Ghost Net Art Project: Creativity, Community, Environmental Education

In Australia’s far north in the Gulf of Carpentaria, ghost nets (discarded or abandoned fishing nets) are devastating endangered marine life.  Six of the world’s seven marine turtle species swim in these waters and make up 80% of the marine life found caught in the nets (http://www.ghostnets.com.au, 2015).

ghostnetartlogoGhostNets Australia was established in 2004 as a coordinated regional effort to manage discarded fishing nets (ghost nets) along 3000 km of Northern Australian coastline.  With a focus on sustainability, GhostNets Australia trains and employs Indigenous rangers, Saltwater People, from 40 different clan groups, to monitor beaches, rescue marine life, collect and dispose of marine debris and collect research data on the source of nets. With over 90% of the nets sourced from foreign trawl fishing boats, the problem extends beyond Australia’s territory into the Arafura Sea, which lies west of the Pacific Ocean, overlying the continental shelf between Australia and Indonesian New Guinea. GhostNets Australia has been effective in influencing change in government and industry policy with regards to reduction of marine debris and net disposal. Representatives have presented at conferences, participated in voluntary multi-stakeholder groups such as the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, represented the issue of marine debris to government, and been instrumental in creating policy change.

In 2009 the Ghost Net Art Project was born as a creative response to disposal of ghost nets.  Ghost Net Art Project director and artist Sue Ryan has been working with Indigenous communities at workshops, conferences and events, to weave ghost nets into artworks that been exhibited at environmental art events and in galleries Australia-wide, as well as exhibitions in Singapore (current) and Monaco (opening next April).  Dozens of people from various remote Indigenous communities in Cape York, the Torres Strait and the Northern Territory have participated in the project to date, sometimes travelling to events and sharing their art and their stories.  Exhibited artworks have included fish, boats, baskets, birds, bags and brooches. A four metre Southern Right Whale, created during a workshop in Ceduna, will be featured in an exhibition in Monaco opening April 2016. Puppets made out of ghost nets were used for a community puppetry show entitled The Young Man and The Ghost Net on Moa Island, Torres Strait (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnN3t-5nf3g).  Artists from various remote communities supplement their income through the sale of ghost net pieces.

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Photo: Dennis Newie.  Workshop participants at St Paul’s Village on Moa Island.

It is rejuvenating to experience a project that intertwines cultural heritage, art and environmental advocacy to brilliant effect.  The Ghost Net Art Project does just that.  My family and I had the pleasure of weaving fishing nets and flotsam and jetsam into sculptures on the shores of Lake Cootharaba, Queensland, Australia, at the Floating Land environmental art festival.  A plethora of boats and fishes made by local school children and the community comprised the installation which was illuminated at night. While participants wove their art, engaging facilitators told the stories of their communities, their art, and of discarded fishing nets ensnaring marine life along the northern coast of Australia.

Photo: Sue Ryan.  A ghost net workshop and art exhibition were held at the Floating Land Festival.

Photo: Sue Ryan.  A ghost net workshop and art exhibition were held at the Floating Land Festival.

The Ghost Net Art Project has exhibited or participated in programs as diverse as the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, the Melbourne Indigenous Art Festival, Sculpture by the Sea Festivals, Strand Ephemera (environmental art event) in Townsville, the Ideas Festival in Brisbane, and The Long Tide exhibit at the Artisan Gallery in Brisbane, featuring work from artists in many Indigenous communities in Northern Queensland and Torres Strait Islands.  These exhibitions and workshops have drawn the attention of the general public and politicians to the appalling destruction of marine life and pollution of oceans and beaches by ghost nets.  Workshops are invariably accompanied by interpretation material on the impact of ghost nets, as are most exhibitions. Public workshops usually feature artists from remote indigenous communities engaging with members of the general public to collaborate on a project over a period of days.

 

Photo:  Sue Ryan. Collaborative Eastern Long-Necked Turtle sculpture, now in the City of Melbourne collection

Photo:  Sue Ryan. Collaborative Eastern Long-Necked Turtle sculpture, now in the City of Melbourne collection

The project has received very good mainstream media coverage contributing to the dissemination of the message.  Ghost Net Art Project is currently unfunded and operates on a fee-for-service basis.  Initially under the umbrella of GhostNets Australia, the Ghost Net Art Project has been a separate entity since the remote Indigenous community workshop program sponsored by GhostNets Australia ended in 2013.

The Ghost Net Art Project demonstrates the compelling power of projects that weave art, cultural heritage, community participation and storytelling into tools that raise environmental awareness in both the community and at a political level.  The multi-disciplinary collaboration between GhostNets Australia and the Ghost Net Art Project offers a model that may exert pressure on politicians to enable national and international government and industry policy changes to tackle the problem of ghost nets comprehensively in the future.  The Ghost Net Art Project has resulted in a new, now- recognised art form, which is playing a significant role in raising awareness of the growing problem of marine debris.

For more information please contact: Sue Ryan, Ghost Net Art Project, http://www.ghostnets.com.au/ghostnet-art/  sue@ghostnetartproject.com.au

Photo by Sue Ryan. Shekeena Pahimbung easily fits into this basket as it was being made during the first ghost net workshop in Aurukun in 2009.

Photo by Sue Ryan. Shekeena Pahimbung easily fits into this basket as it was being made during the first ghost net workshop in Aurukun in 2009.

 

We encourage you to share your stories about projects that explore the nexus of cultural heritage, community, art, environment and communication for change.  Let’s give each other inspiration for new ways of working together across cultures and disciplines to improve the health of the environment and the people that depend on it.

Kim Morland is an interpretation consultant living in Queensland, Australia. With degrees in education, primary teaching and a Masters in Applied Science, Kim is passionate about developing effective environmental communication, social equity and environmental action strategies.  http://www.interactinterp.com   kim.morland@gmail.com

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