A brilliant, dreamlike mermaid levitates above the floor of the Cairns Old Court House. Its scales are vivid and intricate, woven by hand from an abandoned fishing net – ghost net, as the creators refer to it. Its features are mysterious like the ancient characters of Indigenous Australian folklore. The creators – a team of artists from Aurukun, Queensland – believe that their creation is symbolic of their community’s transformation; it has the power to redefine social perception of Aurukun.
“A lot of bad things have been said about our community,” says Kailang Hudson, one of the lead artists on the project.
“There are a lot of good people in our community who want to move forward and leave all the rubbish things behind. Here, we have made something beautiful out of rubbish, and we are happy and proud to see it on exhibition in Cairns.”
The whole project took 10 months and had five contributing artists. Elizabeth Hunter, the Cape York Employment activity supervisor at the Aurukun Women’s Art Centre, says additional help was sought to ensure the mermaid was completed in time for the 2021 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, or CIAF.
“We had run out of canvas, so we pulled an old ghost net out from beneath the art centre to see what we could create from that. Kailang then began weaving bowls from its strings,” says Elizabeth.
“But when we saw how beautiful and colourful the weaving was, we all agreed that they could be mermaid’s scales instead. Facilitating other artistic methods, like this, is one way Cape York Employment is gradually increasing the momentum of work in the Art Centre.”
The artists titled the mermaid ‘Zeloh’, an acronym of Kailang’s late daughter’s initials. Kailang produced 60% of the mermaid’s scales, an endeavour that often had her weaving until the early hours of the morning.
“I would put my babies to sleep and then get to work, sometimes until 3am. Finding a routine was hard, but I needed to so that I met the deadline for CIAF,” she says.
Inspiring others is one of the main reasons we did this project
Wik peoples – the Indigenous clans that surround Aurukun – traditionally wove using leaves from the pandanus plant, a palm-like tree that grows in the tropics. Kailang says using ghost nets brings cotemporary form to an old practice.
“By using the ghost nets, we are cleaning up the earth and our seas, recycling things, saving marine life from harm and making beautiful out of nothing,” she says.
“We’ve cleaned up all the nets on our beaches, so we are going to ask permission from other communities to start cleaning up their beaches too.”
Elizabeth and Kailang believe that the completion of this project and its exhibition in Cairns will inspire other artists in Aurukun. Elizabeth anticipates that more Aurukun locals will participate in future projects because of the obvious benefits.
“When Zeloh goes online and people in Aurukun see what has been accomplished, when they see the benefit of earning an income from artistry, it will encourage them to do the same. Inspiring others is one of the main reasons we did this project,” she says.
Kailang believes that future projects created by the Aurukun Women’s Art Centre ought to bring about more awareness of the environmental harm wrought by abandoned fishing nets. She proposes that the afflicted marine life should inspire the next creation.
“Maybe we should do a dolphin,” she says.
“Dolphins are a totem of our people, and they die in the nets too.”
Zeloh will be on display at the Cairns Court House Gallery until 27 November 2021.