I feel proud and honoured to have been part of the hands-on chain stitch embroidery workshop held at the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House, Canberra on Saturday 17th August, 2019 from 12.30 - 2.30pm. After several years of research into Australia's slave history and many months of planning behind the scenes it was truly incredible to work with the team of the Museum of Australian Democracy who helped create a safe and welcoming space for both the participants and presenters.
We were very lucky to have the presence of three women from the Vanuatu Arts and Krafts - Josephine, Anna and Aveline - out on an exchange program funded by the Vanuatu Government to support the 25th Anniversary of the Australian South Sea Islanders Commonwealth recognition as a distinct cultural group to be celebrated in Sydney on 23rd August 2019 with flag raising ceremony at the National Maritime Museum. Accompanied by Danny Togo, one of the committee members of the Australian South Sea Islanders - Port Jackson, the women travelled down from Sydney for the day and before the workshop dressed in traditional clothing. They spent time at the Tent Embassy to pay their respects before greeting us all in the O-Space where the team had set up a welcoming circle of chairs.
Right from the start, there was a very open and heartfelt discussion about the history of the Australia Slave Trade known as blackbirding and its legacy today for the Australian descendants and those from the islands of Vanuatu. Both Waskam Emelda Davis and Aunty Lydia George spoke passionately about their history and feelings, giving us a unique insight into the ongoing intergenerational trauma, the importance of truth-telling and how we can get involved to help their story become part of the Australian narrative.
After presenting the MoAD Creative Director, Nanette Louchart-Fletcher with a beautiful gift, Josephine, Anna and Aveline performed a ceremonial dance for us. Then the conversation flowed so beautifully with Emelda, Aunty Lydia, Danny, Anna, Aveline and Josephine all contributing in an organic way. At this stage I felt it was critical to postpone the chain stitch tuition element of the workshop as the conversation was so precious. We were very engaged and present; I will never forget the powerful sense of community and respect in the room at this time. Emelda spoke of not only her own pain but the pain of people like me who are on the journey to decolonise themselves by facing the truth of Australia's history. There was a sense of mutual understanding of the struggle to understand one another.
After about an hour there was a natural break in the conversation so we thought it a good time to do some chain stitch tuition. Many of the participants had jumped right in using the written instructions but others wanted some hands-on assistance. The chain stitching was a focus so that people could relax and digest the painful history and emotions in the room.
With the support and wisdom of Aunty Lydia and Emelda prior to the workshop I designed this small 14 cm x 14 cm embroidery design that features the conch shell representing the island tradition of blowing the conch. This tradition is used to call the group or community together. The broken lines in the background represent the trade routes where over 800 voyages were made during the blackbirding period of 1847 and 1908. At the end of the day we invited the group to contribute their embroidery block to be part of a quilt that will be donated to the Museum of Australian Democracy. Most of the participants volunteered to complete their block and join the project. There was also a lot of discussion about how people could get involved to support the Australia South Sea Islanders and the importance of DIY citizenship.
Right at end of the workshop, with Emelda's permission I gave her a craftivism gift that I had been working on for the two years since we had met. Emelda was inclusive towards me right from the start when I flew to Sydney on a whim to meet her in November 2017. Over a lunch in Sydney she offered me access to her late brother's photographs. At the time I didn't feel right about whether it was culturally sensitive to work with the photos but decided to create a personal embroidery combining chain stitch on a vintage handkerchief and new linen as a type of friendship gift and to help me understand her brother and their relationship in a non-intrusive way.
Emelda's response demonstated the power of craftivism as she immediately opened up emotionally and started talking about her brother as the embroidery includes a portrait of him. She was deeply moved and we were too, as a result of her reaction. It was a very intimate, touching experience which confirmed the power of craft to connect, create meaning, build trust and connection and to help us share stories of sadness that are sometimes difficult to put into words.
I feel very grateful to have shared in this deeply moving experience and thank Emelda, Aunty Lydia, Josephine, Anna, Aveline, Danny and the amazing MoAD team (Nanette, Amy, Brooke, Naomi, Anna) for all their hard work, openness and belief that we could make this happen together. I also wish to thank the incredible participants, some who travelled interstate to attend. Without your openness to this painful part of Australia's history this meaningful event would not have taken place. I am very thankful for your contribution and look forward to seeing your finished embroideries.
And of course, special thanks to the beautiful and dynamic Waskam Emelda Davis who has shown me such generosity and inclusivity. She has taught me to be more patient and to trust things will fall into place at the right time. Thanks to her I am now more culturally sensitive. I will be forever grateful that I listened to my intuition and flew to Sydney to meet her. Together we have lived the spirit of Yumi Olgeta and hope you will join us as this ongoing program unfolds. Who knows where it will take us all?