Arrival of the Rajah Project

Many of our members participated in bringing this project into fruition.

The Kevin Murray Essay
Thanks Giving in Australia
I walk into a room where there’s a work of art on the floor. It looks like a satellite photo of
landscape, filled with undulating browns. I bend down to get a closer view. Like a lone homestead,
there’s an Aida cloth square embroidered in black thread. It has the letters RD and WS. Someone
has been here. I stand up and see a pattern of smaller patches. To capture it for later, I focus it on
my phone camera. The screen is filled with the words, “Thank you.” For what?
Eva Heiky Olga Abbinga was born in Australia to a Dutch father and Ukrainian mother. Despite the
mixed background, Abbinga’s Ukrainian heritage played a major role in her life. As a child, she
attended the Ukrainian Scouting camp in Sokil, hidden in the Otway Ranges on Wathaurong country.
Though not so directly affected by her Dutch forebears, she discovered early that her ancestor Jacob
van Loon, a cloth merchant, was painted by Rembrandt in The Sampling Officials of the Drapers'
Guild in 1662. Textiles also play an important role in her Ukrainian and Australian identity. The
Ukrainian story in Australia was invested in textiles, ranging from the precious embroideries retained
as heritage to the “make do” textiles of the refugee camps—pillow cases and rugs from potato
sacks. As a young mother, her partner’s Australian family gave her handmade quilts for her children.
An abiding concern for Abbinga is what it means to be a mixed heritage Australian Ukrainian. How
can you connect such a mild suburban culture as Australia with the raw tragedy that seems to
constitute modern Ukrainian history? In recent years, what is there in Australia that can reflect the
upheavals of the Maidan and the ongoing civil war? How can we make visible the radical uprooting
that lies underneath that tranquil surface?

Abbinga first approached this subject with her performance work, The Well (2013-2014). The Well
was commissioned for the 80th commemoration of the Holodomor—the ‘hunger-extermination’ of
1932-33, when Ukraine was subject to a planned famine by the Soviet Union, leading to the deaths
of 3-8 million people. During this time, the Soviet authorities planted a black flag in a village where
all residents had died of starvation, as a signal to collect the bodies. Abbinga’s contemporary
Australian response was to carry black flags in a procession from Fitzroy Gardens to Federation
Square, then later to parade them from West Space Gallery to the State Parliament. The bearers
were the Lehenda Dance Company dressed in traditional embroidered costumes.
These black flags served a double purpose. On the one hand, they referenced a mournful symbol of
the tragedy. And on the other, as abstract symbols with no precedent in Australia, the flag carrying
evoked the absence of any parallel reference here. It appeared like a virtual commemoration,
signifying a less known tragedy here.
The current project came out of the idea of sewing the flags in The Well together. Abbinga
discovered the Rajah Quilt when it surfaced in the exhibition Quilts: 1700-1945 at the Queensland
Art Gallery. This story offered her a parallel to the Ukrainian story in a language of textiles that could
be translated between the two cultures. As with The Well project, the challenge was to find a way of
bringing this to life again in contemporary Australia.

The first Rajah Quilt
The Rajah Quilt was named after the ship used to transport 180 female convicts from England to
Tasmania in 1841. These women had each been given a kit for them to work on a common piece for
the duration of their journey. The scheme was developed by Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker who formed
British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Fry believed that reform was possible
through a pastoral model that emphasised education and kindness. Needlework in particular was
seen to offer a means of contemplation, through which individuals might find their “inner light”. The
labour-intensive nature of patchwork was well suited to those with much time on their hands.
The women prisoners were under the charge of Miss Keiza Hayter, who had worked at Millbank
Penitentiary and was offered free passage in return for managing the patchwork program and on
arrival to assist Lady Franklin in the formation of Tasmanian Ladies' Society for the Reformation of
Female Prisoners. Women were supplied with 10 yards of fabric, 4 balls of white thread and a ball
each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, 100 needles,
threads, pins, scissors and 2 pounds of patchwork pieces. The result of their labour is a 325 x 337cm
coverlet which consisted of a square centre in the style of Broderie Perse (appliquéd chintz),
surrounded by twelve frames radiating outwards. The chintz was fashionable at the time and one
can imagine it represented a middle class culture normally beyond the reach of the women. The
result of their 14 weeks of labour is a handsome quilt that stands both as a testimony of labour and
work of art in its own right. Bloodstains can be found, probably where needles pricked the skin. The
ratio of 1 thimble to 100 needles was not particularly kind.

The inscription on the quilt reads:
of the
Convict ship committee.
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans Land is presented as a
testimony to the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also as proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonition of being industrious.
These words turn the quilt into an elaborate receipt, to be returned to Britain as testimony to the
benefits of this project. Unfortunately, Lady Franklin took a different attitude to reform, based on
discipline and punishment, and did not welcome the quilt.
Known today as the Rajah Quilt, it is the most frequently requested object for viewing in the
National Gallery of Australia. Apart from touring, it is normally made available for viewing only once
a year.

The second Rajah Quilt
Abbinga’s contemporary version of the Rajah Quilt re-grounds it in the here and now. This work was
distributed through different communities—Ukrainian Scouts, the Geelong Quilters Guild, the
Geelong Embroidery Guild and public through social media. For Arrival of the Rajah, Abbinga
produced 36 separate quilts, each of which contained three layers of fabric. Twenty pieces were
1200cm square and sixteen were curved, producing an overall circular shape. Fabric was coloured
with a variety of dyes including materials collected around Geelong—leaves, reeds and rods from
street cleaners.
Kits were distributed to quilters with instructions to ornament the textile with reference to their
own identity and the history of Rajah Quilt. Each design was dedicated to an individual female
convict. So seventy Aida cloth patches were distributed to the Ukrainian community and social
media for embroidering. These include five QR codes linked to tattoos recorded as being on the
bodies of the original quilters.
All the pieces fit together into a circle which is laid on the floor. At the centre of this are sixteen
burnt dowel rods. Those familiar with Abbinga’s work may think that the blackness of the flags in
The Well has migrated to the flag poles themselves. The quilt is activated by performers who each lie
face down on the quilts and walk around the work. It was first activated on the lawn of Geelong
Customs House in a performance lasting four hours, followed by another performance at the annual
Ukrainian scouts camp in Sokil.
The social structure underpinning the original Rajah Quilt was the colonial penitentiary system,
realised in the role played by Lady Franklin. For the contemporary Rajah, Abbinga has substituted a
commemorative ritual that evokes the shadow cast by settlement. The black poles can seem both to
refer to pre-contact forms of agriculture by fire and the devastation of the land and people that
European invasion wreaked. The closed ranks of the poles provide a contrast to the open expanse of

Quilt as art
Quilts have had a contentious status in the world of art. As products of domestic labour, often
consisting of textile scraps used as patches, quilts occupied a lowly status. They were seen as folk
craft, by contrast with original works of art in paint on canvas. In modern art, this was challenged by
the exhibition of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These came to being originally as make-do
textiles that attempted to compensate for unheated shacks occupied by descendants of slaves. They
were “discovered” as abstract works of art during exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at
the Whitney Museum (1971, and then in 2002 as a solo show). Though providing a popular
vernacular dimension to the realm of abstraction, this did not lead to individual quilt makers
becoming artists in the conventional sense. Nevertheless, it was useful in stimulating a market for
their works which continues today.

Quilt as politics
The visual arts dimension of Abbinga’s work is more in the form of a platform than as individual art
works to be contemplated in isolation. The modern history of quilts is in part the history of political
movements. The Quilts of the Underground Railroad were an alleged series of bedspreads that had
information sewn into them to help slaves escaping from the southern states of the USA find
freedom in the north (see the novel Cion by South African author Zakes Mda). That there is no
evidence for such quilts is testimony of their imaginary power as platforms for solidarity.
It is particularly the collective nature of quilt-making that largely contains their political power. In the
late nineteenth-century, funds were raised for the Australian missionaries caught up in the Kuching
Massacre in China by selling 50 spaces on a quilt on which the donors names would be sewn. The
Autograph Quilt was then sold at a church bazaar in Coburg, Melbourne. The potential for the quilt
to contain secret messages was used by women imprisoned in Changi, Singapore, during the Second
World War, who embroidered symbols that informed male prisoners of their presence. This event
inspired Abbinga to include QR codes.
This political role of quilts was brought into prominence particularly in 1985, when Cleve Jones
conceived of the NAME Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a means of giving visibility to this largely
hidden catastrophe. It was determined to have individual panels the size of a human grave—3 x 6
foot. The response was overwhelming. There are currently 48,000 individual memorial panels
representing over 94,000 people. This method was used again in the aftermath of the September 11
terrorist attack on New York.
Beyond memorialisation, quilts can also reflect on contemporary issues. Kathryn Clark has made a
series of Foreclosure Quilts that represent the recent history of evictions that beset USA in the wake
of the 2008 financial crisis. Clark shares with Abbinga a background in urban planning. The
resemblance of patches to blocks of land was used by her to represent the pattern of lost homes.
For Clark, quilts carry an interest in the lives of humble people: their association with shelter make
the depiction of homelessness particularly poignant. Around the same time, the US artist Ginger
Brooks Takahashi organised a series of quilting forums titled An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail. These
used the spirit of the quilting bee to bring together people seeking to represent their marginal
sexuality. These projects draw on the popular craftivist movements involved in actions like yarnbombing
which developed in the USA and have spread to Australia.
In Australia, there is an alternative trajectory in the visual arts that can be found in the performance
work of Tom Nicholson. Nicholson’s project Proposition for a Banner March entailed the creation of
textile banners that featured enigmatic pixelated faces. These evoked both the history of Trade
Union banners and the formal nature of propaganda posters. Nicholson mapped processions for the
parade of the banners through the streets of Australian towns. Though his work could be read as a
critique of the emptiness of contemporary politics, the collective activation in marches traces at
least a nominal form of solidarity. This resonates strongly with the black flags and poles used by
Abbinga, though her form of collectivity re-connects a trajectory back to the beginnings of

Beyond the Raj
The twenty-first century is a time to also think beyond the colonial context of the Rajah Quilt,
particularly given the Indian origins of its name. The Australian duo Caravana worked in Pakistan
with women under purdah, providing embroidery as a means of self-expression. They provided
digital cameras and conducted story-telling workshop to help foster expressiveness. The embroidery
form suited their sequestered lifestyle and offered something of tangible value (the works were sold
and the artists achieved good publicity). This is a rare example of the international language of
embroidery. Other solo Indian artists like Shelly Jyoti use quilts as a means of reflecting the material
culture of India incorporating historical fabric into works reflect major historical events such as the
Great Salt March.
In the recent essay for Garland magazine, textile historian and theorist Gopika Nath focuses on the
embroidery known as Phuklari, which was once widely practiced in the Punjab region, before the
Partition. For Nath this technique is a precious thread that connects the modern world of capitalist
India with its folk past. She sees embroidery as a privileged form of self-expression: “Unlike block
printing, weaving and other textile arts, embroidery work such as Phulkari is heavily invested with
the passion and presence of the person handling the needle and thread.”

Hand-sewn reconciliation
Abbinga’s work is critically important in re-imagining of the quilt as a collective space in the visual
arts. This involves a displacement from the domestic sphere to the public space of the art gallery,
where it can share stories with strangers. But it still retains the connection to everyday life. Unlike a
precious painted canvas, the quilt can be thrown around for different uses (many have already slept
under the quilts in this exhibition). And the versatility of the needle allows participants to work on
the quilt in their own homes.
Beyond the formal issues, this quilt has something important to say about non-indigenous Australia.
Abbinga’s Rajah quilt has a parallel with the Victorian Aboriginal practice of the possum-skin cloak.
In the late twentieth-century, Aboriginal leaders and artists revived this tradition for special events,
such as the Commonwealth Games. Janet McGaw proposes that these cloaks function as maps, as
different communities have been responsible for inscribing separate pieces with their own designs.
Abbinga connects us to a story of settlement that involves the kind of struggle we associate with
displaced peoples. The unglamorous lives of these female convicts were shaped by the English class
system, that forced them into petty crime, which earned them transportation to the other side of
the world. Beyond the glories of British empire, non-indigenous Australians are searching for an
alternative story of origins, which reflects a kind of struggle that lends itself to solidarity with those
original inhabitants, swept aside by colonisation. A key part of the process has been sharing this
story with the local indigenous communities around Geelong, the Wathaurong people. Abbinga
presented the story to the Wathaurong Art Group, who reciprocated with a Welcome to Country in
the Geelong event and the Next Wave exhibition.
“Thank you” for who and for what? I’ve since learnt that “Thank you” was, for Abbinga, partly a
response to the Aboriginal artist Bindy Cole Chocka’s reconciliation work, We all need forgiveness for
the Sydney Biennale (2014), in which a video grid of voices said “I forgive you”. It was also
recognition of the collective nature of the work, including the original convict quilters, the groups
who contributed their needlework today, and we who bear witness in our own lives to this ongoing
testament of settler history. The Arrival of the Rajah is a receipt, but to a different bearer. The
original Rajah Quilt was addressed to representatives of empire. Today, Abbinga’s quilt arrives back
in the land that was taken. It acknowledges the exclusion at the heart of settlement, while sewing
new roots into the land. For that we can offer thanks.

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT School of Art, managing editor of Garland Magazine and
Vice-President of the World Crafts Council - Asia Pacific Region.