Not so long ago I downsized and I now live in a very small apartment. Although I have had this particular work of art for a number of years the fact that it is hanging on a different wall that’s providing a changed aspect has allowed me to interact much more with the drawing.
This large charcoal drawing is the work of Chinese artist Zhi Ozqiang Ding who resides in Parramatta. I met Ding at the Parramatta Art Studios in 2009 when he had a studio there and I an artist residency.
Ding watched the way I worked with the community inviting adults, students and special groups along to be part of my ‘Roses from the Heart’ memorial to Australia’s convict women.
I had a wonderful time interacting with the community. I worked with a group of Muslim women, with history groups, embroidery and quilting groups and students from a number of schools in and around the district as well as people who just wanted to learn about Australia’s exiled pioneering colonial grandmothers. A number of bonnets were made that eventually were exhibited at the Parramatta Art Studios Gallery and also as part of the ‘Women Transported’ exhibition held in the Parramatta Heritage Centre. Parramatta was such a relevant city for my ‘Roses from the Heart’ memorial as this was where the first Female Factory was built in Australia and the structure remains today.
I made many friends during my residency at the Parramatta Art Studios. The manager at the time Michael Dagostina was an absolute curatorial/artistic treasure and he attracted some wonderful artists to the studios.
Zhi Ozgiang Ding was one of those special artists. He approached me during my residency and asked if I would allow him to paint my portrait for inclusion in the Archibald Prize. He said he wanted to help promote my work and the way he saw himself assisting in publicising my bonnet project was through entering a portrait into Australia’s prestigious Archibald Prize competition.
Such a generous man Ding eventually gave me the charcoal drawing he used as the canvas of ideas which influenced the final painting outcome.
Ding also gave me copyright to use all associated images to promote my ‘Roses from the Heart’ memorial. The image of Ding’s painting has been used as the central design on the cover of the Roses from the Heart CD.
If you take a close look at the original charcoal drawing you will see so many of the details that became a feature of the eventual painting.
The details that refer to imprisonment and servitude - including the barred cell windows. The mother clutching her baby in desperation is a reference to the thousands of babies that died in infancy through no fault of their mothers.
In the top left hand corner of the drawing clouds form the outline of landmass of Great Britain and the island of Ireland. In the opposite corner - at the bottom on the right hand side - is the outline of Australia.
Ships are positioned in a couple of places in the drawing. Without the ships transportation would have been far more difficult.
Ding has focussed on the bonnet that is central to the theme. On the brim he has written 1788-1853 highlighting the years of transportation for women to Australia. Convict men were still being transported to Western Australia up until 1868.
The year that Ding worked on the Archibald painting coincided with my discovering that I had a female convict ancestor. The following year two more convict lasses were located within my family tree and I now have three women - each from a different country - Ireland, England and Wales.
In using my image as the subject matter Ding not only focussed on my profession as an artist and my art memorial - “Roses from the Heart - but he also touched on my ancestry - that I was the descendant carrying the characteristics of my ancestors and existing because of their resilience.
The story I had grown up with reflected the French side of our family. As a child the magic of a castle belonging within the family in France sounded very romantic. The family Henri de Leon tracing back to Richard the Lionheart well that meant there was ‘royalty’ in our veins… after all Richard was the third legitimate son of Henry 11 of England and after his father’s death he was crowned King in Westminster Abbey in 1189. Fleeing from France as Huguenots the family members were amongst the 200,000 who escaped the fate of so many. Those who were unsuccessful in trying to flee France well.. the men were either killed or sent as galley slaves to the French fleet in the Mediterranean whilst women were imprisoned and their children sent to convents.
Interestingly it is said that it was the fleeing Huguenots seeking refuge that brought the word ‘refugee’ into the English language.
That’s the only family-related history story our family spoke about. I do not remember the word ‘convict’ ever mentioned during my childhood. and in subsequent years I took convict to refer to men transported to Australia.
Little could I have dreamt that three of my female ancestors had been exiled, transported to Australia as convicts. When I did learn about Mary Monks from Dublin, Ireland and Maria Briant from England and Elizabeth Williams from Murtagh Tidwell, Wales I was filled with sadness for the deprivations they must have suffered yet glad that their pluckiness saw them survive a harsh system to give birth to children who loved them and cared for them in their old age. My good friend Julie Sullivan who researched into MY family history to give me the gift of knowledge about my female convict ancestors as a ‘special’ birthday present… a very BIG THANK YOU.
When I conceived the installation of babies bonnets - ‘Departures and Arrivals’ that paid tribute to the babies born to women at the Cascades Female Factory - I had absolutely no idea that I had female convict ancestry or that one of those ancestors had given birth to a baby at the factory and that the baby had died at the very site where I held the position of honorary Artist-in-Residence.
900 cloth bonnets were made by people around Australia as part of the ‘Departures and Arrivals’ installation. My Masters in Fine Art (MFA) studies examined this art memorial and for my final exhibition I displayed 1800 babies bonnets received from not only the Australian community but also from neighbouring New Zealand. The number of bonnets escalated as people heard of my christening bonnet memorial.
Today I have the opportunity to make a bonnet tribute for my very own ancestor’s baby who died in infancy at the Cascades Female Factory.
My memorial ‘Cherished Babies’ invites interested members of the public to take part. When completed the exhibition will travel and be shown globally. Whilst in Ireland this year I began working with students in Downpatrick, County Down who created over 200 babies bonnets. In Derry, Northern Ireland, I held a bonnet making event at the Guild Hall in the centre of the town and a number of participants sewed babies bonnets. Derry is renown for its shirt factories. Now relics of the past these factories once employed thousands of folk, especially women, to make fine shirts.
I am inviting dignitaries and men of standing to offer me the ‘shirt off their back’ to be used in the making of the babies bonnets.
I recently received a dinner shirt from the Mayor of Derry, Cllr Martin Reilly to be included for use in the ‘Cherished Babies’ Memorial. Other ‘shirt off their back’ donations have come from the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr Oisin Quinn: the Governor of the Arbour Hill Gaol, Mr Laim Doweling: The Manager of the Cobh Heritage Centre, Mr Jack Walsh and the Bedizzole Italian Marching Band director Aldo Bettini and the producer of RTE Natinwide, Mr Niall Martin….. to name but a few. Others have promised including Eamon Gilmore TD Leader of the Labour Party in Ireland who is donating a shirt.
I am especially interested in men’s shirts being incorporated in the making of the babies bonnets because in so many instances men’s names were excluded from the records. Unless the child’s father was married to the convict women their name was suppressed. When you look at the baptismal records the column denoting ‘Father’ is almost always left empty.
Just as I use the bonnet as a symbol of the convict women I am using the symbol of the shirt to denote men of influence in their lives.
I only need 2000 bonnets to complete the ‘Roses from the Heart’ memorial tribute to the 25,566 women sentenced to transportation to Australia.
I am so close to completing the memorial and I am now searching for sponsors to assist with the implementing of this memorial which has the potential to become an iconic contemporary work of art with huge cultural tourism application opportunity.
If you would like to know more, if you would like to make a bonnet tribute or be a sponsor I can be contacted via:
Facebook: Christina Henri - Roses from the Heart