ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng


ABOUT    An interdisciplinary research and visual art project,  investigating the visibility of orbital debris.

ARTIST      Isabella Ong
CURATOR   Seet Yun Teng

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Great Fisherman – Tagai

Torres Strait Islands
Scorpius, Southern Cross, Corvus constellation
Adapted from “A shark in the stars: astronomy and culture in the Torres Strait”, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/a-shark-in-the-stars-astronomy-and-culture-in-the-torres-strait-15850

In the Torres Strait, there is an impressively large and significant constellation known as Tagai, a Creator Being. Tagai’s body is the constellation Scorpius, with the Southern Cross as his left hand and the Corvus constellation his right.

The Tagai constellation aids in navigation in a variety of ways, such as the use of directional stars. Tagai is also described as the “heavenly clock”, as explained on Tagai State College’s website, which is named after the Creator Being. Tagai directs the seasonal changes, and his visibility in the night sky throughout the year tells Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the region how to adapt to wind and tidal movements, as well as the best times to hunt, fish, plant and harvest.

Tagai was a great fisherman. One day, he and his crew of 12 were fishing on their outrigger canoe. They were unable to catch any fish, so Tagai left the canoe and went onto the nearby reef to look for fish there.

As the day grew hotter and hotter, the waiting crew of Zugubals (beings who took on human form when they visited Earth) grew impatient and frustrated. Their thirst grew, but the only drinking water in the canoe belonged to Tagai. Their patience ran out and they drank Tagai’s water.

When Tagai returned, he was furious that the Zugubals had consumed all of his water for the voyage. In his rage, he killed all 12 of his crew. He returned them to the sky and placed them in two groups: six men in Usal / Usiam (the Pleiades star cluster) and the other six Utimal / Seg (the stars of Orion’s belt and scabbard). Their images are set in a pattern of stars. He told his crew to stay in the northern sky and to keep away from him.

Tagai can be seen in the southern skies, standing in a canoe in the Milky Way. His left hand is the Southern Cross holding a spear. His right hand is a group of stars in the constellation Corvus holding a fruit called Eugina. He is standing on his canoe, formed by the stars of Scorpius.

Islanders today still consider Tagai and astronomy to be an important aspect of daily life. Tagai is important for navigation, as the Southern Cross (his left hand) points in the direction of south.

The stars tell Islanders when to plant their gardens, when to hunt turtle and dugong, when the monsoon season arrives, when the winds change, and many other important aspects of daily life.

For example, when Tagai’s left hand (the Southern Cross) dips into the sea or sets just after dusk in October, Islanders know the wet season (Kuki / Koki) is about to begin and turtles are begnning to lay their legs. The rising of Usal and Utimal (Pleiades and Orion) in mid-November tells Islanders that turtle and dugong are mating and that it is time to plant banana and yam in their gardens in anticipation of the coming Kuki (monsoon) season.

For the Torres Strait Islander people, the stars of the Tagai (represented by the stars of a number of constellations including Scorpius, Lupus and Hydra, amongst others) were of great importance, as their cycle provided them with a seasonal calendar that allowed them to organise their fishing and agriculture as well as social, ritual and cultural activities.

Isabella Ong
Seet Yun Teng
National Arts Council Singapore