Ghost Net Artists of Pormpuraaw
Every day in the remote indigenous community of Pormpuraaw, located on the western coast of Cape York Peninsula in remote northern Australia, plastic fishing nets known as “ghost nets” wash up on shore – some reaching several kilometres in length. The ghost nets not only dirty the pristine tropical environment; they also kill sea-life and birds, entrapping everything from dolphins and turtles to crocodiles. More than just a food sources, many fish and sea animals have great totemic significance to the local Aboriginal people, who have watched many species disappear over recent decades. In an attempt to combat the problem the community has come up with a solution: they patrol the beaches, clearing up the nets, and use them to create vast sculptures of sea life, with their unique recycled art now attracting interest globally.
Shut off during the long wet season, Pormpuraaw is only accessible for six months of the year via commercial flights. It is home to both the Thaayorre or ‘saltwater’ people and the Wik or ‘freshwater’ people, and was established as an Anglican mission in the mid 20th century, when indigenous tribes were forcibly resettled after first contact in 1938. Today the population numbers just 600 people. Facilities are scarce and opportunities scarcer: English is often a fourth or fifth language, there is no high school, electricity is supplied via a generator, and (expensive) fresh vegetables are transported by plane. Ghost net art is providing a source of income for the community, helping promote the importance of maintaining cultural traditions and language, as well as raising awareness of marine pollution, climate change and unsustainable commercial fishing practices.
This year Sid Bruce Shortjoe, Elder, Artist and President of the Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Centre, will speak at The United Nations Defending the World’s Oceans event in New York, on the challenges facing his people.