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Scanning the stars

Meriam artist, Gail Mabo was invited to a residency at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in February 2020 where she would create an artwork entitled Tagai incorporating scanned and printed sand grains taken from the beach of Mer (Murray Island), the land of her people and notably, her father, Eddie Koiki Mabo.

Gail Mabo installing her work for the exhibition Under the Stars.
Photo credit: Felicity Jenkins

Sand is an intriguing material and until you look closely you may not appreciate how each grain is truly unique and might not be what you expect. After carefully looking at individual grains in a handful of sand under an optical microscope Gail made a selection of star-shaped grains that were carefully mounted for microCT scanning at the Microscopy Australia facility at the University of Sydney. From these scans a 3D model of each of the grains was produced and printed at an enlarged scale for inclusion in her artwork – a bamboo star-map of the constellation Tagai.

Torres Strait Islander culture and spirituality are closely linked to the stars and the stories of Tagai, whom the Torres Strait Islander peoples recognise as the creator of the world. Torres Strait Islander law, customs, and practices are shaped by stories of Tagai. The knowledge of the stars and sea provide the Torres Strait Islander people with valuable information regarding changes in the seasons, when to plant gardens and hunt for turtles or the manatee-like dugong, and how to navigate the seas. Star maps like this were central to the successful land title claim instigated by Edie Koiki Mabo.

Within the left hand of Tagai is the Southern Cross, and a particular star within the constellation is named Koiki in recognition of Eddie Mabo’s service to the traditional owners of the lands of Australia.

There is a moving video of Gail taking about her artwork and the significance of the stars.

Gail Mabo, Tagai 2020
Courtesy of the artist, with thanks to the staff of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences & Microscopy Australia, The University of Sydney
© Gail Mabo