Blog Archives

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.

Snapshots from FNQ

We might only be in March, but 2018 has already been busy up here in the Far North. Apart from attending a new exhibition opening in the temporary gallery at Cairns Museum, helping groups submit grant applications and planning for textile conservation workshops, here’s a quick overview of some of the FNQ MDO museum work since January:

Loudoun House Museum, Irvinebank

I visited Loudoun House Museum in Irvinebank in January and was overwhelmed by the work and changes instigated by the volunteers at the museum. They have done a fantastic job at implementing and adapting recommendations I made in an interpretation plan. The museum now has a dedicated John Moffat display in the original office and refreshed and  exhibition spaces.

Plus, the group also found time to pull out some railway artefacts for the railway display in the Old Post Office Gallery in Atherton. Special mention, and farewell, to Ellen Barnes.

Railway Ready – War Ready and the Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition, Atherton

At the end of 2017, I started working with groups from the Atherton Tablelands to create a local component for the QM Railways 1914-1918 travelling exhibition.  Apart from curating the project, I also stretched my graphic design skills to create text panels to accompany the photographs and objects.

Big thanks to Eacham Historical Society, Herberton Mining Museum, Loudoun House Museum, Mareeba Heritage Centre, Ravenshoe Visitor Information Centre and Queensland Railways for helping with image, information and objects. The exhibition opened in February and has since moved onto Douglas Shire Council offices in Mossman.

Collection gold: Croydon  Miner 1887

At the end of last year, a Cairns resident requested help finding a suitable repository for an early newspaper from the goldfields which he thought might be important. After some research we discovered just how special it was – a first edition copy of the Croydon Miner 1887 printed on silk. No other institution has a copy of this newspaper, so it’s quite a treasure and its research value and historical importance is exceptional. A quick glance at the advertisements and articles reveal a window into 1880s Croydon and its goldfields during its heyday.

As the item is fragile and needs conservation, I wanted to find a place with the capacity and resources to ensure its longevity. I also needed to heed the donor’s wish that the item be kept in north Queensland, so I approached James Cook University’s Special Collection Librarian, Bronwyn McBurnie. Needless to say, Bronwyn was delighted to work with the donor and the newspaper has now been acquired into JCU’s collection. It will be preserved in memory of the donor’s late son. We hope to work with Croydon Shire Council to recreate a copy of the item that can go on display in Croydon’s heritage buildings later in the year.

75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion exhibition

Finally, I’ve just come back from Thursday Island where, with Ewen McPhee and the team at Gab Titui, we installed two exhibitions to mark the 75th anniversary of the Torres Strait Islander Light Infantry Battalion. One was a travelling photographic exhibition called Indigenous Australians at War by the Shrine of Remembrance in Victoria.  It includes remarkable and candid images and stories that are an important part of our military history.

The other exhibition was curated by Gab Titui’s Exhibitions and  Public Programmes Manager, Leitha Assan, with help from Vanessa Seekee OAM, curator at the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island. Stories from the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, the only Indigenous battalion in the Australian Army, remind us that at the time of their enlistment, these men did not receive equal pay, were not able to vote, nor were they recognised as Australian citizens. Despite this, 873 men enlisted – 36 were killed or died on active service.

As MDOs we have been liaising with Leitha over the last few months regarding the preparation of exhibition  content and materials and then travelled up to help them install and prepare the spaces. This continues the strong link between the MDO program and Gab Titui. We were privileged to attend the opening, which featured traditional dancing – the Aeroplane Dancers and Charlie Company Sarpeye Dancers – and attend the dawn service, the anniversary march along the main street and listen to the speeches.

 

 

“Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”- MDOs working with Gab Titui

Apart from the disaster recovery work in Winton, the MDOs have been working on numerous other projects.  One of these, “Evolution: Torres Strait Masks”,  has been with staff from Gab Titui Cultural Centre on Thursday Island.

At the end of last year, Jo Wills and Ewen McPhee traveled up to Torres Strait to train and work with the staff to develop a new exhibition for their cultural maintenance gallery. The theme was chosen to recognise the cultural significance of masks in Torres Strait culture, their influence on contemporary art forms, and to revive the art form itself.

The special challenge for this project was the procurement of objects – so many of these items are held in international institutions and other Australian museums. To address this, the exhibition concept was planned around a contemporary arts component which involved commissioning local artists to create masks for the exhibition.

After undertaking applied training with the MDOs, Gab Titui staff got down to the task of researching and curating the exhibition. Working with renowned artist Alick Tipoti as co-curator, Leitha Assan and Aven Noah developed the overall look and feel for the exhibition and prepared all exhibition text and content. They identified eight different artists, based on islands where masks were traditionally made, to design masks for the exhibition: Andrew Passi, Eddie Nona, Vincent Babia, Kapua Gutchen Snr, Alick Tipoti, Torrens Gizu and Yessie Mosby.

Jo and Ewen returned to Gab Titui to help install the exhibition. Cultural protocols dictate the way masks can be handled – only men are able to touch the masks. For installation, this meant Ewen worked with Aven and Kailu to hang the masks, while Jo worked with Leitha and Elsie to hang panels, create object mounts for other items, line the cases and prepare the labels.

The end result is stunning, and a testament to their hard work. The masks are extraordinary and powerful objects in their own right, and together represent a significant body of work. The black lined cases create a sense of mystery and dark magic to echo the spirituality of the objects. The labels tell the artists stories, while the text panels provide an insight into the background of the mask in TI culture.

“Evolution” opened in conjunction with the 2015 Gab Titui Arts Awards and will be on display for a year. Jo traveled back to Thursday Island to attend the opening, see the final exhibition, and was lucky enough to see performances by the Aibai Sagulau Buai Dance Team from Badu Island.

Thank you to George Serras from the National Museum of Australia for allowing me to use some images from the opening in this post.

Defending the Pacific – North Queensland and the First World War

First troops leaving Townsville in August 1914. State Library of Queensland, Negative No: 25536

First troops leaving Townsville in August 1914. State Library of Queensland, Negative No: 25536

MDOs from North Queensland, Ewen McPhee, and Far North Queensland, Dr Jo Wills, have curated Defending the Pacific, an exhibition that commemorates Australia’s (and North Queensland’s) first action in the First World War.

Using material drawn from collections from the Cairns Historical Society, Zara Clark Museum, Army Museum of North Queensland, Hinchinbrook Library, Townsville City Library, State Library of Queensland and the Australian War Memorial, the exhibition explores the special nature of North Queenslanders involvement in the First World War: of the rifle clubs, the Kennedy Regiment, their journey to Thursday Island and to New Guinea, and their subsequent early return to Australia without having seen active service.

Ewen McPhee and Michael Castrisos, Manager, Horn Island Airport.

Ewen McPhee and Michael Castrisos, Manager, Horn Island Airport.

Jo Wills installing the exhibition in Seisa Holiday Park.

Jo Wills installing the exhibition in Seisa Holiday Park.

Ewen McPhee and Vanessa Seekee from the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island.

Ewen McPhee and Vanessa Seekee from the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island.

Ewen McPhee at Poruma Cultural Centre.

Ewen McPhee at Poruma Cultural Centre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sponsored by the Queensland Anzac Centenary Committee, the MDOs worked with communities throughout north and far north Queensland, and on Cape York and Torres Strait, to secure venues and participation. The exhibition banners are on display at Bowen Museum, Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers, Hinchinbrook Library in Ingham, Atherton Library, Cairns Library, Mareeba Library, Seisa Holiday Park, Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island, Horn Island Airport, Peddell’s Ferry on Thursday Island and at the Indigenous Knowledge Centre on Poruma. A special photographic exhibition that explores the rifle clubs of North Queensland accompanies the banners at the Army Museum of North Queensland  in Townsville, and there is a photographic display at Green Hill Fort, Thursday Island. Ewen and Jo have recently traveled to the Torres Strait to install the exhibitions in different venues and liaise with communities.

Photographic exhibition at Army Museum of North Queensland, Townsville.

Photographic exhibition at Army Museum of North Queensland, Townsville.

Given the strength of the visual material and story, Jo Wills also worked with ABC Open Far North Producer, Gemma Deavin, to create a digital story which is now available online.

Particular thanks to the Army Museum of North Queensland, Hinchinbrook Library, Cairns Historical Society and Tyler Wellenseik from the State Library of Queensland for their assistance in pulling together this exhibition.

 

Torres Strait views