SINGAPORE: For Torres Strait Islanders such as Florence Mable Gutchen, the sea turtle holds pride of place in their culture.
“When I was small, I looked after a turtle as a pet. Some families also have turtles as their totems. As seafaring people living in saltwater country, they are also our food source,” said the 55-year-old Australian artist.
“Where I come from, they are very important to us. But 80 per cent of turtles are being caught in these ghost nets, which are really becoming a menace. We feel sad because if this continues, there will be none left,” she warned.
The adverse effects on marine wildlife by these so-called “ghost nets” — or fishing nets that have been lost or abandoned by fishermen — is the focus of a new exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), one of two new shows in Singapore that are currently looking at endangered animals.
GHOST NETS PROTOCOL
Titled Ghost Nets Of The Ocean, the show runs from Jun 1 to Aug 6, and comprises 80 intricate and colourful sculptures of animals such as sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, jellyfish, and coral. Fittingly enough, all of these are made from ghost nets that threaten their existence.
The ghost nets were collected on beaches by Gutchen and fellow members of Erub Arts, an artist group from Darnely Island, which is located between the northern tip of Australia’s Queensland and Papua New Guinea. The whole endeavour is part of the Ghost Net Art Project initiative that aims to empower local indigenous artists to create art and craft using these recycled, discarded material.
“By making these beautiful pieces of artwork from ghost nets, we are not only promoting our art but getting the message across to people that we don’t want to destroy wildlife. If you look after and respect the sea, the sea will respect and look after you,” said Gutchen.
Ghost nets pose an immediate massive threat to the environment, said Erub Arts’ artistic director Lynnette Griffiths, who holds workshops with the group, together with fellow artist Marion Gaemers.
“The northern part of Australia is a massive hotspot. Most of the nets that wash down are Asian and Indonesian in origin. Some of these nets are kilometres long, and after they’re dropped or abandoned, they get tangled up and start drifting down,” said Griffiths, adding that last year alone, the Australian Navy picked up four tonnes worth of ghost nets off Darwin.
She pointed to a hammerhead shark sculpture on display. “The net used for that one can be from something that’s between five and 10 kilometres long! It’s not the small-time fishermen but the (fishing) industry (that’s at fault). Everyone has supersized everything,” she said.
Since it began in 2009, the Ghost Net Art Project has been warmly received at various venues, and by adults and children alike.
In Singapore, the show also includes the Tiny Turtles Project, an installation at the ACM Lawn comprising 755 small turtle sculptures created by students from various schools in Singapore and Australia.
The ACM exhibition is just the start, said Griffiths, who hopes it will eventually travel. She added that it would be great for groups with similar initiatives to band together. Recently, there was a high-profile publicity campaign done by Greenpeace Philippines, which comprised a beached whale installation made of plastic rubbish.
“There are a lot of people and groups doing isolated things and I think it really needs to be a global movement. We’d love to be involved in that.”
EYEING THE TIGER
While Ghost Nets Of The Ocean focuses on saving marine life, another exhibition looks at the plight of one of the most magnificent predators on land — wild tigers.
Over at Clarke Quay’s fountain square is 3890Tigers. The collaboration between Tiger Beer and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) features the works of six artists, and encourages the use of social media to pledge their support against illegal tiger trade.
The exhibition runs from May 31 to Jun 4, but at the same time, people can go to the campaign website, 3890Tigers.com, to generate selfies based on the artists’ creations.
For UK artist Nick Gentry, who is presenting a portrait made with recycled 3.5-inch floppy disks, it has been a life-changing experience.
Early this month, the 37-year-old went to the Srepok Wildlife Reserve in Cambodia in search of wild tigers. But thanks to poaching, there has been no sighting of tigers for the past decade. Instead, he only saw animal snares.
“It’s 8,000 sq km of forest and it was once perfect for tigers,” recalled Gentry, whose only encounters with the feline giants were in the London Zoo, which he also visited as part of the campaign.
“They have a Sumatran tiger there and it came right up to the glass and looked directly at us. You’re in awe but at the same time, seeing them in that environment feels strange. There are more (tigers) in captivity than in the wild now. It has reached that point.”
The campaign’s title refers to the estimated number of tigers left in the wild as of last year. In 1900, there were about 100,000 tigers in the wild. The sharp decline is now mainly due to the illegal tiger trade, which contributes heavily to the overall wildlife trafficking problem valued at US$20 billion a year.
“We were really shocked (at the wild tiger population) because it’s so low. You can imagine that for poachers, tigers are seen as something for profit,” said Mie-Leng Wong, global director at Tiger Beer, Heineken Asia Pacific.
The 3890Tigers campaign is to support Tx2, a multi-government initiative that aims to raise the wild tiger population to 6,000 by 2022.
Aside from the digital art-driven campaign, Tiger Beer is also donating an initial sum of US$1 million as part of its six-year partnership with WWF. And to drive home the point about disappearing tigers, it is also removing the animal’s image in its product for two months, the first time Tiger Beer has done so in its history.
“If we create a global movement where people pledge not to purchase products with tiger parts, then we’re doing something about the demand on tiger trade. We make it socially unacceptable,” said Wong.
But will creating artistic selfies on social media be enough?
For Gentry, every little bit counts.
“If we make this message powerful enough, there is potential. Yes, there’s a lot of traffic online that’s almost clutter, but this is a real message that people can take offline,” he said.