Australia has more than 250 different aboriginal tribes with distinct languages and cultures who consider land and animals to be sacred; providing them with food options and culturally significant rituals. The ways in which they represent their culture, traditions and values are through their art (paintings, sculptures, ceramics, wood carvings etc). The Pormpuraaw community has added a new method of representing their totems and culture, that is, by recycling plastic into sculptural works. Through the project, the Pormpuraaw community takes up recycling, creates sculptural works and shows the world the many impacts of plastic waste in oceans.
The coasts of Pormpuraaw County have been affected badly by marine pollution. You will often see birds, or a dugong (an endangered species), or a sea turtle wrapped in the ghost nets. Ghost nets, or plastic fishing nets that have been discarded in the sea by commercial fishers, are responsible for killing more than 200 species of marine animals in Australia. However, instead of being burnt or dumped, the waste net is increasingly being recycled and used for sculptural works by the community’s artists.
The contents and connections of Pormpuraaw’s ghost net art form almost an encyclopedia of the local marine life. Crocodiles figure prominently, as do fish, turtles, jellyfish and sea birds. There is also a playful, almost whimsical quality to their work: amongst their recent creations are a ghost net mermaid, an aeroplane, and a smiling green frog with a long red tongue. According to the art centre’s website, the artists like making large works because children laugh and dogs bark when they see them.
The aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw cleans the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait to protect their land through Caring for Country and Ranger programs. Instead of dumping the collected garbage in garbage compounds, indigenous artists recycle and use these to create sculptural works, representing totems. As the artists are skilled in weaving, the art of weaving plastics sort of came naturally to them. Out of ghost nets, and even copper wire, aluminum offcuts, steel bars, old rope, flotation devices, and worn-out drag nets and cast nets, the artists create marine animals, and plants, such as dugong, crocodiles, sawfish, frogs, and corals. Pormpuraaw Art and Culture Center Coordinator, Paul Jacubowski, said in an interview to The Australian Museum that ghost nets are ‘a real mess; a big ball: it’s got coral and fishing lures wrapped in it; it can take days to pull apart with an angle grinder’. Some other artists raise awareness by creating sawfish out of ghost nets because aawfish is a culturally significant fish traditionally eaten by people when in mourning for deceased close relatives.
In 2014, as part of an acquisition programme funded through the Australian Museum Foundation, the Australian Museum acquired four pieces of Pormpuraaw ghost net sculpture for its Garrigarang: Sea Country exhibition. Over the years, ghost net sculptures have gained the attention of conservationists and artists from around the world such that various magazines such as Crafts Council Issue 294: Back to the Future have featured their artwork. In times of extreme climate change situations, natives are the first communities to feel the threat of nature as they consider themselves closely linked to nature and its adversaries.
It is 2022, and the sculptural works in the form of sea turtles seem to say ‘Reflect, and stop’.
You can check out their work here.