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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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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.

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.  

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.

1 Cross Stitched, 2018. 2 Ms, Mrs, and Miss Demeanours, 2018. Both by Bern Emmerichs.

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.

Video transcript

8 portraits

1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6 . Ruffles on the Rajah (detail) 2018 All by Bern Emmerichs.

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Bern Emmerichs

Related information

Marilyn Ball, Albatross, 2018 (detail) by Linde Ivimey
Marilyn Ball, Albatross, 2018 (detail) by Linde Ivimey
Marilyn Ball, Albatross, 2018 (detail) by Linde Ivimey
Marilyn Ball, Albatross, 2018 (detail) by Linde Ivimey

So Fine

Contemporary women artists make Australian history

Previous exhibition, 2018

This exhibition features new works from ten women artists reinterpreting and reimagining elements of Australian history, enriching the contemporary narrative around Australia’s history and biography, reflecting the tradition of storytelling in our country.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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