Sacred Ink embodies community pride

Published: 25 Nov 2019

Their eyes are filled with pride, but their skin tells the story of a turbulent history.

Malaitan eagles, cane knives, blackbirding ships and the word “Kanaka” all feature prominently on the seven subjects depicted in Artspace Mackay’s latest exhibition.

Sacred Ink: Connecting to culture has been delivered in partnership with the Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA).

The exhibition explores how the art of tattooing has been embraced by local community members as a means of cultural connection to their heritage.

One of the prints is of Rani Togo-Parter and her tattoos – her swirling family vine, ancestral family names (Tuku and Siletari), cane knives and sugar cane.

Ms Togo-Parter said her tattoos help her always remember her heritage.

“I have a strong tie to who I am and where I’ve come from – it’s where my family has come from,” she said.

“I don’t want that to be forgotten.”

Farren Bobongie, who has the word “Kanaka” across his back, said the community had begun to reclaim the once derogatory term.

“In high school I read about blackbirding and saw the word Kanaka for the first time and realised they were slaves brought to Mackay to cut cane.”

“Having it tattooed was my way of personally confronting the past and reclaiming it,” he said.

Mayor Greg Williamson said while the history of South Sea Islanders in our region was heartbreaking, the powerful portraits on display emanate with pride, strength and resilience.

“This is a tremendous exhibition created locally by the Artspace team, MADASSIA and photographer Jim Cullen,” Cr Williamson said.

“It’s haunting in a way, but also uplifting, heart-warming and emotive,” he said.

“The photos are beautiful, and the way Jim has captured the pride and strength in the eyes of the participants is remarkable.

“The stories behind the tattoos are also fascinating and moving.

“It’s a must-see exhibition for anyone who has grown up in the Mackay region.”

Sacred Ink: Connecting to culture in on show now until February 16 in the Foyer Gallery of Artspace Mackay.


Between 1863 and 1904 more than sixty thousand people from more than eighty Pacific islands were brought to Australia to work on cotton and sugar cane farms.

They were paid little or nothing for their labour, then, as a final insult, the 1901 White Australia Policy saw South Sea Islanders again displaced, deported to various locations across the Pacific that was often not their native home.

Those who remained continued to suffer discrimination under Australian law.