A History, in objects

Captain James Cook landed on the east coast of Australia in 1770. The landmass he alighted on was larger than the continent of Europe. For the next more than one hundred years, the British would rule the land as a series of colonies, which would eventually join together to become modern-day Australia in 1901. But the country’s history goes back much further than Great Britain’s involvement.

People are believed to have lived in Australia for between around 40,000–60,000 years. The first people to arrive were the Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. They came by boat from nearby islands that are now known as Indonesia.

Each Aboriginal group settled in a different area of the country and had its own languages, laws and traditions. They lived in diverse environments ranging from lush rainforest and desert-like landscapes to inland rivers, islands and seas.

They lived off fishing and hunting, and invented tools like the boomerang. However they never farmed. Their religion is known as the Dreaming, and art and music was important to them.

The cultural habits of Australian Aborigines are examined in a new show at the British Museum, The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. It is the first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia through objects, and includes artwork made up to the present day.

The first section of the exhibition includes many objects from the Torres Strait Islands. These small islands lie in the Torres Strait, the waterway separating Australia’s Cape York Peninsula in the far north with the island of New Guinea.

The indigenous people from the islands, Torres Strait Islanders, are normally referred to separately to the rest of Australian Aboriginals. Culturally and genetically, they are part of the Melanesian people, along with the people of Papua New Guinea.

Two spectacular masks in the exhibition come from the Torres Strait Islands. These turtle-shell masks would have been used in ceremonies before the arrival of Christian missionaries. The most stunning of the two masks features goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, as well as turtle shell, and is shaped into a human face and a bonito fish. Please continue reading this article in the  July/August issue of The Kurios.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is on at The British Museum, London, until 2nd August 2015.

Photo: Kungkarangkalpa; Kunmanara Hogan, TjaruwaWoods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington (2013) © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.