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Cracks in the Mask

Cracks in the Mask

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The mysterious and elaborate turtleshell masks collected last century in Torres Strait in far north Australia are unique and irreplaceable, yet there are now none left in Torres Strait. They are all in foreign museums.

Ephraim Bani, a witty and knowledgeable Torres Strait Islander and an expert on his people's myths and legends, sets out on a voyage of discovery to the great museums of Europe where his cultural heritage now lies. The film asks: what happens when he encounters and meditates on his patrimony and secondly, what consequences does this hold for us in the West?

Ephraim fills in some of the gaps in his history, including film and sound recordings made by the Cambridge Anthropological Expeditions in 1898. Unburdening himself to his diary in moments of poignant revelation, Bani subjects the museum to a novel form of scrutiny.

Going beyond the overly familiar arguments about pillage and art-theft, three avant-garde curators provide thought-provoking and sometimes surprising challenges to museums in the West and how they reflect our cultural proclivities. The film shows how museums decontextualize cultures - the so-called "poetics of detachment" - and exclude the very people whose ancestors created the objects in the first place.

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