‘The island that forgot what it was
A few weeks ago I attended a talk on ‘The Quod Project’ by Tania Ferrier at the Heathcote Museum & Gallery, Perth, W.A. The artist also spoke of her life to date with her artworks and major influences.
Many people in W.A holiday on Rottnest Island, I have visited many times but until I saw this art installation, based on historical research, I hadnt realised the true nature of the dark history which lies behind the happy holiday scenarios. There is nothing about the true Indegenous history very much at Rottnest, there is nothing to celebrate in the way the Aboriginal people were treated in Colonial history. This invisibility is endemic in everyday life in Western Australia, as if Aboriginal people are refugees in their own country.
Noel Nannup – Noongar Elder spoke in the Welcome to Country from the heart about ‘the need to get away from the shame and look at it differently. Something happened over the water, which needs to be known and understood to bridge the gap between black and white australians and heal. Do Australians understand their real history? Know the real spirituality of this place Australia? Respect the sacredness of life, of our selves and the rights of all people”
Tanya Ferrier’s ‘The Quod project’ explores the notion that her holiday and childhood experiences were based on a lie, exploring her own story which corresponds with the terrible injustice of the Aboriginal prisoners shipped out and incarcerated in prison on Rottnest from 1839 to the early 1930’s.
As a child, her family stayed at the Quod, part of the Rottnest Island hotel resort, as her mother had holidayed on the island as a young girl with her sisters. The Quod was promoted and still is, as especially suitable for families, allowing for 6 guests to sleep in a unit that was once five cells and housed up to 35 Aboriginal men with no window or sanitation. There was an average of 14 deaths per cell, each cell being 2m x 3m housing 7 men. 5 men were hung in the centre of The Quod, by a particularly brutal governor, Henry Vincent. He designed the Quod and settlement, built by Aboriginal labour, with prisoners interred from all across Western Australia.
‘Words cannot paint the picture without being offensive’ Rottnest Island History by EJ Watson 1922.
Under the floors were secreted fragile posessions – glass spearheads, spoon, message stick, left by the prisoners and confiscated by local government.
As a child on holiday, Tania didnt know the deeply political history of Rottnest and that she played upon the burial ground of approx. 400 men. The cemetery was only identified and sectioned off in 1997. The island is called Wadjemup by Noongar people, and is not a holiday destination for Aboriginal people, but a place of great sadness. Over 20 years of Aboriginal protest is acknowledged in the Quod project,over the failure of government authorities to recognise and respect this rare, well documented site of Aboriginal oppression.
This is a very personal journey by Tania, her story told with the artworks created, aswell as a carefully researched installation with the trust of Aboriginal collaborators including Cedric Jacobs and Noel Nannup . Photos of Tania’s mother at Rottnest are the only ones she has, as her mother Alice, committed suicide after her 6th birthday, Alice left a note saying she had gone to Rottnest. Tania was never told the truth about her mother and she was never spoken of again in her family.Through the eyes of a child, Tania thought her mother had disapeared forever at Rottnest.
In fact, part of the auto biographical work seen is a series of digital prints which included illustrations from ‘The Isle of Girls’ a childrens book by Eleanor Smith, published in 1953.
In a series of digital prints called “If these walls could speak”, Ferrier imagines the prisoners peering back to the future , to a time and place they could not of believed possible. There are concealed cell doors in the walls of the Quod today, and she juxtaposes the peephole view with imaginary, contemporary views of what would be seen eg a girl putting on lipstick.
Some people have strange dreams when they stay at the Quod.
‘The Quod project stages that original shock of recognition that can be too easily forgotten in the current political climate: “Oh my god I didnt know! In occluding the historical truth, we wound and damage the living. In the Quod Project, the visitor travels through a series of spaces in which the artist seeks to find a form adequate to the task of representing the tauma of what we now know about the history. We move from the postcard to the painterly,to the documentary photograph, staged and framed to the colonial witness, voiced and amplified into our common space, and finally, in the Quod cell, to make a simulacra of the real – albeit a real that makes visible what the island cannot show: a hole in the holiday space of Rottnest”‘ Josephine Wilson
Main Reference – ‘Far from Home. Aboriginal prisoners of Rottnest island, 1838 -1931’ by Dr. Neville Green and S. Noon .
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