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Bern Emmerichs

Born: 1961, Melbourne
Works: Melbourne

Bern Emmerichs
Video: 4 minutes

Artist statement

Wrapped within the narrative of Australia’s history is the tale of the Rajah quilt. On 5 April 1841, the ship Rajah left Woolwich, England for Van Diemen’s Land, arriving in Hobart 15 weeks later. On board were 180 convict women and their children, a surgeon and three free passengers; there was also an array of sewing supplies provided by the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. On the voyage, the women – led by free passenger Kezia Hayter – stitched a textile measuring a remarkable 325 by 337 centimetres, which was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin.

Cross-Stitched (Centre panel), 2018 by Bern Emmerichs

For me, the Rajah quilt is a portrait of hope created in treacherous conditions at sea. It is a women’s story born of our colonial origins.  

Ruffles on the Rajah, 2018 by Bern Emmerichs

My three ceramic artworks are also about hope. In Ruffles on the Rajah, we see a ship in elevation depicting the women and children on the voyage, each recognised and given dignity on board the vessel. From this sense of layered community comes Ms, Mrs, and Miss Demeanours. Here, every plate is stamped with a name from the historical record of the voyage, arranged together in plan view as the island of Tasmania. The plates are all second-hand, imbued with their own histories gained from homes over time. Finally, Cross-Stitched is a cruciform talisman paying homage to the many elements of the wider story, including Lady Jane Franklin, Kezia Hayter and English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. The quilt appears mid-centre.

The three works can be read as a sequential narrative that is both epic and intimate. I hope people find So Fine threads inside the legend of the Rajah quilt, a beautiful, true story from our colonial past that lives on today.

...and palette knife. To get my Andy Warhol signature. Up here, in the pink frame. My sister got it in New York. She jumped into his limousine. The Rajah Quilt was done on a convict ship that set sail the fifth of April, 1841 I think. On that ship, all the women were given little bags of sewing equipment, fabrics, scissors, needles, everything needed for making this quilt, and the result was a three metre by three metre amazing piece of art. And I read up about it, it was just fascinating, and also the characters behind it, like Kezia Hayter, who was the matron on the ship, and she was sent down to look after the women on the ship. She fell in love with the captain of the ship, I think it was Captain Ferguson. She had a very eventful time, it was busy. Trailblazing Jane, that's Lady Jane Franklin. She was married to the governor-general of Tasmania. She was a bit of a character, didn't have any children, and probably just wanted to be a celebrity really. This is the Rajah ship, that's all the 180 women, including the children. Every little bit of data was recorded about them because if they escaped, then they would, yes, that's you. I mean right down to scar on the left shoulder or whatever because I suppose that's like a place record. And often with the women, it was just BAD in capital letters, shocking. There was a report done when the ship landed, I think in Hobart, and a newspaper that had written about it and sort of saying that the women on this convict ship were seemed to be a little bit more well-behaved, but saying that, that was probably because they were occupied with this and loved maybe doing it, and probably just that nice thing of women getting together and having a good gnasher and a sew. I've got here the shape of Tasmania. This I've done the plates in representing all the 180 female convicts that were on the ship. Being significant because food was probably the highlight of the day, being on the ship, and just putting their names up in lights because what they produced on that ship was quite extraordinary. If you look closely, there's a red smudge on every one. Well that's my fingerprint, sort of representing their fingerprint, just that blood, sweat and tears that they would have endured on that ship, the hardship. The writing, like this writing here, is done with stamps. I use very fine brushes, so much so that I'll buy brushes and give them haircuts, cut them down, so I finally have got very few hairs on the brush. But yeah, it's my therapy, I suppose. Aldo, Aldo. Hi, you are so cheeky.