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Film Studies: “Cracks on the Mask” Essay

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Updated: Jun 18th, 2020


At times, individual artists operate within an apparently stable cultural and social system. The environment presents these professionals with some measure of autonomy. However, the independence is threatened by a number of challenges. The hurdles are political, social, and economic in nature. They are impacting on the developments needed to sustain the various forms of arts in existence. For instance, consumerism and expansion of markets are two of the major factors exerting pressure on the artists and their innovations. To this end, the artist is called upon to develop products that appeal to the expanding middle class. The innovativeness or creativeness behind such works is ignored. What matters is the fact that it meets the needs of the target market.

In the current paper, the author analyses how artists can reclaim their autonomy from the pervasive forces of commerce, politics, and culture. It is noted that from May 1968, artists and activists changed their tactics in efforts to increase consumption of their products in the market. Their moved their work to the streets and out of the conventional galleries. According to them, one needed to be outside the gallery system for them to critique it effectively. In this paper, the author will evaluate how they can get back the freedom they lost at that time. The analysis is carried out in the context of the film Cracks in the Mask. The film is a 1997 production. It is written, narrated, and directed by Ephraim Bani and Frances Calvert.

Cracks in the Mask: A Synopsis

In the film Cracks in the Mask, Bani and Calvert (1997) explore the exportation of artistic collections from the Torres Strait Islands. The pieces highlighted in the narrative are exported to a number of European museums. A number of issues pertaining to the developers of the art and the current status of the pieces are some of the themes explored in the film. The film revolves around the experiences of two Torres Strait Islanders travelling to various museums in Europe. The museums are home to various works of art from their homeland. The pieces were taken away by Europeans before the end of the 19th century (Bani and Calvert 1997). The significance of various forms of arts, as well as the role they play when they are away from their homeland, is addressed in the production.

Important Issues Raised by the Film

The film addresses a number of topics related to art and its place in contemporary society. One of the major issues highlighted is the preservation of the artefacts in the European museums (Bani & Calvert 1997). In the film, the two Torres Strait Islanders have numerous conversations with the curators of museums they visited. The irony of the matter is that the objects were taken from their original developers and owners for preservation. The impression created here is that the artists responsible for the pieces could not take care of their own work.

In spite of the arguments made about the need for their preservation, the art objects were actually lost to the Torres Islander people. The actual cultural value of these pieces to the owners is also neglected. The reason is that the objects are displayed in a foreign land where the owners cannot access them. Furthermore, the material link between pieces and the Torres people was lost. The reason for this is that the art had historical meanings to these people, which was not taken into consideration by the new custodians. In addition, the practises and the skills associated with the development of the artefacts no longer existed among the Torres (Bani 1998; Bernstein 2006).

The curators or custodians of the collection acknowledge the memories embodied in these objects in relation to their original owners. In addition, the role of the museums as the future storage and guardian of these cultures is made apparent in the film (Burnham and Durland 1998). The curators are also aware of the display of the objects and their material culture as a form of art. In addition, they argue about the availability of other effective ways storing and showcasing the pieces. Such alternatives include display through contemporary means, such as digital forms. Such approaches will make the art available to all people.

The development raises questions pertaining to how commerce and politics interferes with the proper preservation of the Torres Strait Islanders art. In extension, the impact of this interference on the culture of these people is questioned. In light of this, concerns are raised with regards to the autonomy of art in contemporary society. Abbing (2004) provides a working definition of the concept ‘autonomy of art’. According to Abbing (2004), the idea highlights a situation where “art is governed by its own rules, and that artistic value makes no reference to political or social value” (12). Consequently, autonomy should be regarded as an opposition to the apparent economic conditioning of the culture of the Torres Strait Islanders. The culture is conditioned by withholding these objects from them.

The film also raises the important issue of the parties that the Torres Islander historical art objects are kept for. An additional question of the individual whose future is being safeguarded by storing these artefacts is raised. The reason is that the descendants of these art developments may never have the privilege of seeing them. Their representation, as well as their meaning to the Torres Strait Islanders, can be considered to be actually lost (Bani and Calvert 1997).

The art objects are an essential part of the Torres Strait Islander people. Their significance is made apparent in their efforts to reclaim part of their history, especially in relation to the pre-contact times (Altieri 2009; Bani 2000). Most of these pieces are no longer made or used in the Torres Strait Islands. However, they are part of the memories held by these people. In addition, they represent discontinuity in their culture and history. The discontinuity arises from intrusions attributed to the Westerners and their colonisation.

Below are two of the pieces highlighted in the film:

Mer of the Malu Le and Wild Plum
Figure 1: Mer of the Malu Le and Wild Plum. Source: Brady 2012 (173).

Drawing (A) is a piece of art by Pasi. It is titled Mer of the Malu Le (followers of Malu). Drawing (B) is done by Sunday Mabuyag. It depicts a wooden mawa mask and dancers celebrating the ubar (wild plum) season (Brady 2012, 173). The drawings are classic examples of artwork by the Torres Strait Islanders. They represent some of the cultural practices associated with this community. What is clear from these drawings is that the art of the Islanders had some cultural functions and significance to the group.

In essence, storing the art objects in the European museums is equated to the portrayal of a dead and exotic culture. The situation is made worse by the gap left behind when the pieces are taken away from the islands (Carroll 1981; Wouchim 1987; Zolberg 2010). However, Koch (2010) disagrees with this notion popular among critics. Koch (2010) argues that “the Torres Strait culture is actually living” (52). In addition, material objects arising from times past do not only manifest as “traditional art” (55). On the contrary, they are functional in relation to history. They perpetuate meaning through the contemporary cultural forms and practises (Hunter 2014; Rosenstein 2004).

Ephraim Bani, who is the writer and narrator of Cracks in Mask, gives an interesting reaction when he first sees the art collections in European museums. He states “I thought to myself that this is where our ancient wisdom is buried, so when I saw these objects I thought I need to take these images back” (Nakata 2001, 611). His reaction captures the sentiments of many people who go through the same experience. Bani goes further and says that “…Not to do anything about [returning these objects] is like a great silence in our history, no one will ever know” (Nakata 2001, 611).

Perspectives on Museums, Collections and Curators Derived from the Film

The film highlights the lost usefulness and actual meaning of the Torres Strait Islanders art collection in European museums. The situation can be likened to the commodification of art. Francis (2007) argues that “autonomous artwork has no social function, since it [is] based on commodification through entry into the capitalist market-place” (35). However, the Torres artwork has social function in that it was not developed for any market place (Becker 1982; Min et al. 2009; Wouchim 1987). On the contrary, it was meant to perpetuate culture by depicting various elements of the society at that particular time.

The works of the curators at the European museums can be viewed from various perspectives. For example, they can be regarded as opportunists in relation to the Torres Strait Islanders collections. Stanek (2011) advances Lefebvre argument that life was an indication of an underdeveloped sector. The undeveloped nature of this concept is made clear when it is compared to technology and production. In addition, in the mid 20th century, capitalism was transformed to ensure that it permeates every aspect of human life.

The argument applies to the curators of the European museums and their collection of Torres artworks. The actual value of the collections is lost to developers at the expense of amusing the European capitalists and other masses. The definite ethnographic worth of these collections cannot be enjoyed completely. In addition, a significant portion of the population the art was developed for cannot access it (Stanek 2011).

The role of museum curators as custodians of various art collections is made clear in the film. However, preservation of the artwork is possible amongst the Torres Strait Islands people. It is not necessary to take away the pieces. Buchanan (2000) quotes Certeau with regard to routine practices of preservation. According to Buchanan (2000), “irrespective of how the modern society represses [it], an element of creative resistance from the ordinary people exists” (41). It is apparent that the cultural practices of the islanders remain in spite of the discontinuity created by exporting the Torres Straits artwork.

The preservation of art in museums is important. However, it is even more important to ensure that the pieces are retained where they are relevant. The Europeans have their own art collections, which they retain in museums and other exhibition places. The only reason for hoarding artwork from the Torres Straits Islander for preservation is the European’s intent to settle there (Brady 2012).

Brady (2012) argues that the “Torres Strait Islanders have survived the invasion and rule of the Europeans for more than 150 years” (169). The colonialists sought to ensure that the islanders conform to Eurocentric lifestyles, which could destroy their culture and art collections (Geertz 1973; Shorthose 2004). Evidently, curators have no right to these collections. As such, they should be returned to their rightful owners where they can serve to sustain their traditional links.


Art collections serve numerous purposes, including ethnographical functions. For the Torres Strait Islanders, the legacy of their collections is in their tangible and visual connections with their ancestors. The pieces act as essential sources of information for artistic, cultural, and educational activities. The islanders’ information regarding past and present artistic expressions and their indigenous identity can be derived from the art collections in European museums. Although collected from salvage expeditions, the artworks illustrate the preservation and maintenance of cultural knowledge. By preserving them in the museums, the islanders are not only denied the link to their ancestors, but also access to Western art (Chipp 1968).

It can be argued that autonomy in modern art has reduced the social function of this profession. However, historical collections still retain their cultural value. The Torres Strait Islander traditional artwork was not commodified as evidenced from the sample provided. On the contrary, it served social functions in the community. The function and autonomy of this collection can be enhanced by returning the pieces to the rightful owners.


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