You will have to have been stranded on a remote desert island over the past couple of years not to be aware of the danger to our planet and to our wildlife of plastic pollution. TV programmes such as Blue Planet have regaled us with shocking images of how plastic is choking the life out of sea creatures, and the food industry is almost falling over itself now to reduce plastic bags and packaging to help reduce our dependence on the material.
Yet it’s people living on small islands who are directly affected by one of the most serious problems of ocean pollution – that of ghost nets. An estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets and other gear are lost in our planet’s oceans each year, trapping marine life and removing fish from the food chain. In indigenous communities, bits of netting have long been used as fencing or for verandahs that they decorate with shells and other ornamentation.
Now, thanks to campaigning groups like GhostNets Australia, segments of these nets are being featured in art galleries, spreading the message of the havoc that ghost nets can wreak on our world. The latest example of this is currently on show at the JGM Gallery in London.
Caught in the Net features artwork from Erub, one of 274 small islands in the Torres Strait just off the north coast of Australia at the tip of the Barrier Reef. A group of artists there are in the forefront of bringing the message of ghost net pollution to the world. They have already exhibited in Europe and Asia. The gallery will make a donation to the charity Blue (Blue Marine Foundation) from the proceeds of the exhibition sales.
The Torres Straits have a huge tidal flow which creates a big whirlpool along the straits and into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Indonesian fishermen are the biggest culprits here for ghost nets. Fishing, often illegally, with gillnets which can stretch up to 18 miles wide between ships, is notorious for the damage to marine life it causes. What’s more, these high-quality nets can take decades to break down, and even when they do they remain as micro-plastics. The Australian navy recently picked up an 8-ton haul. It used to dispose of them, but now donates them to indigenous arts groups like those on Erub.
In a brilliant concept, the Erub artists and others have re-contextualised these discarded nets as artistic material supplemented with traditional and modern techniques of rope-making. In the middle of the gallery lies Nathakine Animol, a mythological creature rendered into a skeleton in a collaborative effort with clever use of rope, that appears to have been starved to death by the net engulfing its head.
Above, suspended from the gallery ceiling, fly Frigate birds with wings and tail constructed from pieces of ghost netting. Creator Jimmy John Thaiday tells me that the birds are known in the area for being like weather forecasters. “When they fly really high you know there’ll be a big wind coming. When they’re low you’ll know calm weather will come along.”
As with all the Erub artists, Jimmy John Thaiday’s artwork expresses his identity and culture, one that’s very much from the sea, the sky and island life. He has also made other sea creatures for the exhibition. Kus ek Weida, for example, shows the death of a turtle, throttled by a net. Yet from its carcass springs the leaves of a coconut, offering us a symbol of hope. His namesake, Jimmy Kenny Thaiday is responsible for the shark, Koki, in the top shot. It’s not just a symbol – sharks often become ensnared in discarded fishing nets, disturbing the ecosystem.
Bleached is another collaborative effort in which bright threads become entangled in netting which adds climate change and the effect it is having on the coral reefs into the equation. Many of these islands are highly vulnerable to a rise in sea levels. Thanks to sponsorship, all the artists featured are touring with the show. Two of them are non-indigenous. Marion Gaemers and Lynette Griffiths have been working with Erub Arts for decades and participate in regular workshops. Gaemers is a weaver and basket-maker whose brightly coloured threads give a vibrancy to her pieces in contrast to the dark message conveyed by the exhibition’s theme.
Lynette Griffiths, who is artistic director of the group, has created the installation Sardines XIII in which a section of a gillnet has entrapped more than a thousand of these small fish. She has used parts of the gillnet too for the eyes, gills and tails, while the bodies are formed from unravelled rope that has been de-constructed and re-matted. She is aware that stopping illegal gillnet fishing is not a simple problem just as attempts to prevent opium and coca plant growing in other parts of the world have proved impossible. Nevertheless, she told me what this exhibition hoped to achieve.
“We’re not saving the world, we’re not saving the oceans. But we are about making statements about the hope for the ocean and the re-management of the fishing industry and fishery management in different countries… everybody is connected by the ocean, indigenous and non-indigenous and all sorts of people are working together to solve these problems and I think that’s our big message.”
Caught in the Net is showing at the JGM Gallery, 24 Howie Street, London SW11 4AY until 17 August 2019.
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.