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Janet Fieldhouse January 2005

Janet Fieldhouse was awarded the ANU Research Centre for Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) EASS Award 2004. This is an excerpt from her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) research report.


The work references my Torres Strait culture. My parents are my inspiration for the colours I have chosen, my father is white and my mother is dark. The concept behind my use of the colours of black and white for the forms refers to my white father and dark mother. Contemporary indigenous artists use the materials, wire, glass, fiber, and etcetera today. I have used these materials to describe and repeat the old way of making artifacts, in a contemporary way.

Every piece is a reflection of the old artifacts using modern materials and how far I can manipulate these materials. I have been exploring with different materials like copper wire, raffia, natural fiber and other materials, and using these within the pieces. In using wire, I was experimenting with weaving techniques. By combining ceramic objects and non-ceramic materials, I am reflecting on today's society, which has adopted these new materials to form new ways of making cultural artifacts and art practice. I also used materials that have been collected in the late 1950's to the early 1960's from my father Philip and my uncle Michael. These materials were collected while pearl diving and from turtle hunting.

In the first canoe forms I was looking at totems that are used still on the islands. These forms were press moulded with carved animals. My ancestors believed that spirits and gods could manifest into forms of birds, reptiles, sea creatures and other animals. On an Island, each family has it's own totem. The totems are a way of identifying which family comes from which island.

Within the canoe forms, I placed my own contemporary artifacts. Each of the objects I have made or collected for placing in the canoes has its' own meaning and significance. The totem signs described above are one of the objects I am using, but not the only one. I have also woven through the forms using layer over layer of modern materials such as wire and thread, and placed objects which reflect aspects of the daily lives of the islands. (See Fig 29 for wire weaving). The hand built canoe forms are also about containment and placing of artifacts. The objects placed inside the contemporary canoe forms are expressions of how I feel and see these artifacts. Since there is no way of looking at the real objects, I have been using photos and drawings, and considering what the real artifacts must have been made from and how they used the objects. This is my reference to the precious objects that were taken from the Islands, now hidden and contained in European museums.

Where I have placed objects used in daily life or objects reflecting directly spiritual culture, especially the charms and totem signs, the placing in the boat forms has a different meaning. Here the placing of objects reflects the carrying of aspects of our culture to the next generation. The canoes become the holding vessels for spiritual and material culture.

I chose the canoe form because canoes have always been an important part of life for Torres Strait Islanders. They are the means of harvesting sea resources, and communicating with neighboring Islands. The canoes were steered with paddles and the sails were made of woven mats. The canoe was used to maintain the vital trade link with the islands and New Guinea as well as Australia. The canoes were 3.5 meters to 5 meters long; the longest was made up to 20 meters long and was cut from softwood logs from the Fly River delta of New Guinea. Boats remain important in the Torres Strait but have been modernized "Some of the canoes today have outboards to travel faster. The Torres Strait Islanders however, now use small dinghies and motors". The canoe forms I make are a strong expression of the traditional canoe forms. All the vessels are an expression of my heritage. I know when I make my work, my culture will continue to grow for the next generation.



The family tree is the life of one's culture.
My great grandmother Lilly had a totem, the reef shark. She lived on Mer Island and married my great grandfather Charles, who was European. They had four children, one of whom was my grandfather Thomas who was born on Badu Island. He married my grandmother Isabella, who was born on Hammond Island, and may have had a totem as well. Totems are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter (following the female line) and from father to son (the male line). My grandparents had eight children, my mother Elizabeth being the youngest. Mum married my father Philip, they had six children and I am the second youngest.

I grew up in two cultural backgrounds, Torres Strait and European. My mother is Torres Strait, born on mainland Australia and visiting the islands regularly. My European father was born on mainland Australia, but grew up in the Torres Strait Islands from the age of 12.

I am one of five siblings, born on mainland Australia, but with strong bloodlines to the Islands through cultural gatherings with my extended family. This is how our culture and traditions are passed from generation to generation. We were taught to understand the protocol of right and wrong. I grew up to understand that men are the ones that do the hunting and gathering for a ceremonial feast, they kill the turtle and dugong. Traditionally, the women are the ones who do the housework and cooking and bring up the children.

I was asked whether I feel have ownership of the objects collected by Haddon. It is hard to say, as it would be hard to trace my great grandmother's real name and family name, as they were not required to register "birth and death". Also my great grandmother's language is now forgotten. It now seems almost impossible to decide if any of the Haddon objects are related directly to my family. However I feel the importance of the Haddon Collection for Torres Strait people, as Ephraim Bani said, "leaving your footprints and that is the knowledge and the meaning imbedded within, so you can retrace back and it will give you identity and reclaim and reawaken your culture". The Haddon Collection is part of our cultural heritage.

In 1992 I heard of the Haddon Collection. I was one of many Torres Strait Islanders who were trying to have the collection come to Australia for exhibition. The answer from the museum was that we had to have the right facilities for the objects to be stored and at that the time we did not. The first time the collection was exhibited in Australia 60 objects were released to the National Museum and then to the Regional Gallery in Cairns.

"The collection provided the opportunity for Torres Strait Islander people, and the broader Australian public, to view a selection of rich and vibrant cultural materials from the Haddon collection. A significant and historic event, this exhibition provides an accessible and important link with the past for many Torres Strait Islander people."

As an Islander person it is a link to my past, which I have not really known before. It is sad that the methods used to make the objects are unknown to us today. Torres Strait Islander people today have adapted to modern materials, I am one of many that uses modern materials in my art. Like many others, I wish I could have learnt the old techniques, but our today is another stage in Torres Strait art and culture with new materials and influences. I have referenced some of the other Torres Strait Island artists who have approached our artistic cultural heritage in a similar way, adapting and combining it with aspects of our modern culture.