New exhibition to highlight Rottnest’s tragic past

November 7, 2017

A scene from Dr Glen Stasiuk's Wadjemup film

Troubling history: A scene from Dr Glen Stasiuk's Wadjemup film about Rottnest's past as an Aboriginal prison

A new exhibition relating to the distressing penal history of Rottnest Island will feature the work of Murdoch University Indigenous historian and filmmaker Dr Glen Stasiuk.

Bardang/Release will run from 10-19 November in the Earlywork Gallery in South Fremantle, and will launch with a screening of Dr Stasiuk’s award-winning docu-drama film – Wadjemup: Black Prison White Playground which examines Rottnest’s history as an Aboriginal prison.

From 1838 to 1931, around 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys from across Western Australia were sent to the island for mostly minor offences. They experienced appalling conditions and treatment, with at least 370 dying during their incarceration due to disease, degradation and the hangman’s noose. This makes Rottnest the site of the largest numbers of deaths in custody in Australia.

Dr Stasiuk, from the School of Arts, explored themes including healing, remembrance and reconciliation in his Australian Research Council-funded film, which was first released in 2014.

Featuring the work of two other artists, the exhibition will present aspects of Dr Stasiuk’s personal story in coming to know and understand the history of Rottnest Island.

“I spent time on the island as a teenager and naively and innocently slept at tentland – which was where people camped cheaply to stay at Wadjemup – not knowing that it was in fact the burial site of prisoners,” Dr Stasiuk said.

“I got very sick and couldn't work out why until my Noongar nanna told me about the true history of the island and that it was a 'warra' place – which means it has a bad spirit.

“The film and the research I produced for my PhD has helped to raise awareness of and respect for this period in WA’s history, particularly for the next generation of koolunga (children).

“This work has also built momentum to have the island recognised as the largest Aboriginal deaths in custody site in the nation.”

Central to the penal history of the island is The Quod building, which housed cramped and filthy cells. The Quod is currently the Rottnest Island Resort but its lease as tourist accommodation is ending in May 2018.

Dr Stasiuk and fellow artists Tania Ferrier and Ken Wadrop decided to stage the Bardang/Release exhibition to acknowledge the end of the lease.

As well as his film, Dr Stasiuk will be presenting a new media collage piece entitled Goor-doo-bood-jur-wirrn (Spirit Island), which pays tribute to the Aboriginal prisoners of Wadjemup and the resistance of Aboriginal culture to colonisation.

This will be the third time Dr Stasiuk has worked with Ms Ferrier, who was one of his key collaborators on the Wadjemup film, contributing photography and design.

“Tania and I have shared a passion to see Wadjemup and the Aboriginal prisoners buried on the island in unmarked graves, respected and memorialised, so we are always pleased to work together on this topic,” he explained.

“Tania is a fantastically creative artist who I admire for her talent and passion.”

The exhibition launches at 6.30pm on Friday 10 November, with the screening of Wadjemup: Black Prison White Playground at 8pm.

To attend, send your RSVP to info@earlywork.gallery.

Dr Stasiuk is an academic teaching Screen in the Creative Media degree in the School of Arts at Murdoch University.  The new degree will be available from 2018. Explore our courses.

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