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Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
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On display on Level 1


Kala Lagaw Ya people

Australia 1932 /1936 – 2009

WWII Fighter Plane 1996 Description: Grey headdress with white strip at front, and red and white Union Jack on both sides. Grey fighter plane, white propeller, red and white teeth motif, white "F2", red circle with white inside. On tail - red/white union jack with white southern cross, red/white/grey stripes. On each wing - red/white circles on top and bottom of each wing. String running from tail to mid plane
Place made: Waiben (Thursday Island), Torres Strait Islands, Queensland, Australia
Materials & Technique: sculptures, beach hibiscus, enamel and decorative elements

Dimensions: 60.0 h x 60.0 w x 39.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1996
Accession No: NGA 96.1097

Eseli‘s contemporary dance regalia is informed by a knowledge of traditional practices and the experience of change and adaptation of Islander people. Construction of items for dance performance is specific to Torres Strait Islander arts practice. Like Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders have a history of adapting to and accommodating imposed change. Eseli is no exception: his work reflects ingenuity and innovation in adapting to new resources.

Eseli’s various aeroplane headdresses document the influences on Torres Strait Island life during and since World War II.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Torres Strait Islanders played an integral role in the defence of Australia’s far north during World War II. Local interaction with the Armed Services heavily influenced Torres Strait culture, people and histories and to this day storytelling, dance and sculpture reflect these influences. James Eseli, a senior Kala Lagaw Ya elder, was renowned for his choreography of the aeroplane dance and for making these headdresses.

Despite living a traditional lifestyle, the war made an impression on a young Eseli. This replica plane, perhaps modelled on a P-40 Kittyhawk (the main fighter plane used by the Royal Australian Air Force during the war), is transformed into a headdress worn only by men who dance in the typical battle V formations, replicating the flight of Allied American and British planes over the Torres Strait. A steady drumbeat accompanies deliberate, methodical movements that allow the dancer to move in and out of the flight patterns while making steady movements with their heads as they look left and right to check their lines. The combination of traditional Torres Strait Islander music, clothing and European-style headdress make for a mesmerising and exciting performance retelling the battles in the sky.

The aeroplane dance is a common theme throughout the north of Australia in many Indigenous communities, each with their local flavour and adaptations to match their histories.

Tina Baum

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010