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Dr Ken Thaiday Senior

May 15, 2019

Sculptural, Visual & Performance Artist, Dancer, Choreographer, Singer and Songwriter

World renowned Torres Strait Islander artist Dr Ken Thaiday Senior was presented with the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award for 2017 at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday, 27 May 2017.

Over the past two decades, the work of this seminal Australian artist has attracted international acclaim and he is widely acknowledged as an inspirational figure whose art has reinvigorated the cultural identity of his people.

Ken unique multidisciplinary art practice integrates visual art and installation, kinetic sculpture, dance and song inspired by the landscape of his Torres Strait birthplace, and is rooted in cultural customs and traditional forms using contemporary materials.

Ken is best known for his extraordinary and elaborate ‘dance masks’ and headdresses. These include representations of the Beizam (hammerhead shark), which is his family totem, as well as works that contemporise the traditional form of the Dari. The Dari is a headdress historically worn by Torres Strait warriors in battle. It is a potent symbol of the Torres Strait Island people, appearing on their flag and enduring today as a sign of peace and harmony.

Traditionally made from cane, pearl shell and feathers, Ken works with modern materials to fashion his works, using plastic, cardboard, plywood, fishing line, corflute, bamboo, feathers, beads, nylon line, acrylic paint, string, enamel, fibreglass and wire.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Ken’s interpretation of the traditional headdresses is his ingenious reimagining of them as kinetic sculptures that, when worn by a dancer, bring to life the songs and stories of a seafaring people whose natural environment is intrinsic to their culture.

Ken’s innovative articulated headdresses allow dancers to mobilise the various artefacts he creates, which are predominantly totemic, and move them in inventive ways to his choreography using a complex, intricate system of pulleys and strings so that wings of birds can flap and the mouth of a shark will open and close.

“When I’m dancing and wearing the Dari, I become the shark. From my observation I’m showing how it comes up to get the live bait by simulating its jaw movements”, he says.

Ken views the hammerhead shark as ‘the king of the saltwater’ and ‘the symbol of law and order’.

Ken’s practice is deeply imbued with the traditional song and dance of the Torres Strait taught to him by his father, Tat Thaiday, a cultural leader, choreographer, song writer and gardener, whose influence is evident in the drum rhythms and soulful vocals that are a trademark of Ken’s performances.

Born in 1950 on Erub (Darnley Island) in the eastern group of the Torres Strait Islands, Ken Thaiday is from the Meriam Mir peoples. He attended school on Thursday Island and when he was fifteen, he and his family settled in Cairns. He worked for Queensland Rail and in the mining industry in the Pilbara in Western Australia. Working at the railways for over a decade gave him experience at assembling and dissembling the moving parts of machinery, which has proved an invaluable part of his sculptural work.

Ken returned to Cairns in the late 80s and established the Loza Dance Group with other Torres Strait Islanders and began constructing dance artefacts. It was not long before his work was recognised internationally. In 206 he did a three-month residency at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris. In July 2009 he presented a Beizam mask to the Australian Embassy in Washington DC and gave an artist’s talk at Kluge-Ruhe in Virginia, USA.

The work of Dr Ken Thaiday Snr has been shown in over 50 exhibitions during his career, all over the world, including at: Queensland Art Gallery; National Museum of Australia; Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory;Musée des Confluences, France; National Gallery of Australia; Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra; Queensland Museum; Art Gallery of NSW; Cambridge University Museum of Anthropology, UK; Museum of Victoria; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco.

In 2014, Ken was commissioned by Carriageworks and Performance Space in Sydney to present a major installation accompanied by a series of new dances. The exhibition marked a new ambitious level of scale and complexity for him, with its centrepiece a monumental and elaborate sculpture that referenced the Dari, plus traditional Beizam, frigate bird and sardine scoop dances performed by Erub Kebile, a Torres Strait Island dance troupe comprising several of Ken’s close family members.

The scale of Ken’s work further escalated with the Dari he collaborated on with artist Jason Christopher, which featured in the Taba Naba exhibition at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco in 2016.

Ken travelled to Monaco for the exhibition and said: “When I saw my artwork there, I couldn’t speak, I just cried”.

Ken was invited to exhibit in the 2016 Sydney Biennale and collaborated with artist Jason Christopher on a new work which University of Queensland Associate Professor in Art History, Sally Butler says “broke new ground in cross-cultural collaborative projects using technological innovations to bring the visual and performing arts into closer synergy, as they are in Indigenous traditions.”

In late 2016, Ken was recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Sunshine Coast, which acknowledged him as the ‘most distinctive artist of the Eastern Torres Strait’.

Ken is one of thirty Indigenous artists whose work has been assembled as part of the National Gallery of Australia’s 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, Defying Empire, from 26 May – 10 September 2017.

Ken is acknowledged as a consistent, tireless and unselfish contributor to important community celebrations in the Torres Strait Islands such as The Coming of the Light, of which he was Chairman for five years.

A deep religious devotion informs every aspect of his work – Ken does not sketch the pieces he plans to make, rather he sees them in his mind and attributes their emergence to God. Kernus, the Erub landing place of the first Christian missionaries in the Torres Strait in 1871, as well as the church on Erub, are painted on many of his works.

He has mentored many prominent and emerging Torres Strait Island artists and in the spirit of keeping traditions alive is keen to pass his deep knowledge of the sea, and his understanding of Islander cultural practice and connections with the animal world on to the next generation.

Australia Council for the Arts Board Deputy Chair Lee-Ann Tjunypa Buckskin paid tribute to Ken, saying: “It is a thrill for us to honour one of our most influential and beloved Indigenous artists with the Red Ochre.  Not only is Dr Ken Thaiday Senior an innovative, world-class visual and performance artist, he is also a senior cultural custodian and hopefully through his profound love of the sea, his remarkable art and his mentoring of other artists, the unique and precious culture and traditions of the Eastern Torres Strait Islands peoples will be preserved and immortalised”.

Ken said he is honoured to receive Australia’s most esteemed peer-assessed award for an Indigenous artist:  “This is a great honour and privilege to receive this prestigious award.  By showcasing my artwork and Torres Islander Culture this will open the doors for other Indigenous artists. I give all the glory and honour to God for giving me the gift to share my artwork.”

Learn more about the 2020 First Nations Arts Awards.