cultural protocols: acknowledging the knowledge

alick tipoti: torres strait islander artist and dancer

Alick Tipoti, performance, UnDisclosed exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, 2012

Alick Tipoti, performance, UnDisclosed exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, 2012

Alick Tipoti, performance, UnDisclosed exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, 2012


Firstly I greatly acknowledge the Elders of the islands, the Zugubal and the Muruygal of the past for my knowledge comes from them. I give thanks to you all and seek more knowledge. The Muruygal and the Zugubal protect and guide me though my cultural practices in life.

In a culture the native language sits in the centre of it. All practices in life branch off language. The language identifies the true meaning of culture. The Torres Strait Islands have two groups of language: the Kala Lagaw Ya (KLY) of the western islands and the Meriem Mir of the eastern islands. Kala Lagaw Ya has four dialects; Mauyag, Kala Kawaw Ya, Kawrareg, Kulkalgaw Ya. Meriem Mir has two dialects; Mer, Erub.

In terms of cultural protocol I can only speak of my people of the Maluyligal nation of the western group of islands. Cultural protocols keep Torres Strait Island culture in line. They separate the modern from the ancient. They separate the introduced from the original.

Kulay Sabil is the term for ancient cultural protocols or ancient lore. These protocols are strictly followed when it comes to reviving ancient culture through visual art and traditional dance. The Western Islanders of the Torres Strait are known as the Maluyligal, meaning people of the sea. They are people of protocols from the Land to the Sea to the Reefs.

Torres Strait Island lore came from the ancient people known as the Muruygal. The Muruygal would channel and communicate with the Zugubal of the spirit world and return with the knowledge of cultural lore to address the Islanders in the human world.

One must know and understand the ancient language in order to revive ancient practices. One must know how to communicate with the Zugubal who are the spiritual ancestors of the past. Why is this information withheld from the outside world? This brings us to [the notion of] sacredness. Our ancient knowledge and the sacredness that comes with it is what makes us such a powerful culture.

Through my art and dance practice I must always acknowledge my spiritual ancestors if I am to create a painting or a sculpture that will expose a glimpse of totemic markings and/or parts of ancient legends. This is the very first protocol undertaken before the idea is interpreted.

I am blessed to have been guided throughout my art career by some really great cultural leaders. Most of them have passed on but are still guiding me to this day. As a leader of today, it is my role to guide those emerging and to make sure protocols are followed. The only challenge of today is that language is slowly deteriorating and time is always against us as a culture.

One can only utilise technology to help retain and sustain cultural knowledge so that it can be practiced by the future generation. At the very same time we must be aware that without protocols our culture can be exploited and sold.

The creation of Mawa masks, for example, comes with powerful, significant rules that keep their sacredness and please the teachers in the spirit world, who in this case are the Zugubal. Certain Mawa mask performances are not to be exposed to the general public and are only performed at night during certain moons. The Mawa masks are only to be touched and worn by men. Women and children are forbidden to associate themselves with such spiritual beings. Because we associate ourselves with the spirits of the past, there is a great deal of respect for these protocols as we are both students and the future of our ancestors. This is how our culture survives for countless generations. Descriptions of the journey to the other realm through the Mawa masks are exclusively sacred to cultural Torres Strait Islander people.

The masks are beings among us and are greatly respected for their presence. A single touch of the Mawa mask must always be acknowledged in ancient Kala Lagaw Ya language.

A painting or a print hanging on the wall of a museum is just another piece of art. One could almost say it is a dead object; however when accompanied by songs, chants and dance it is brought to life. The true connection of culture is awakened and infused. These practices can only be allowed to and achieved by a person who has great cultural understanding. When certain protocols are not followed, things tend to go wrong during or after performances or in life in general.

Kulay Sabil clashes with the Christian religion that was introduced on July 1, 1871. Many Islanders chose to follow this introduced spiritual practice yet speak out loudly of the deterioration of cultural practices. Many of our practices were forcibly discontinued and forgotten but a few Islanders have chosen to revive the ancient style. Some protocols have been interwoven with outside influences such as the Christian religion. However from a cultural perspective they sit below the original culture. One must not be influenced or manipulated to not practice ancient culture.

If a person does not know and understand their language then they are not qualified to initiate such traditional practices. The most powerful cultural protocols can only be oral and described in our native language. Articulating such protocols in foreign language does not have the power to bring them to life and therefore over time, protocols are forgotten and lost.

Ancient cultural protocols are the key to survival.

Lak mina koeyma eso poeybin inub knulayg ika

Once again I acknowledge the knowledge.

Zugub Alick Tipoti , Maluylig, Lagalayg, Zenadh Kes

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 6

© Alick Tipoti; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2012