine litter on communities in the Torres Strait – as seen just to the west of his own.

Expansion remains a bright possibility for the Ghost Nets project. “We’d like to connect with people all over the world that are doing things with Ghost Nets. It’s a movement that has a global platform and we’d like to keep spreading the word,” Griffiths elaborates. The 1,450 sardines in the exhibition speaks for the project’s potential for growth; as Griffiths was tight on time to complete the sardines for the installation, she opened the task to the Facebook community with a tutorial video on how to make them. They received 400 handmade sardines from the public to add to the 800 that she had created, along with others created by Gaemers and Erub Arts. The next step is to bring these initiatives to countries that produce large volumes of marine litter – particularly in countries with coastal communities who are wholly reliant on the health of the surrounding ocean.

The finished Tiny Turtles, made by school children from the Torres Strait and from Singapore (Image © Sarah Chew)

Given the centrality of ocean health to the lives of the Erub islanders, it is of little wonder that this should be their message to the world. But the effects of marine degradation are felt beyond these coastal communities, and care for the oceans is a shared responsibility. Griffiths concluded: “Bringing everyone together and connecting people across the oceans was one of the really big messages of the project.”

The Ghost Nets exhibition will run at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore until the August 6, 2017. Entrance is free of charge to members of the public. For more information, visit acm.org.sg/exhibitions/ghost-nets-of-the-ocean

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