Can art animate children when children animate art? A new film from the Torres Strait shows it can.

Living in Australia’s most isolated indigenous community has its challenges according to Diann Lui, manager of the Erub Erwer Meta community art center on Darnley Island, Torres Strait. These include a limited range of career options for young people who wish to stay on the island. As a long term resident and former principal of the local school, Diann is keen to make sure that the talented local children seriously consider art as one of their career options.

Darnley Island ’s young people have many successful role models. Despite the community’s remote location and small size (only about 300 people live there), it is receiving national and international attention from the art world. Erub Erwer Meta has recently completed major ghost net sculpture commissions for both the Australian Museum and the National Museum of Australia, their work is touring Washington and the Netherlands and the center is marketing its own fashion label (Ailan Pasin). For Diann the challenge is now to build on that success to interest a younger generation in the art center and to make them aware of what can be achieved through art.

One solution has been the production of the Dauma and Garom animated film, the latest chapter in a collaborative project between the Australian Museum and Erub Erwer Meta focusing on ghost net art. In 2013 the Museum commissioned two large ghost net sculptures which tell a local story about a crab (Dauma) and a rock cod (Garom). The two animals from Sekemed Reef near Darnley Island spend so much time gazing at each other under the water that they fall in love and decide to get married. All the local animals come to the wedding celebrations in a “dancing fleet” led by the “boss dancer” the cockroach.

For the Museum the animation project was an opportunity to obtain more interpretative and contextual material for audiences viewing the Dauma and Garom ghost net sculpture now occupying pride of place in the Garrigarang: Sea Country exhibition. For the art center it was an opportunity to engage children in an entirely new way, and to hopefully allow them to develop a range of new skills and interests.

Twenty year 5, 6 and 7 students from the Erub Primary School spent two weeks using stop motion animation and ghost net puppets to bring the story to life. Although they were led by professional animator Johnathon Dawe, the creative inspiration and much of the work came from the children. Students were responsible for producing the initial concept drawings, singing, drumming, and creating sets and sound effects. Children also assisted with weaving the ghost net crab, fish and dancing cockroach models and drawing the other animals in the film. Four girls were selected as the main narrators, with Rebecca Anson as the main narrator and only solo speaker in the film. For the children the animation project has provided an opportunity to learn a range of new skills across the visual and performing arts, photography and computer technology.

Dauma and Garom has been broadcast on regional television and won both the ICTV Best Collaborative Video and the People’s Choice Award at the 16th Telstra National Remote Indigenous Media Festival. While the film is the art center’s first foray into animation it is not likely to be the last. The community is considering the potential of animation to document and preserve the stories of community elders for the future, and as a way of involving a broader cross section of the community in art center projects. For Diann the biggest dividend is that more children are now making a connection with Erub Erwer Meta now “they’ve seen what can be done”. She also likes the way the children now all say hello when they are walking to school.

Dauma and Garom the animation can be seen, along with the spectacular ghost net sculpture of the same name, in the Garrigrarang: Sea Country exhibition now on at the Australian Museum.

The project was generously supported by the Australian Museum Foundation and the Torres Strait Regional Authority.