Last weekend I attended my second Brisbane Writers Festival held at the State Library of Queensland. It was a really interesting day filled with tours and talks. I started by joining a curator-led tour of the exhibition Plantation Voices in the Philip Bacon Heritage Gallery. A huge thank you to Imelda Miller for her wonderful and informative tour. I really appreciated hearing about the decision-making process behind why certain objects and themes were included. It added this incredible new layer to seeing the exhibition. I want this post to focus on the exhibition and tour then briefly mention the other two events I attended at the end.
Plantation Voices Context
Plantation Voices tells such a crucial story of the history and identity of both South Sea Islanders and Australian South Sea Islanders. Throughout the tour, Miller helped to clarify the difference. South Sea Islanders refers to the first generations who were brought to Australia as indentured labourers to work for the sugar and cotton industries. This occurred between 1863 and 1904. Many of these individuals were blackbirded, kidnapped or tricked into working on such plantations. In total, around 62 000 contracts were issued. After 1904, 10 000 individuals remained in Australia, specifically in Queensland where they had worked.
Australian South Sea Islanders refers to the latter generations who are not connected to ‘any one place or land’ (source). For those reading this post who are unaware, the South Sea islands consist of around 80 separate islands including Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia.
The exhibition is divided into four themes – repatriation, repression, reclamation and resilience. There is also a small introduction section that sets the scene and showcases a large map of the South Sea islands from the 19th century. In each section there are a number of physical objects on display including books, treaties and photographs. As Miller explained, being able to show this history in its original and physical form is important in order to reclaim the history. Some of the most powerful objects in the exhibition are the photo albums and a hospital register.
Repatriation addresses what happened after 1904 and the effect of the White Australia Policy on South Sea Islanders. A highlight object in this section is the Pacific Islanders’ Association Petition from 1906. It really highlights the agency of South Sea Islanders when being faced with the challenge of deportation. This petition fought for exemptions from deportation – primarily for those who had married outside the Pacific, owned freehold land or had a disability that prevented them from working on the islands. As Miller stated, petitions such as these came as a shock to the Government who didn’t believe South Sea Islanders had the ability to be so organised.
Another powerful object in this section was a passbook issued to Takin-we-her in 1883. Next to this document is an identity paper from 1899 displaying a handprint found on the reverse side of the form. For those unable to read or write, this was an alternative to making their mark. Miller pointed it out as an object that really resonated with her as you could feel a strong connection as someone’s entire hand had been placed on this sheet.
This is a particularly difficult theme that looks at how South Sea Islanders then Australian South Islanders were treated post 1904. The use of Miller’s family photographs and story adds an emotional and personal touch to the exhibition helping visitors make sense of the isolation and exclusion felt (and continuing to be felt) by South Sea Islander communities.
Moving from repression to reclamation transforms the story into one of hope. As South Sea Islanders began to reclaim their history and document their heritage, there was a desire to have this acknowledged by the wider community. On 25 August 1994, the Australian Government officially recongised South Sea Islanders and Australian South Sea Islanders as a unique cultural group with their own history and culture.
This theme is an amazing way to end the exhibition. Rather than stopping at reclamation and the positives that have been achieved, the exhibition really goes further. By having this theme at the end, it is a way of ending on a comma and not a full stop. This space is dedicated to sharing a few examples of how this community continues to thrive. There are artworks by four artists on display that play with the notion of identity and what it means to be part of this community. The artists featured are Dylan Mooney, Jasmine Togo-Brisby, LaVonne Bobongie and Joella Warkill.
Overall, this exhibition achieved its aim, to provide voices to those from the past, and highlight the community’s continuing strength. Unfortunately, the exhibition is now closed. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to hear about Miller’s experience with developing the exhibition and promoting this often overlooked Queensland story.
Other Brisbane Writers Festival Events
The other two events I attended were true crime related. One was Crime Fiction & #metoo featuring authors Caroline de Costa, M J Tjia and Meera Atkinson. This was quite a fascinating discussion on crime fiction and whether or not we can morally read and write crime in this day and age. Essentially, the answer was yes, yes we can. Especially when the female trope in true crime (as the nameless victim) is turned on its head.
Finally, I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Hedley Thomas, journalist behind the podcast Teacher’s Pet. In an interview with Matt Condon, Thomas spoke about his experience making the podcast. Considering Teacher’s Pet has been downloaded over 50 million times around the world, it was great to hear the stories behind making the podcast and how it was recorded. For legal reasons, Thomas couldn’t disclose much about the podcast itself. It was revealed that Thomas is currently working on a new podcast that will be released soon!