Reviewed by Ian Lipke
People find any number of ways to release meaning from within artifacts that are held to conceal secrets. Not least among these have been the turtle shell masks that were at one time found in their hundreds on the beaches of the islands of the Torres Strait. For many years traders displayed them as curiosities, while museums traded them as pieces of art. Now, an author, savvier than the rest, has managed to combine the hidden stories, link them to their Islander meaning and purpose, thereby creating the past. “Masked Histories advances a vivid new history, uncovering the profound importance of the turtle shell masks to all Islanders and revealing much about the people who created them” (Book Cover).
Who has opened this whole new world? Historian and curator and teacher of Indigenous histories at the University of Technology in Sydney, Leah Lui-Chivizhe is the writer of a new hard cover book called, in full, Masked Histories; turtle shell masks and the Torres Strait Islander people. Dr Gaye Sculthorpe of the British Museum explains that authorities on the masks witnessed the objects taken in colonial times in various museums. She explained the individual history of each collection while at the same time interpreting the ongoing connections between the masks and the Torres Strait Islanders. “These works are more than outstanding works of art. They embody ancient wisdom and knowledge still used by Islanders today’ (Sculthorpe cited in Lui-Chivizhe, Frontispiece).
While the book is predominantly about masks made from the carapace of turtles in the Torres Strait, it also reports on the cultural history that remained in undiluted form as the Islanders were colonised. Chapter 1 explores the ubiquity and value in the lives of Islanders of marine turtles. Chapter 2 highlights the arrival of Europeans and tells of the influence they wielded on the local inhabitants. Chapter 3, 4 and 5 tell the story of the lives and the removal of six masks. These chapters form the crux of the masks’ story. Chapter 6 reflects on how the turtle mask shells of old have inspired new artists to produce exceptional works in turtle shell and other materials. Finally, an epilogue appears. Its purpose is to report on some of the masks known by the author and discusses the role of turtles in mediating Islanders’ physical and spiritual engagements with the differing forms of environments experienced in tropical waters.
One of the great strengths of this publication lies in its breaking away from formal speech into storytelling, stories that charm while instructing. One such story appears on page 21 in the charming tale of Marwer. Later comes a description of harpooning with a heavy instrument and the different conditions met during Surlal.
A technique exists which allows the author to tell a little anecdote when she is, in fact, communicating the facts of a story. Lui-Chivizhe demonstrates her power over this technique when she introduces her chapter Warup Au Nur – the Echo of Ancestors:
When Ricardo Idagi finished securing the last piece of turtle shell to his beizam (shark) mask, he carried it to the beach.
And so the story continues.
This is an interesting book that, because of its novelty and its intrinsic interest, most readers will find very satisfactory indeed. A fresh, vigorous book.
By Leah Lui-Chivizhe
Melbourne University Press
$39.99; 241 pp