17 Sep 19

Black Bamboo: Contemporary Furniture Design from Mer, Torres Strait


Mer, or Murray Island, is in the Eastern Torres Strait, and its fertile oceans mark the beginning of the Great Barrier Reef, known in Meriam Mir language as Opnor. Fewer than 500 people live on the small volcanic island, which is home to an extraordinary abundance of plants and animals. Turtles lay eggs on the sandy beaches, sardines form massive shoals along the shoreline, and a wide variety of fish and birds come and go marking the change of the seasons.

A native species of bamboo that the locals call marep grows on the island. Marep, or black bamboo as it is known in English, grows prolifically across the island. Over the years the locals have mastered their use of it to create sophisticated everyday objects and most recently contemporary bamboo furniture of cultural significance.

In February 2019, Aven Noah, a respected Meriam community leader, invited National Gallery of Victoria curators to visit Mer and support their collective of eighteen artists and designers, affectionately known as Marep Pamle, or bamboo family, to create a collection of modern furniture design. On this invitation, the NGV, in collaboration with Cairns Art Gallery and Gab Titui Cultural Centre, convened a three-week design workshop with the aim of having the artists design and create bamboo seating, cabinets and cushions with the support of Melbourne-based furniture designer and craftsman Damien Wright. Noah explains:

[It was] about making bamboo come alive, and not seeing it just as a plant, but as something you can [use to design contemporary furniture]. The project … was for the love of the bamboo.1Conversation between Aven Noah and the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.

To prepare for the workshop the local artists harvested and prepared hundreds of bamboo poles and bound them into a raft. The raft was then set on concrete blocks and left to soak in saltwater for several months, ensuring that each pole was cleansed and free from insect infestation.

During the three weeks on Mer, the artists and designers worked in groups. Women and men, young and old, from each of the eight different tribes on the island brought their unique skill set and knowledge of materials. They conceived of design ideas for the creation of four bamboo cabinets. The development of each construction was informed by fundamental principles of Western design, such as form versus function, symmetry and balance, and tessellation of pattern, as well as by distinct Meriam epistemologies, such as, intertribal respect, the importance of culture and spirit, sustainability, and caring for the environment.

As a group, the four cabinets form a cohesive collection inspired by traditional dance masks. Individually, each cabinet illustrates specific elements – feathers, scales, animals and birds – from the natural environment. The front of each cabinet is a ‘face’, elevated and covered with an elongated mask; the designs on each face are drawn from traditional typologies and symbols, which through the design process, in collaboration with Damien Wright, were interpreted into a contemporary aesthetic.

The community refer to the cabinets as ‘ambassadors’; beings, more living than still. Each work is instilled with a special duty to tell the world a story about Mer. The cabinets, mounted on tall anthropomorphic legs, exude energy and life. The furniture is effortlessly cohesive, the designs guided by the Meriam principle of ‘unity among individuality’. Damien Wright describes the collaboration with Marep Pamle:

What, how and why we made each scale or feather or sucker or bird was a constant evolving conversation about place, history, practice, craft, technique, design and life. It was a conversation across cultures, often held in silence. A conversation of the head, the heart and the hand. It was a design methodology that lent heavily on our respective craft traditions.2Interview with Damien Wright by the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.

As well as the four cabinets, the artists and designers developed two customary bamboo seats adorned with more than fifty soft cushions made from upcycled, refuse hessian bags. The two seats, Sik Utem (day bed), 2019, and Amrir Bau (sitting chair), 2019, are the result of graphic painting, intricate weaving and utilitarian design. Both the seats and the cabinets combine old ways of being in and of place, with contemporary design aesthetics.

During the workshop some of the Meriam artists spoke of the different ways people used bamboo in ‘old days’. Until relatively recently, bamboo had been used as a primary material for Akur Meta, a type of bamboo shelter with an open-air kitchen, as well as to make items such as the Weris (sardine scoop), Lugup (dancing ornament) and Baur (fishing spears).

The internal form of each bamboo pole is constructed of hollow sections, one or two feet long. Each segment is joined to the next by a solid knuckle, known to Westerners as a node, and in Meriam Mir as a kok. Without the solid integrity of each kok, the bamboo pole would snap. With each kok the pole becomes incrementally stronger; a perfect metaphor for the co-design process: one person alone cannot support the weight of a project such as this, and it is only by working together that the pole can grow tall. Noah describes the significance of the collaboration:

This project has given bamboo life and our people will see … that … [bamboo] has a special place culturally and traditionally [in our community] … The bamboo [provides] an opportunity for [our] craftsmen and women to elevate and to produce [works of art].3Conversation between Aven Noah and the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.

In Western design, there can be a tendency to privilege individual sparks of genius and successful design is often categorised by the individual’s contribution. In today’s world, where collaboration is not necessarily a natural state of being, the Meriam way of working demonstrates that there is much to be gained by working respectfully, listening to the knowledge of Elders, and allowing creativity to be guided by Indigenous knowledge principles when creating good and meaningful design.

Notes

1

Conversation between Aven Noah and the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.

2

Interview with Damien Wright by the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.

3

Conversation between Aven Noah and the authors, Mer Island, February 2019.