The mystery of the Quetta Tea Towel
“Rarely if ever before has so deep and so general a gloom been cast over the community of this colony as that which has been occasioned by the sad catastrophe which occurred in Torres Straits on the night of the 24th February. The wreck of the R.M.S. Quetta in the vicinity of Adolphus Island with a loss of 173 lives is one of those shocking disasters of the sea which strike nations with sorrow and distress, and leave their painful mark upon the annals of the world’s shipping.”
I first saw the R.M.S. Quetta tea towel while I was visiting Andy and Joan Csorba, owners of a former Cairns souvenir company in Cairns during the 1980s-1990s called Reef Productions. It was in among a host of other tea towels, napery and linen that I have been assessing for Cairns Museum. Having visited the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island numerous times during my MDO travels, I am familiar with its story and was intrigued by the teatowel and the design.
Initially, I thought my ‘who drew it’ query would be easy to solve. Made from Polish linen, the object has ‘Handprinted by Reef Productions’ printed underneath the image. All I had to do, I reasoned, was ask Andy and Joan. But having had so many designs produced they couldn’t recall who had created the original drawing.
Reef Productions was a souvenir company which started in Cairns in 1970s and ran, under multiple owners, until the late 1990s. Initially, the company produced drawings of local industries, heritage buildings and tourism spots. But when Andy and Joan took over, they diversified and started to work with Indigenous artists and produced cultural designs for screen printing by artists like Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Heather Walker, Roslyn Kemp and Enoch Tramby.
Given the subject of the tea towel, I wondered whether or not one of these artists had created the piece, or perhaps a Torres Strait Islander living in Cairns. Wrong on all counts. So I continued to research the history of the company, and liaise with other former owners and artists who produced artwork for the prints. Another artist, Jim Arena, shared pictures of all his designs with me so I have a catalogue of his creations. But there was no Quetta on his list.
Discussions with previous owners uncovered the stories behind some of the different commissions that Reef Productions asked the artists to produce. One of these was a line drawing of the new parliament house in Canberra by Dutch-born Ludij Peden. I was thrilled when I found her website and a small video which featured a photo of Ludij with Jenuarrie, Thancoupie, Roslyn and Joan Bouissevain (all of who created work with the Csorbas). It’s the only photograph I’ve ever seen of artists from Reef Productions together. There was also one of Ludij and Andy with the parliament tea towel. Naturally, I made contact. Like Jim, Ludij generously gave me a list of all of her work for Reef Productions. Bingo!
In a follow up email she wrote:
I was commissioned, via Andy, to do the tea towel design of the Quetta sinking for the ladies’ guild of the Anglican Church – for a fundraiser … They wanted the tea towel to look like the stained glass window in the church – depicting the ship sinking in the storm.
With this mystery solved, I’m now working with staff at Cairns Museum to develop an exhibition of Reef Productions objects and about the people who were involved. Stay tuned for more information. There are examples of Reef Productions items held in both Queensland Museum and the State Library of Queensland. No doubt the information uncovered in this project will contribute additional knowledge to these collections into the future.