Torres Strait artist Ken Thaiday has become well known for building dance machines and headdresses with complex moving parts that can move in time with a dance’s choreography.

Artist Ken Thaiday
Artist Ken Thaiday and his Triple Beizam Hammerhead Shark Headdress Image: Scott Mitchell
© Australian Museum

Ken’s sculpture Triple Beizam Hammerhead Shark Headdress was recently purchased by the Museum and is on display in Garrigarang: Sea Country exhibition. While filming a dance sequence for the new exhibition, Ken spoke to me about the sculpture.

SM Ken could you start by telling us who you are and where you are from. Tell us what the name of your piece is.

KT First of all I’d like to introduce myself, my name’s Ken Thaiday, I’m from Darnley Island. I live in Cairns. And what you see in front of you that’s what I do. I do beautiful sculpture, I make shark headdress. I’ve been doing this for many, many years… this thing is called Triple Beizam Hammerhead Shark Headdress. And this is one of my totems. I used to hunt for this shark. But I don’t think I’m going to do it any more, because its so special.

SM Why do you use the shark in your work, what’s important about the hammerhead?

KT Before I start argument with the shark…[As a boy]… every time I went to go down fishing I saw many different shark, well sometimes I was on the reef [striking them] with a club and I thought it’s a beautiful fish.

KT Well I didn’t know it was my totem. And I look my family history, this is the one. My totem. I found this through my grandfather. He tell us about this. Not only shark, a few of the things like the Torres Strait pigeon, the frigate bird. So when you see all different families, eastern island, western island, some of them got different totem altogether. This is ours. Shark. Frigate bird. Torres Strait pigeon. Our family we own the totem.

KT As we grew up, sometimes you know we killed the bird or killed this (the shark), our parents said to us, that’s your totem, you gotta look after your totem, don’t kill it. Because I didn’t know the first time. After when I find out I go oh man this is a risk, I wont touch it. This is mine I gotta look after it. And that’s why I love it, my shark, I don’t want to do any more things to it. You know, cut the fin, for the Chinese people to use. I said to my friend the buyer you’ll have to look for somebody else to do that, not for me, I’m finished, I won’t touch it any more. I like to look after it. I like to draw or make a sculpture like this, for the world to see what I do.

SM Ken Can you tell us why there are three hammerhead sharks in this headdress?

KT Because they come in big schools the shark, not only three, maybe half a dozen, maybe eight. When you see them, they go to deep water, they come back, maybe only two or three work in shallow water. That’s how you find them like the shallow water. And you know hammerhead shark when you see the long tail, because of the way the tail goes. They love mullet, they eat a lot of stingray. That’s what they feed on.

SM Ken tell us about the other parts of the work, tell us about the other things that are in this sculpture.

KT So what you’ve got in front of me, this one here represents the water, [points at the blue “fans” at the base of the sculpture]….Feathers, they represent the baitfish. The white, they represent the way that the shark come up to get fish. The water, underneath when they get the fish, that’s all the glass here under water. [Red feathers represent when the shark] gets the fish and rip the fish apart, with his forehead and that’s when you see the blood. That’s how they do it.

KT Killing, shark killing, not like human people do. They don’t waste no time. You there in the open in the wrong time, bye bye. Its mighty, watch yourself. I warn a lot of people when they go fishing, be careful. Because I know I fished for them and I understand.

KT Look at the bamboo, the shark is camouflaged three times in the water. Brown, grey and blue. When they go in the water and turn the colour to blue …well you’ll see they come up the next point of the reef, colour changing again. You see them like they come in brown, grey, that colour. That’s one good thing about the shark. The front, all these two feathers, the same thing they represent the speed of the wind, the wind blow. Centre feather of the shark. When they come up, you watch them they come up like this [blows], they’re very powerful.

SM I know you’ve been making sculptures that move for a long time, why do you like to make sculptures that move?

KT Well I like to make this move because when I first started to do the artwork the Lord showed me a great thing, you have to do something different to what other people do. I want to do something different from other artists. I love to do painting but there’s a lot of people do painting.

KT Nobody make mobile as I do, moving. I’m the only one do it. That’s real good and that’s how I enjoy it more, more I create different things. Comes straight to me what I’m gonna do to make it move. All my work makes me involved in moving. It’s like doing engineering of different things. I can make things move from the head, to the toe, by pulling the string, it’s a magic. To see things move, fantastic.

SM Ken is dancing an important part of your culture?

KT yes dancing is very important to me because, I’ve seen dance since I was a little feller. My father was a choreographer. He was a master dancer you know. Darnley Island he teach everyone. And when I talk about dancing here I get my dancing boots, I get my guitar, I play music, I sing the song. They can have it at the art center because they were taught by my father. Today, I get the guitar and sing everyone get up and dance in no time.

SM Ken Is this sculpture a piece you dance with?

KT Yes, you can dance with this one but its too big. I like to make a little one for you to dance. This is just to sit in the gallery of the museum display.

SM But it’s based on a dance mask?

KT Based on dance mask. But before masks not like this, different altogether. What they do is a round curve with the wood, then fix another wood across and they bite the wood

SM Is there anything you’d like to say to people in Sydney who are looking at your artwork?

KT When they stand and look at my artwork. You are in a room like this, its me. This is the way I do it, I share my culture with everyone, I don’t care where you come from, blue, green, brindle, you are my friend, you are my brother my sister, I love you all. God bless you.

This blog represents an edited transcript of a conversation between Ken Thaiday and Scott Mitchell in Cairns, August 2014. The acquisition of Triple Beizam Hammerhead Shark Headdress was funded by the Australian Museum Foundation through the Patricia Porritt Bequest.