Yumi Olgeta: Crafting a More Inclusive Democracy is a unique collaboration that has formed over the last two years between ASSIPJ, Australian Artist Helen Fraser and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra. In 2017 Helen joined an international quilt project called the United Declaration of Human Rights Quilt Project developed by Dr Tal Fitzpatrick (Melbourne) and Stephanie Dunlap (USA) which led her to research Australia’s Slave Trade history. Her quilt block in this project was titled “Australia has a Slave History too” and was projected onto the front of Old Parliament House during the Canberra Enlighten Festival in 2019. It is now part of the Museum of Australian Democracy collection as they purchased the four quilts from this project in 2020.
As a white, middle aged woman born in country Victoria Helen was shocked and profoundly upset that she did not know about the history of blackbirding. Wanting a more personal perspective she reached out to Waskam Emelda Davis, Chairwoman of the Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson and travelled to Sydney in November 2018 to meet some of the community. When Elder Auntie Shireen Malaboo said the words “If we tell the truth we will all grow up”, Helen was committed to finding a way to learn and contribute to a more inclusive society where blackbirding is recognised and descendants honoured. With the help of the creative team at the Museum of Australian Democracy she joined with Emelda, Auntie Lydia George, Danny Togo and the Napen Napen Cultural Women visiting from Vanuatu for a heartfelt conversation about the true history of this nation. Participants were able to listen while chain stitching an embroidery block Helen designed in collaboration with ASSIPJ to symbolise the calling together of the community with the conch shell. It was a powerful day of truth-telling and learning.
Due to the success and impact of this first workshop the participants decided to donate their blocks for a commemorative ASSI Quilt. Helen’s network also contributed so we now have 40 blocks for a colourful border for the quilt. With the help of the City of Sydney we recently commissioned the Napen Napen Women in Port Vila, Vanuatu to create three custom designed weavings to add significant wording, symbolism and to honour the Yumi 40 Anniversary which has taken place during the project this year. The weavings will be surrounded by a patchwork of culturally symbolic motifs – the frangipani and hibiscus flower, the sugar cane plant and the turtle. Helen will be running online embroidery and applique workshops late Feb - Mar 2021 to support participants to create one of these four designs which will suit beginners to advanced stitchers. So even if you have never used a needle and thread now could be the time to learn some skills and share your voice so that broader Australia can learn and understand your perspective.
To register for an online workshop go to https://events.humanitix.com/yumi-olgeta-embroidery-workshop-crafting-a-more-inclusive-democracy
What does Yumi Olgeta mean?
Yumi Olgeta (pronounced 'Yumi Olgeda') means 'you and me, together' in Bislama language (pronounced 'Bishlama'). This was the way that the Australian South Sea Islanders, kidnapped from over 80 islands of the Vanuatu and Solomon Islands, communicated with one another during the blackbirding period of 1847 and 1908. Through Yumi Olgeta:Crafting a More Inclusive Democracy we are hoping to raise awareness of Australia's Slave Trade History and improve the lives of the descendants of blackbirding now and in the future.
Click on this chain stitch photo to hear a short U-Tube video of Bislama language being spoken....
Our first Workshop
Saturday the 17th August, 2019 at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra.
Along with the incredibly dynamic Waskam Emelda Davis, the Chairwoman of the Australian South Sea Islanders - Port Jackson who has blackbirding heritage from the islands of Tanna, Ambae and Santo and proud Torres Strait Islander woman Aunty Lydia George, also with blackbirded heritage from Penticost, Solomon Islands and Lifu, I conducted a Chain Stitch workshop for participants to help them learn a new skill while digesting truth telling and the history of the Australian Slave Trade. Craft is a great way to relax and take in information in a gentle way that can be easily digested.
Napen Napen Cultural women of Port Vila, Vanuatu
We were also lucky enough to have the company of three women visiting from Vanuatu under a scheme funded by the Vanuatu Government. Josephine, Anna and Aveline work in Port Vila for the Vanuatu Connection - Arts and Krafts and are very skilled weavers. They were accompanied by Danny Togo from Sydney, who is on the Board of ASSI-PJ. Emelda, Josephine, Anne, Aveline and Danny were initially dressed in traditional clothing and right from the start spoke with passion and openness about their history and its impact on them, their families and communities. There was story-telling, singing, dancing, tears, laughter, hugging and gift-giving - it was a truly magical and unforgettable event that taught us all so much.
The chain stitch embroidery design
To show the possibilities of simple chain stitch, I completed the block using our selected colours from the Australian South Sea Islanders - Port Jackson logo. We are encouraging participants to consider their skill level. Simple chain can be used effectively for a flat all over finish using the colours provided in the workshop.
However, participants can also branch out using the instructions given to try 8 other chain stitch styles. There are approximately 100 different types of chain stitch so there's plenty to learn.
Project 1: 25th Anniversary ASSI Commemorative Quilt
Due to the enthusiasm of Yumi Olgeta Workshop participants to contribute their blocks to a Craftivism object, we decided to open up the project to anyone around the world to be all inclusive. We have collected 40 blocks which will become a beautiful border for a large quilt that will be donated back to the Museum of Australian Democracy in late 2021 for their private collection to celebrate the 25th and 26th Anniversary of the Australian South Sea Islanders gaining Commonwealth Government recognition as a distinct cultural group as well as the 40th Anniversary of Vanuatu's Independence in 2020. This means that ASSI will be further included in the conversations about Australia's democracy which is very significant to them.
What will happen to your embroidery?
Helen recently collaborated with ASSIPJ and the Napen Napen Cultural Women/Vanuatu Arts and Krafts to come up with three weaving designs to add wording and cultural symbolism to the quilt. In late Feb - March 2021 Helen will run online embroidery and applique workshops to help community members create culturally appropriate motifs or their own designs to be patchworked into the quilt centrepiece around the central weaving. To keep an organic feel to the finished work the quilt will be hand pieced and hand quilted during May to June 2021. The finished work will be presented to the Museum of Australian Democracy late 2021. This means the whole process will have taken two years at least to complete, highlighting the slow nature of stitching and the power of the group taking one step - or stitch - at a time, together in the spirit of Yumi Olgeta.
Future Craftivism Projects
Australian South Sea Islanders (Port Jackson) (ASSIPJ) was formed in Sydney NSW with the support of an elder’s council and younger ASSI community leaders in 2010. The purpose of ASSIPJ was to build on past and continue the much-needed advocacy work that will eventually see the truth told of a history that is challenging, conflicting and very complex for the descendants of Australia’s Blackbirding trade.
The ASSIPJ journey has been one of both extreme frustration and heartache as well as breakthrough and joy as we worked for the recognition of some 60,000 Melanesian men and women that were stolen, culturally kidnapped and displaced from the eighty islands of Vanuatu and Solomons. This included many children who were not documented on ship-logs. These people were forced into a Sugar Slave trade and worked alongside First Nations peoples in pastoral, maritime and other industries that established the economic base of our country.
Today, some 172 years later, the work of ASSIPJ and many ASSI organisations continues to advocate for inclusion, with minimal progress. This in a country that prides itself on Diversity and Inclusion through Multiculturalism as part of the great Australian narrative.
2019 marked the 25th Anniversary of the recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders by the 1994 Keating Government as suffering severe discrimination and racism. The recognition by that Government of the community as a ‘distinct cultural group’ who valued our islands of origin and cultural heritage promised greater inclusion in programs and services.