The Torres Strait 8: A Sacred Fight

Led by Yessie Mosby, the Torres Strait 8 present a powerful hybrid art-as-protest work that signals the political presence of Torres Strait Islands communities. Faced with the threat of becoming the first climate refugees in this country, the group engage the failures of the Australian Government in a sacred and almighty fight.

For over sixty thousand years, Torres Strait Islanders have maintained ongoing connections to their lands, seas, skies, and culture. However, without immediate action, this will soon change. As greenhouse gas emissions accelerate global warming, Torres Strait Islanders find themselves on the frontline of rising sea levels, flooding, unpredictable winds, and coastal erosion, to name but a few of the devastating effects. In response to the worsening climate crisis, “Our Islands, Our Home” was formed by Torres Strait Islanders who demanded the Australian Government take immediate action so that they may remain on their island homes. As part of this campaign – supported by 350.org Australia – eight claimants from Zenadth Kes (the Torres Strait), known as the Torres Strait 8, took the Australian Government to the Human Rights Committee (HRC) of the United Nations for its neglect. In September 2022, the group made international legal history when the HRC found that the Australian Government was violating the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to protect them from climate change. 

Led by Kulkalgal Traditional Owner of Masig Island, Yessie Mosby, the Torres Strait 8 comprises claimants Daniel Billy (Warraber), Kabay Tamu (Warraber), Ted Billy (Warraber), Keith Pabai (Boigu), Stanley Marama (Boigu), Nazareth Warria (Masig), and Nazareth Fauid (Poruma). Together, they represent a collective bulwark against the climate failures of the Australian Government, and signal the political presence of Torres Strait Islanders who refuse, as Mosby fears, the reality of becoming “the first climate refugees in this country.” 

Co-commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney and the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), the Torres Strait 8 anchor a powerful hybrid art-as-protest work as part of the current IMA exhibition Maluw Adhil Urngu Padanu Mamuy Moesik (Legends from the deep sitting peacefully on the waters) – Selected works from the 23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus, 2023. Incorporating “Our Islands, Our Home” campaign posters with four totemic poles carved by Mosby, the group’s centrality in this exhibition not only  amplifies the activism of their island communities, but prompts audiences to consider their responsibilities to the natural world in an epoch of ecological collapse. 

Taking the name of the IMA’s exhibition, Mosby’s four totemic poles tower against a backdrop of protest posters designed by Dylan Mooney (Yuwi/Meriam/South Sea Islander) and Jaelyn Biumaiwai (Mununjali/Fijian). Carved from driftwood found on Masig Island, Mosby’s poles exert the ancestral might of sagor (ceremonial poles) and demarcate the greater exhibition space. He states that “these are powerful poles: you enter [beyond] this pole, you enter sacred ground.” Although Mosby’s poles communicate the threat of climate change and the potential losses faced (of land, lore, cultural practices, and even familial remains), they too signal his utmost refusal in allowing this reality to materialise. They portend inasmuch as they protect. Of the four poles, two are simple cylindrical carvings that feature, as Mosby explains, totemic representations of Malo (octopus), Sigai (hammerhead shark), Sau (tiger shark) and Pokai (jumping ray): the four shapeshifting God-brothers revered in the age before Christianity. As the apical ancestors of the Torres Strait, the four God-brothers created time, the seasons, and established law, ceremony, and ritual. Connected by a similar piety, Mosby’s two other poles are complex carvings of Zogo Mabaig (priests). Each of these poles comprise two Zogo Mabaig, one placed atop the other, all adorned in ceremonial regalia and scored by tribal designs. Mosby remarks that these priestly figures “have powers our people used to fear . . . they’re very strong and conduct sacred rituals which connect us to the land, sea, and sky.” Embodying the word of their four deep-sea Gods – and, too, the protests of their peoples – Mosby’s Zogo Mabaig confront the climate failures of the Australian Government.

According to Mosby, the Torres Strait 8, like Zogo Mabaig, are “priests fighting to save something sacred.” As priests, perhaps it’s fitting that their embodied word be apprehended as activist hymns, as crusading canticles that fortify their Island homes against a future of environmental catastrophe. Understanding them as priests, might the Australian Government not then genuflect at the pulpit of their sacred call to action? Should the government not then consider that, while Indigenous peoples globally contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, they are the ones most affected by its devastation? It is in purview of this reality that the Torres Strait 8 draw a most uncompromising line in their sand. And it is through art that they have set the limits of what they are not willing to accept: theirs is  a catechism of climate demands signed with a closed fist. To name this fight – this “sacred fight,” Mosby so terms – is to name climate change: clearly, without apology, as an act of solidarity with Indigenous peoples worldwide. And while all is not yet lost, this fight has only just begun. This is a fight that Torres Strait Islanders refuse to lose.    

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62, 2023.
Images courtesy the artists and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Maluw Adhil Urngu Padanu Mamuy Moesik (Legends from the deep sitting peacefully on the waters) – Selected works from the 23rd Biennale of Sydney: rīvus
28 January – 29 April 2023
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

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