25th anniversary of Mabo marked with stellar CIAF exhibition

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision, and though the man behind the monumental victory is gone, he is far from forgotten.

The centuries-old notion of Australia as “terra nullius” (nobody’s land) was overturned by land rights activist and Murray (Mer) Island man Eddie Koiki Mabo after a decade-long legal saga, with the historic June 3 1992 ruling marking  the first formal recognition of Indigenous land rights in Australia.

Though Mr Mabo did not live to see Native Title recognised in Australia, his legacy lives on.

In 2015, the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences dedicated and named a star after him in the Sydney Southern Star Catalogue; this year, his granddaughter Hannah Duncan graduated law school, inspired by the grandfather she’d never met.

And next month, locals can experience the magic of Mabo up close, as Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) hosts an extraordinary exhibition by his daughter, artist Gail Mabo.


The exhibition pays tribute to her father, his star and traditional Torres Strait Islander nautical navigation through astronomy.

In a recent interview for CIAF, Ms Mabo said her father’s star sits in both the Southern Cross and in the large constellation Tagai, a massive southern-sky constellation of great import to Torres Strait Islander culture.

“Tagai is the one who guides us and tells us when it’s the seasonal times to plant, time to harvest and also when turtles are mating,” Ms Mabo said.

“With my dad given the star in that constellation, what it is that I want to do is use where his star will be, on the third of every month for the whole year.

“Then I’m going to do navigational maps like they used to with string and shells.”

Merging ancient and modern technologies, Ms Mabo said she had enlisted the aid of NASA in providing star-plotting imagery, while using traditional materials in the construction of the maps.

“In the Pacific Islands, they would navigate between islands using either string or slices of bamboo that they would clean off and weave to formulate how the currents would go.

“I’m going to harvest the bamboo that my dad grew at James Cook University [Eddie Mabo was a gardener at the Townsville university between 1967-75], and I’m making traditional rope from coconut fibre.”

Ms Mabo said the shells used in the star maps were from Murray Island in the Torres Strait.

“The 12 star maps will be my feature wall at CIAF.

“Underneath those will be the law of where the season is and what we can harvest by where the star is in the sky at that particular time of night.

“The Sydney Observatory will bring a telescope, so they can actually show people what my dad’s star looks like.”


CIAF, now in its eighth year, will bring ATSI art and culture to Cairns from July 14-16 with an expanded three-day program, immense and accessible Art Market, the inaugural CIAF Art Awards, ever-popular fashion show and much more.

CIAF – Australia’s premier Indigenous Art Fair – last year attracted more than 50,000 people to the city, and 2017’s event looks set to be bigger and better than ever. Mark your calendar, and keep up with all things CIAF here.