How we use trash from the ocean to create art

Scuba divers remove ghost nets from a reef  in the North Pacific Gyre. Northwest Hawaiian Islands (Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR)

Scuba divers remove ghost nets from a reef in the North Pacific Gyre, Northwest Hawaiian Islands (Photo: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR)

Ghost nets are large, abandoned fishing nets that drift through the ocean amassing everything from discarded toothbrushes to curious sea turtles. As a net grows in size, the spectacle attracts more sea life, beginning a damaging process known as “ghost fishing.” Tides drag the nets and animals are entangled and left to die.

In 2004, Cape York in the Mapoon Aboriginal Community of Queensland, Australia was being overrun with ghost nets and had reached a point of crisis. The community took action and formed GhostNets Australia, an alliance to get rid of the nets. Their first project was a six-hour day of action, during which 16,000 nets were removed from the beaches and many animals were rescued, mostly sea turtles.

Queensland artist Sue Ryan never imagined she would be using the nets as materials for art, but soon enough, she was doing just that. At TEDxJCUCairns, she shares how she began using the nets as  her material du jour and how she began to teach others to do the same. “In 2008 I was invited [by Arts Queensland and GhostNets Australia] to do a scoping study to gauge if it was viable to use ghost nets in Indigenous communities where [they were] a problem to make arts and crafts,” she says. “I visited a lot of communities and people were excited about the idea,” she says.

Ryan was soon asked to run an arts program for GhostNets Australia, gathering artists and weavers from around Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Australia to transform heaps of marine debris into art. Her team held their first workshop with the Aurukun Indigenous community, and were surprised by the reaction to the new materials.

Ceduna workshop to create Jidirah the Whale, photo by Iain Morton courtesy of Ananguku Arts


Aurukun workshop 2009 (Photo: Sue Ryan)

Ghost nets differ from the traditional materials used in Indigenous weaving; they are thicker are knotted, Ryan says, but “[the people in Aurukun] really embraced the material,” she says, creating giant sculptures and baskets and using the time to teach younger community members how to weave.

The program spread from the Northern Territory to Cape York and the Torres Strait. People even became competitive, Ryan says, creating “bigger, crazier and kookier” artworks and even more delicate, refined pieces.

Collaborative fish at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2014 (Photo: Greg Adams)

“We wanted to encourage the transfer of techniques and skills already used by people in the community and apply that to ghost net,” Ryan says. “People loved making baskets, but as they experimented with the material, they also began to tell their own cultural stories, and made sculptural works, [and] they told personal stories, as well.”

Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, 2011 (Photo: Cecile Williams)


The Fish Show at Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney. Ghost net artist Georgia Curry from Hammond Island with Peter Cooley (Photo: Sue Ryan)

Recycling ghost net was adopted by many of the communities Ryan and her team visited, she says, not only creating whimsical art, but also for practical use. Ryan hopes her initiative continue to connect communities around the world with “net fever.”

“There’s a real buzz in turning a negative into a positive or taking rubbish and turning it into something of value,” she says. “We all feel like we’ve been a little transformed by this project and we had a revelation. The more we shared, the more we learned. The more we collaborated, the bigger things got. The more we included people, the more people wanted to be included.”

To learn more, watch Ryan’s whole talk below:

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