• Dr. Kelsey Ashe

Pearls and Blackbirds – Visualising hidden heritage through contemporary art film

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

Pearls and Blackbirds – Visualising hidden heritage through contemporary art film

WA State Heritage & History Conference 2019 – ‘Handle with Care’ Paper + Notes

Dr. Kelsey Ashe Giambazi





Image: Pearls and Blackbirds Harbour Projection and Activation, Fremantle Biennale, 2019.

I wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, the Noongyar people of the Whadjuk nation and the Yawuru people of which this paper concerns. I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture. I also warn that my presentation contains images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that you may find distressing.

Hello my name is Kelsey Ashe Giambazi; Artist, curator and academic at Curtin University, I Completed a PhD in 2018 which investigated the reception of Japanese culture into Australia, particularly during the colonial period. My current interests are in the post-colonial exotic and multi-culturalism as a form of contemporary Australian identity and contemporary art as a mode of reconciliation and of uncovering or ‘unforgetting’ the dark and hidden past.

As a researcher and artist I use factual knowledge combined with contemporary visual art forms, such as film, photography and soundscapes to enable visualisation of important cultural heritage which is otherwise hidden, forgotten.

The Abstract for the project I am currently developing, titled Pearls and Blackbirds, reads thus:

‘Pearls and Blackbirds’, is a screen-based artwork, filmed partially underwater in the seas around Fremantle and Northern WA, examining both dark and light undercurrents of WA’s historically significant pearling industry through contemplation of the lives and stories of female Aboriginal pearl divers and Japanese prostitutes that traversed through the port of Fremantle and Northern WA in the late nineteenth century.

The commercial Pearling Industry of the late 19th century transformed Northern WA into a prime colonial outpost of trade and Fremantle into a flourishing multi-cultural port town, flushed with the affluence of ship building Pearl Luggers and off-season Pearl Masters spending their new fortunes. Japanese Prostitutes began arriving into the Port of Fremantle in the 1870s and 1880s prior to the implementation of the White Australia Policy of 1901. The local government turned a blind eye to the organised Brothels that were established, as it was seen to be more acceptable for men to attend these than put the lives of ‘white women’ in danger. The secret histories of ‘blackbirding’ – forcing Aboriginal women, to dive for pearls is the darker undercurrent that fragments the exotic romanticism of the Pearling story.

I intend that ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ can begin to imbue an overdue acknowledgement of the collective histories of trauma and sorrow of women from different cultures, in particular that of our Indigenous women who were often treated very brutally.

Through a series of dramatic underwater performances I have commissioned, the work also explores the dangerous, mysterious underwater world the Japanese divers and enslaved Aboriginal divers worked in together, by filming re-enactments of fully functioning Leibe Gorman Copper helmet diving apparatus aboard the oldest fully restored Pearl Lugger still in Australian waters – the ‘RoseF’.

This artwork is a meditation on immense beauty and pain, humanity and redemption. It provokes difficult, yet transformative conversation by adding expressive voices to this significant era in WA history, helping to shape our cultural imagination, sense of belonging and identity. By enabling visualisation of hidden heritage, ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ also has the potential to overhaul pre-conceived ideas about our Australian multi-cultural and Indigenous history and assist in displacing dominant accounts through embodiment of new perspectives.

The film was commissioned by the Fremantle Biennale and will be presented at the WA Maritime Museum for the entire Month of November 2019. The film depicts an intense and emotive early instance of cross-cultural encounter on Australian shores. Set in 1888, focuses on a very narrow passage of time where Japanese hard hat divers worked simultaneously underwater with black-birded Aboriginal skindivers - men and women who were stolen, traded and forced to work diving for Pearls. I am presenting my work in progress to the native Title holders of the Broome area Yawuru this year and hope to incorporate further Indigenous content into the film, such as music, song, narrated story and language.

Some of you may be aware that just this month the bodies of 7 black-birded Pearl diving Yawuru girls were finally repatriated from Berlin back to their homeland in the North West. Their bodies were taken to German Museums in the 19th Century as artefacts of the Australian colony. Forensic testing on the bodies of these girls, reveals the dreadful trauma they endured, which supports oral accounts of brutality inflicted upon the skin-diving Aboriginals. So the film is a timely reflection on these historical and contemporary occurences as they continue to affect us deeply as they continue to unravel. I have been consulting with Yawuru regarding content and permission to film on Yawuru land later this year.

Although derived from facts and researched archival evidence, Pearls and Blackbirds is a fictional tale of the chance encounter between a Japanese prostitute ‘Ama’ who travelled through the port of Fremantle to work in Broome and a young female black-birded Aboriginal girl, ‘Pearl’ who meet for only one minute outside a Japanese Brothel in Broome after ‘Pearl’ (my female Aboriginal protagonist) is exchanged between a Blackbirder and a Pearl Lugger Captain. The film also touches on the friendship between Japanese Hard Hat divers and Aboriginal pearling crew members and features other colonial characters of the frontier that was the North West of Australia in the late Nineteenth Century.

Broome in WA provides one of the most concentrated points of early multiculturalism in Australian history – particularly for the Japanese culture I am interested in, which maintained the largest immigrant group due to their involvement in the Pearling Industry for both Females and Males.

History and Impact of Pearling

Several disparate but intertwined histories collide to make the narrative within my film a possibility. In a far-away fishing hamlet known as Taiji on the southern shores of Japan, a village known for its whaling, had in 1878, a female right whale give birth to a calf near its shores. Although it was local taboo to hunt a female with calf, the whaling industry was in decline due to foreign intensive whaling and the income for Taiji from whale meat had fallen considerably. Excited with their good fortune, almost the entire adult male population, set out in their boats and captured the whale in a large net. The mother fought with great fury to protect her calf and dragged the boats out to sea. It became dark and the men became cold and exhausted, struggling with their oars to tow the whale. By morning the fleet was scattered, the whale was finally cut loose but the storm worsened.

Within a few days, the cream of the Taiji whalers, divers and fishermen, and the best of their boats, had been swept far out to sea and had died from exposure or drowning, 130 men killed and only a handful of survivors, leaving the tiny village in deep mourning.

Unable to survive through whaling, the fatherless, young boys of Taiji heard through the crews of foreign ships seeking whale oil, of money to be earnt in the Pearling Industry in the Northwest of Western Australia and so Broome gained some of the best divers and tenders in the Pearling Fleet.

The Pearling industry in the North West was still emerging at this time. Early Swan River colonists moving north for opportunities for wealth drove its development. Initially pearl shell was collected literally off the beach and in shallow water without resort to violence as the Aboriginal families, traded their labour for food. But records show that from in 1868 there was a transition from wading in shallow water, to wading up to the armpits and then onto actual diving, requiring a form of more violent coercion from the Pearler to his Aboriginal labour crews of men, women and children. We know that by the 1870s Black-birded, or enslaved Aboriginals were working in depths of around 10-15 metres. Not having any diving aids or protective clothing the process came to be given many names, with the term ‘naked diving’ or ‘diving in bare pelt’ common. Because of their acknowledged superior physical fitness and visual skills and their ability to endure great physical hardship, the Aborigines proved the equal of any global pearl divers. But drowning, shark attack, illness and violence took many, many lives.

Numerous police and government reports record how Aboriginal people from the Pilbara and Kimberley regions were forced to work as divers, the Slave traders or blackbirders would round up Aboriginal men and women at gunpoint and sell them to pearling captains. At its peak, blackbirding was a flagrant practice, as described in an excerpt from a report by Government Resident Colonel E.F. Angelo in 1886, when he named three white men who,

"...publicly advertised themselves to procure and put niggers aboard at five pounds a head for anybody, or shoot them for the Government at half a crown a piece." (Collins, 2018)

Of course, Pearl Shell has been integral to WA Indigenous cultural heritage for millenia, in the form of artistic and ritual artefact. The riji-shell shown here as ornaments within Indigenous dress, were and still are sacred artefacts symbolic for rights of passage. Pearls were not sacred, in fact pearls have been found in ancient middens and anecdotal evidence suggests that they were used as marbles or play toys, discarded afterwards as insignificant. But to the Pearl Master, one decent pearl could set a man up for life, bringing him riches beyond his wildest dreams. The hunt for this treasure of the sea consumed many men and drove many to increasing risk and levels of savageness to achieve. Pearl Shell itself was a commodity attracting large sums overseas and many white men became very affluent by relying heavily on the slave labour of Aboriginal crews that spent all day diving, from dawn to dusk without a break. Not even a lunch break was allowed, the food was basic. For Aboriginal women on these boats, as we know from the repatriated bodies of the 7 Yawuru girls, and from sad songs and oral histories passed down, forced prostitution, rape, violence and mistreatment were common.

WARNING The next image I must warn is deeply saddening -an image which was the catalyst that made me want to make this film. These girls were so young, I see the face of my own daughter. Laws were passed in far off Perth in the 1870s to protect the Indigenous, but little if nothing changed for many decades in the North. Skippers could imply choose to ignore the rules out on a vast ocean with only the hunger for more shell and the possibility of a pearl coming up to spur him on. Life was expendable and there was ample supply of these young men and women to dive, albeit held at gunpoint or beaten into submission.

In the 1880s further laws were introduced to protect Aboriginal women and children from exploitation on the Luggers, however with most law enforcement individuals invested in some way or another in the Pearling Industry, the laws were not still not effectively enforced and the practice continued, often in the open but also partially obscured from prying eyes right up until the turn of the century and after. Blackbirding simply went off shore becoming baracooning – isolating Aboriginal women on islands for slave trading and prostitution. Of course there were what were called ‘friendly’ law abiding luggers and crews, but in general the Indigenous population were subject to horrific acts of degradation, violence and penury during the early days of the Pearling Industry.

The other key instance that makes this filmic narrative a possibility is the arrival of Japanese divers from the 1870s, increasing into the 1880s and beyond. As the laws to protect Aboriginal women and children, thankfully became more abided by, Pearlers relied more upon male Aboriginals as Deckhands and on the Japanese Divers and their hard hat apparatus to scourge the sea bed in deeper and deeper swathes to lift shell from its ocean bed. Aboriginal divers were kept at close hand however to cover shallower grounds. The year I chose for my film 1888, is a point in time when women were being illegally being forced to dive and Japanese men began joining the Lugger crews – it was a time of overlap and cross-cultural encounter, not just for the Japanese/Aboriginal as depicted in my film, but also other cultures – Malay, South Pacific, Indonesia, Chinese and Europeans. It is also a trigger, echoing 1788, the year that Australia was supposedly colonised in the eastern States, it is a call to re-think vast swathes of time, like a century.

It is also a time when we know that there were many Japanese prostitutes in Broome, Cossack and the surrounding areas. Karayuki-san (literally meaning girl gone overseas) was the name given to Japanese girls and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were trafficked from poverty-stricken agricultural and fishing prefectures in Japan to destinations in East Asia, Southeast Asia, British India and Western Australia to serve as prostitutes. These women were part of an established and sanctioned prostitution syndicate which was tolerated and condoned by the authorities. Women were bartered and paid and sold and serviced the Pearling industries men and effectively helped build an economy in the North West by providing money for Japanese Divers to become Independent and begin their own companies and crews. These women were largely invisible, working behind closed doors and corrugated iron as laundresses and storekeepers by day and entertainers of men by night.

So it is in the overlapping of all these elements that my artwork derives its narrative content and historical facts. The Biennale asked me to reflect on Fremantle in some way, to reveal Fremantle to itself. When I studied the effect of Pearling on Fremantle I could see that all these stories too, were deeply entwined and so the hatching of this artwork was realised.

In the 1860s the Swan Colony in Fremantle had been experiencing such a slump in economy and morale that Convictism was re-introduced to stimulate the economy and the town, even though it had ceased in all other parts of Eastern States of Australia and Tasmania at that time. The Colony was being called a failure, crops failed, economy and society were depressed, reports of the colony were miserable. But when Pearl Shells began to be gathered in vast numbers in the North West and bought to Fremantle for export, it was a major turning point in Fremantle’s colonial history. Pearling in the north was a boon for Fremantle and WA by that turn: Fremantle Port became more active, the South Bay Shipyards rushed to fill demand for Pearling Luggers, jewellers worked to skin and set pearls and shops and pubs flourished as free spending Pearlers and their wives visited the port town between expeditions. Enthusiastic local officials arranged for the improvement to the port facilities, extending South Jetty to 139 metres and then building a massive new jetty which extended south West from Angelsea Point in to deep water.

Well prior to the gold rush in the 1890s, it was the pearling Nor'-Westers, as they were then called, used to come down and spend large sums of money entertaining their friends, enjoying themselves at balls and parties, and travelling about the country, from March to September that jolted the WA economy and helped build this state, pulling it out of an economic and societal slump. Hundreds of boats were built, both large and small, and a good deal was spent in repairs to their schooners. The money for these repairs alone ran into the thousands of pounds, and in addition the pearlers bought large quantities of stores, both food and supplies, clothing and hardware, to take back with them for the six month Pearling season. Store keepers, boat builders, saw millers, blacksmiths, ships carpenters, sail makers, painters, tailors, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, prostitutes, pub and hotel owners looked forward to the coming of the hundreds of Nor-Westers, who put life into the economy. My films narrative acknowledges that this wealth was partially built on the backs of invisible women such as Pearl and Ama.

Thus far we have had a few film shoots with a still quite a few to complete before the film is finished. I was shocked to learn of blackbirding when I began my project researching the Japanese history entwined with Pearling in Broome. I found that I could not make art anymore that did not take this into consideration. I was told on the Willie Creek Pearl Farm tours (who are now one of my major sponsors) in Broome – not to look too closely at the history as it was “too sad”…I felt a massive sensation of a dark history that had been swept under the mat, leaving generations of trauma and grief unacknowledged and therefore unhealed. The tour guide told me that most people, especially Australians are shocked by this truth, the majority are completely unaware, some interstate tourists have even disputed the idea and people have walked out in despair or disbelief upon hearing stories of slavery and forced prostitution.

Many have said to leave the history to rest. But rest it does not. It haunts, lingers and traumatises. It is stirred by the return of 7 young girls from Germany to Australia, how can we account for this? How do we come to terms with the truth of the often brutal, difficult history of how Western Australia came to be? How do we encourage truth telling in a way that contributes to increased awareness about our past and to reconciliation, so that we may all live like kin? How do we move ahead together?

I had the strong desire to make more prominently acknowledged the rich heritage of this nation’s first people and to make contribution to a process of healing trauma’s inflicted by the colonial regime against Aboriginality. As Professor Ted Snell said very eloquently in his Editorial only last month in the West Australian “its time we got serious about celebrating the Aboriginal heritage of Boorloo/Perth and its surrounds “and assist in the necessary healing of relationships between the original owners and those more recently arrived” (Snell, 2019).

The creative arts have the power to tell stories that written words alone cannot, to evoke sensory memory, and empathy, and compassion, shining a light that heals. There is a statue on the foreshore of Roe Buck bay (Shire of Broome and Kimberley Development Commission through Royalties for Regions) which is a great start in acknowledging the women that gave their lives to help build the pearling industry, also the exhibition ‘Lustre’ at WAM also touched on this history, but I felt strongly that I needed to make an artwork myself in relation to this.

My objectives are to show the richness of original culture of this land, but also to relay a narrative of early multi-culturalism, exploring the possibilities of Contemporary Art as a mode of un-forgetting shared cultural historical narratives. Of situating the past into the present, making it palpable, visible, visceral. Using art to overcome forgetting in powerful and unique ways. Within the hushed and contemplative tones of a museum or gallery space we are able to fully engage, immerse and feel an experience. Film in particular with its ability to absorb and suspend belief, situates the viewer in a mode of receiving felt and therefore embodied information. It is a method of contemporary art that can stay with you long after the image recedes.

So the position is one of shared history and a site to move on from, acknowledgement, and a chance for redemption through placing alternative narratives into the story in a way that only film can. (Of course you can see I have high hopes for the film.)

Film, like Art, can be about exploring residue. Imagining the pain within the landscape and what residue might be left over. The film is not just about re-telling the history, it will not be a documentary. I wanted to embody a sensibility of that time to be sure: what were the feelings, how can you get inside the moments that have been forgotten? I decided to do it by writing a historically factually based story about two young women who meet by chance for a brief moment. Rather than one historical position that is fixed, I allow for multiple entry points of other narratives via filmic techniques, so that links between a historical era and our contemporary times can seep into the viewers awareness, capturing the attention of the audience and hopefully resonating with them afterwards. Surrealist like sequences allow for dreams and imaginings and new contemporary narratives and insights.

My research and art making has been about collecting, imagining, listening and re-creating. What academic and author Dr. Kate McMillan calls ‘Listening with our feet’. Memory retrieval and healing are also some of the sub themes of this work. In this sense the work is certainly autoethnographic, as my own embodied experiences of pain; losing a child and my father in terrible ways, stain and inform the work, through the intensity of my own experience. Contemporary Art allows for this in a way that some other forms of historical narrative may not and it is in the potential of this hybridised cross disciplinary research that my practice takes place.

So I have not aimed to simply retell the stories via fact. Although many scenes have been crafted as almost historically accurate (I’m not Hollywood) – but I’m more interested anyway in the ways that history can be liberated into a meaning that a contemporary audience can consume – something that can better be understood and engage our senses fully for a simultaneously beautiful yet haunted experience.

I feel as if we are brave enough to face it and hear it and understand what happened, we are deeply sorry for what happened. This is the first part of healing. Remembering, acknowledging, extending love and understanding. This film will be seen by hundreds of people of all ages. Reaching out to make bridges to a culture that was here well before me, or the Japanese, or any other culture, I acknowledge our shared history, I acknowledge that we cannot go back and we cannot undo, but we can, listen and begin to foster an appreciation of a culture that is one of the longest continuous cultures on earth. Yes, it is confrontational and yes, it is difficult, but humans have a resilience to move onwards and upwards…we look to be remade, reborn and re-created and Pearls and Blackbirds aims to explore some of these themes.


Collins, B. 2018. Reconciling the dark history of slavery and murder in Australian pearling, points to a brighter future. ABC Kimberley. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/slavery-in-australian-pearling/1021748. Retrieved 1/11/2018.

Jones, N. 2002. Number 2 Home, A story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle

McMillan, K. 2010. Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscape (PhD Thesis).

Nayar, P. 2012. Colonial Voices, The Discourses of Empire, Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford


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© 2019 Kelsey Ashe