Erub Arts in Torres Strait dispatches DIY ghost net kits far and wide after exhibitions cancelled due to COVID-19

A Torres Strait art centre, internationally renowned for its sprawling installations using ghost nets, has found itself with a shed full of returned artwork after all its exhibitions were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists based on Erub (also known as Darnley Island), 60 kilometres south of Papua New Guinea, have been repurposing marine debris into sculptures inspired by the sea for more than a decade.

As Erub Arts contemplates how it will survive the pandemic, it has made DIY kits for people to make their own ghost net creations at home.

Artistic director Lynnette Griffiths said the kits sold out in half a day and have been dispatched across Australia and overseas.

“The response was just massive,” she said.

“We’ve been collecting names for a waiting list and we’ve got over 200 on that list.

Women from Erub Arts sort nets and ropes for the ‘At Home Together’ kits.(Supplied: Erub Arts)

Beauty from something deadly

The kits contain an assortment of fishing nets and ropes recovered from the ocean and beaches around Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

They include debris from a clean-up at Chilli Beach by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation and an Indonesian drift net that was picked up by the Australian Navy off Darwin.

The kits contain instructions for making sea creatures — rays, turtles and fish — as well as a weaving technique.

“It is about working together and the fact we can make something beautiful out of something that’s pretty deadly is awe-inspiring,” Ms Griffiths said.

“Hopefully then we can exhibit that work as a big collaboration.”

A fish, turtle and stingray made nets on top of a pile of assorted ropes.
People can make ghost net critters for pleasure or send some back to Erub Arts for a collaborative art piece.(Supplied: Erub Arts)

The foundation carefully sorts and disposes of rubbish from its beach clean-ups, but sells some of the debris collected from remote locations.

Managing director, Heidi Taylor, said it was great pollution could be put to good use and have a new life.

“Artists might buy a bag of toothbrushes or a bag of ghost net or net scraps that we’ve picked up at a beach.

“And they turn them into beautiful art pieces to spread that message and reach another audience about marine debris and its impacts.”

‘I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to recover’

Erub Arts said the kits were a way to connect with the community and continue raising awareness about pollution at a time when the arts sector was in crisis.

“Having those large installations — they’re big, they’re showy, they’re flashy — and they are collected by big institutions.

“When you wipe that off, our method of selling is gone.”

Lots of Torres Strait Islanders in front of a wharf carrying large sea creatures made of ghost nets
The arts centre is an important economic and cultural asset for the Erub community.(Supplied: Erub Arts)

Ms Griffiths said art organisations everywhere were scrambling to figure out how to take their offerings online, but it was particularly challenging for Erub Arts.

“Art is something you have to look at, ghost net is something you almost want to touch — it is tactile. I don’t think you get the same response to it online,” she said.

“At the moment we’ve got a shed full of returned work and getting that back out and back into circulation is going to take a massive amount of work.”

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