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More than just tea towels: the migrants, makers and merchandise of Reef Productions

Reef Productions Exhibition, Cairns Museum, 2021

A new exhibition for Cairns Museum

On Friday 28 May, Cairns Museum opened a new temporary exhibition called Reef Productions: migrants, makers and merchandise.  Timed to coincide with Reconciliation Week, the exhibition explores the story of a Cairns-based screen printing company that began in the 1970s. Running for almost 20 years, the owners hand printed and manufactured souvenirs using licenced designs from established Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. The result is an extraordinary array of works on linen and paper, and a multilayered story that has been a pleasure to explore.

The exhibition showcases only a small selection of works due to the size of the gallery. Featured, however, are items from each era of ownership, and works by as many artists as possible. Also included is a recreated trade stand, based around photographs from the Sydney Trade Fair, and a screen printing interactive based around a previously unseen work by Rosyln Serico (Kemp). The opening was a chance for owners and artists to reconnect.

A chance meeting Leads to ACQUISITION

I first came across the name ‘Reef Productions – Made in Cairns’ on a tea towel in 2015 when I was curating one of the galleries for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment. I can remember being curios but at the time was too busy to delve deeper.

Fast forward four years, however, and it’s a different story. Whilst viewing the Thancoupie “A Legacy of Cultural Power” exhibition at CIAF in 2019 I was introduced to Andy and Joan Csorba while standing in front of a large screen print on fabric. ‘Have you ever heard of a company called Reef Productions’, I asked? ‘Yes’, grinned Andy, ‘we used to own it.’ And so began my, and Cairns Museum’s, Reef Productions journey.

Jo with Andy Csorba in 2019.

After visiting the Csorba’s farm to view the material, I discussed the collection with Cairns Museum. Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, sought funds to undertake a significance assessment and I, along with Indigenous cultural worker, Nerelle Nicol, began a period of detailed research and analysis. As part of the project, I was required to mentor Nerelle and suppport and undertake research. Nerelle worked closely with the Indigenous artists and this was critical to building an understanding of the content, context and personal stories within the artworks and company history. At the same time, I met with former owners and the artists who had worked with them to create designs.

From its beginnings in the front room of a house in Cairns’ northern beaches, Reef Productions produced portable souvenirs that illustrated the tropical charm of Far North Queensland. It also worked on commission, creating items for organisations or special events and anniversaries. When the company changed hands in the mid-1980s, the designs evolved to include Indigenous culture and stories. Andy worked with a range of artists, including Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Roslyn Serico (Kemp), Connie Rovina (Barker) Heather Walker, Ludij Peden and Joan Boissevain.

Our research uncovered a story and collection with multiple layers and threads. All participants had some sort of migration story to tell – they had all moved to Cairns, be it from areas within Queensland, Australia or from overseas. The Indigenous artists bought a cultural dimension to the business – through their design style, working for Queensland Aboriginal Creations or through their personal experience of mission life an search for identity. Embedded too, were stories of environmental change, tourism and lost heritage places. We found out about the different artists, their work and inspiration, and their relationship with Reef Productions.

Research into other collections showed that some of these works are held by Queensland Museum and many by the State Library of Queensland in the Glenn R. Cooke Souvenir Textiles Collection. Our work contributes detailed provenance knowledge to these collections, and to understandings of souvenir production at this time.

These findings, as well as the extraordinary aesthetics of the collection, are just some of the reasons Cairns Museum decided to acquire it. They then applied for funding to support Nerelle and I to co-curate the Reef Productions Exhibition.

Curating Reef Productions

From the outset we knew we did not have the space to do everything we wanted. We chose to focus on the evolution of the company, in particular the works produced by artists working during the Csorba ownership period. Community engagement continued throughout the production of the exhibition. Artists and owners reviewed all text, and choice of artwork – with the right of veto. 

Generous donations by former owner, Georgie Zeiger, and items by Charters Towers’ artist Jim Arena, and Daintree’s Betty Hinton, were included in the early section of the exhibition. Sadly, we had to leave out one of Jim’s original ‘pencil roughs’ created for his design of Freshwater Station. However, he has generously agree to donate it, and the tea towel, to Cairns Museum.

Staff and volunteers at Cairns Museum worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support the preparation of materials for display. This included doing framing workshops, sewing supports and creating backing boards for the textile works. The exhibition was installed by Michael Marzik.

Although only a small selection of pieces are on show, this project celebrates the work of these artists and entrepreneurs. From a museum perspective, it illustrates the value of contemporary collection, the importance of community engagement, the need for copyright vigilence and the joy of research and discovery. And, as a story, it represents the importance of relationships – for those who were part of Reef Productions and those involved in putting this research and exhibition together.

The exhibition is on at Cairns Museum for three months from 29 May 2021.

 

The mystery of the Quetta Tea Towel

Quetta Tea Towel for Reef Productions. Photograph: Dr Jo Wills, 2019.

“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.”

Source: The Queenslander Saturday 8 March 1890)

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.

Stained glass window in the Quetta Memorial Anglican Church on Thursday Island.
Image: Queensland Historical Atlas.

Chapter 2: Mysteries revealed… who is behind the chair?

I decided to follow the Pomona lead suggested by the museum staff with a quick search on Trove. The name “Hodge” and “Pomona” limited to the decade in question turned up quite a number of results. Through the newspaper articles I discovered Mr Hodge and (presumably) his wife occupying a range of positions on community organisations, hosting family members visiting the region (through the personal notes column), and even winning a manicure set at a Pomona School of Arts Ladies committee presentation.

Although it wasn’t long before I found Mr Hodge mentioned in the context of the Freemasons, I decided to take a break from the visual monotony of the slightly pixelated black and white script to rest my eyes. Mr Hodge was indeed a member of the Cooroora lodge at Pomona around the period. Was there anything else relevant to be known?

Fortunately, I had previously conducted a significance assessment of a museum collection in Pomona and knew that they had a collection that related to the Cooroora Lodge. Looking back through my files, I could see that the museum holdings contained Masonic honour boards, regalia, iconography, framed photographs and even tessellated pavement. But there were no such chairs in their collection. As I examined my photographs, a name and date on an honour board for the Master Masons of the lodge caught my eye: the same name as on the chair’s plate, and a date one year later!

Honourboardcropped

The Cooroora Lodge Masters Honour Board at the Noosa Museum, Pomona. Hodge is listed in 1924.

As it turns out, Brother Hodge elevated to the position of Master Mason within the lodge in the next year. It seems that he would then occupy the very chair that he had recently presented. At this point the connections between the chair, Hodge, and the Pomona Lodge were becoming apparent.

A picture of the chair in the lodge room would be ideal to make a definite connection, but how likely would it be that an image of the interior of the Masonic Centre featuring the chair? While I wasn’t entirely hopeful, the Masonic Centre was closed and sold comparatively recently in 2005, so the existence of such a useful photograph was a possibility.

An internet search delivered proof of the chair’s location and use…

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Interior of Cooroora Lodge room, 1999. Image: Roger Todd Architect

The lodge was photographed in 1999 by Roger Todd, a Sunshine Coast architect with an interest in local heritage architecture. Among his images were two that show the lodge room and its furnishings- including the chair in question!

You might be wondering about the images on the wall behind the chair. Well, there is more to this story. The (former) Cooroora Masonic Centre building is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register. The register reveals that one of the significant features of the building is a series of painted murals that wrap around the four walls inside the main lodge room. The paintings feature a number of noteworthy historical temples and structures, presumably also containing features of Masonic symbolism. The scale and execution of the murals, complete with a breathtaking sense of perspective, creates an illusion of being able to step into a classical world. However the scenes depicted are not entirely new: they were copied from photographs of a similar mural that decorated the Masonic Temple in the Criterion Restaurant in London. The original London murals were destroyed when the building was bombed in World War 2.

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Lodge room mural and bench seat, 1999. Image: Roger Todd Architect

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Lodge room mural and other furniture, 1999. Image: Roger Todd Architect

The artist was a Pomona storekeeper and Freemason who began working on the mural in 1925, handmixing the colours and painting into the evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp for almost a decade. The series of murals was finished around 1934.

 The artist’s name- you guessed it- was William Hodge!

mason

WM. William Hodge, from image held at the Noosa Museum

 

When we began looking at this chair, there was very little known about it. But with the results of this type of research we can begin to understand its history, connections and significance at a regional or possibly even state level. I’m still investigating this item and can sense that there is yet more to know, so the mystery remains as to how this chair ended up in the current location.

It’s not case closed yet!

I’d like to acknowledge the input and expertise provided by members of Lodge Maroochy 168, the United Grand Lodge of Queensland, Masonic Memorial Centre Archives, Roger Todd Architect, Noosa Museum, and the Yandina Pioneer Cottage. Thank you all.

Chapter 1: A mysterious chair begins to share it’s secrets

As you may have read in Melanie’s significance post , a key component of a significance assessment is understanding the provenance of individual items, or the collection as a whole. But what happens when there isn’t as much documentation as you might like? How can you understand what you are looking at, where it comes from, what it means, assign a degree of significance, or make use of it in any way other than telling the most generic, commonplace histories? The simple truth is that you can’t, and you are going to need to find out more! In this blog I’d like to share a particular experience in object research that took an item from barely being understood to… well.. let’s just say something more than that!

Chair

I came across this chair while undertaking a significance assessment recently. It’s a well-crafted timber chair, stately perhaps, but not overly elaborate or ornate. The height, accentuated by its pointed top and acorn shaped finials, gives this chair a real sense of presence in the room compared with other more regular seats. It seems that while it can fulfil its purpose as a place to sit, there is more to it than just that. The object label simply reads “Masonic Chair”.

None of the museum records available to me could provide any elaboration about this particular chair. By the rationale and logic of the Museum’s collection policy, it may have come from the local Freemasons lodge. But a staff member mentioned that they thought it may have come from a Masonic Temple in Pomona (a nearby town in another local government area). All very interesting, but what was its history and how did it get to be in this collection?

First things first, I had to make sure that the chair was indeed Masonic. Other benevolent societies that are sometimes confused with Freemasons (such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, or the Manchester Unity Independent order of Oddfellows) operated throughout Queensland. While I was confident that it was Masonic, some quick background research confirmed that the design of the chair and its motifs are common to furniture associated with Freemasonry. Since I was in the area at the time, I was able to arrange a meeting with some local Freemasons who were able to shed some light on their organisation’s local history, some basic information about the types of furniture you might come across in a lodge, organisational hierarchy, and some of their donations of objects to the museum over the years. They identified the chair as being used by the Master Masons of a lodge, and pointed out that there were other similar- though slightly different- chairs that were also used during their private rituals. While we identified that the collection held other undocumented Masonic items gifted to the museum, no one was sure if this chair in particular came from the local lodge.

During our examinations, we turned our attention to the small engraved presentation plate at the head of the chair that listed the name of the person who presented it, their title, a date, some flourishes and a hallmark. The name and date on the plate didn’t match any listed on their local lodge honor boards, but the name seemed familiar.

Plate detail

Detail of presentation plate

Who was Bro. W. Hodge, who did he present this chair to, and why?

To be continued…

 

 

Visiting the Ancestors: GAMAA win for Mulgrave Settlers Museum

Mulgrave Settlers Museum, which is part of the Mulgrave Shire Historical Society, has been awarded the 2018 Gallery and Museum Achievement Awards (GAMAA) in the category of Engagement for Volunteer-run Organisations for its program  “Visiting the Ancestors”. As MDO in Far North Queensland, it’s great to see this group recognised for all their hard work. Read on to find out about the three parts that made up this project:

Cataloguing Graves
Volunteers photographed all graves in the Gordonvale Cemetery and added basic information to “Find a Grave”. When searching for information the group realised many of the residents had interesting stories that formed the history of Gordonvale.

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Volunteers Steve Carlton, Julie Amadio, Jenny Verrall and Sallyanne Powell at Mulgrave Settlers Museum in Gordonvale. Image: Mulgrave Settlers Museum.

‘Streets Ahead’ newspaper column in the Pyramid Views
Many of Gordonvale’s streets had been named after early settlers and those now  buried in the Gordonvale Cemetery. Locally produced magazine, Pyramid Views, approached the Mulgrave Shire Historical Society to write a regular column capturing this history of the family or person the street was named after. Each month one of the volunteers organised for the family members of several generations to be photographed at the street sign.

Since its inception, the project has grown. The paper now dedicated a whole page to the section due to the response from families wanting to share their heritages and the response from readers. Information is also available via their Facebook page.

Public programs: Ghosts of Gordonvale Cemetery & Ghosts of Babinda Cemetery
Inspired by similar cemetery tours developed both other organisations, volunteers at the Mulgrave Settlers Museum decided to conduct a similar program. They identified 12 individuals from the cemetery, researched their history using a range of local, reference and online resources.

Volunteers then approached Gordonvale State High School to see if any students were interested in portraying the chosen individuals. Students memorised the scripts and then, on the day of the performance, dressed in period costumes whilst standing next to the gave of their character.

Success at Gordonvale inspired a similar program in Babinda – the other cemetery in the original Mulgrave Shire.  This time, 10 identified were chosen and students from Babinda State School and St Rita’s Catholic School participated in the project.

The Society also produced  an associated booklet of for each cemetery that included the script, a photo of the student and an image of the person. Background information about the township and surrounding geography was also included.