Helen Light, director of the Jewish Museum of Australia, with Peter Isaacson and Joan Beck, children of Carolyn Isaacson, who inspired Critchley Parker to find a homeland for Jewish refugees in south-west Tasmania, featured in Haven.

HAVEN: the art and craft of refuge in tasmania

Exhibition Opening at Craft Victoria

Thursday 24th July 2003

I am privileged that Kevin Murray invited me to open this wonderful and ambitious exhibitionHAVEN: the art and craft of refuge in tasmania and, may I say, extraordinarily challenged, in meeting this request with the thought and depth it deserves.

In brief—in this exhibition Kevin has invited artists to explore the role that Tasmania has played as a haven to waves of migrants and refugees, to expose the disastrous effects of immigration on the indigenous Tasmanians and the costs of settlement and technology on the natural environment.

Tasmania—that tiny, oft overlooked island at the southern tip of Australia, in a sense encapsulates and crystallizes the history of Australia in a microcosm—intensified, writ large. The remoteness; the wild beauty of the wilderness; the tragic massacre of the Tasmanian aborigines; the dreadful convict beginnings; the Port Arthur tragedy. It’s smallness too has enabled it to embrace its immigrants of diverse origins, to force them to work together to make a life in this far pocket of the world. It is a history, as Kevin says, of gothic proportions. It is a land where the people live conscious too of this history.

It is also, for a mainlander like Kevin, a last outpost ,a last bastion for the possibility of a ‘promised land’—a haven—relatively free from 21st century political and environmental corruption. He sees it as a land untrammelled and unspoilt with areas of wilderness as yet untouched.

The fights to protect the environment—Lake Pedder, the Franklin River, the compassion shown towards the refugees from Kosovar—make the Tasmanian people and their politicians stand out as beacons among their counterparts on the Australian continent and encourage hope and dreams for an untainted future.

So, in a sense, Tasmania symbolizes the ‘Goldene Medina’ , the dreamed of land of gold, for Australians, such as Australia did for refugees from other parts of the world…. a land that offers freedom and security. A land of prospects, of possibilities and of hope.

What I have just discussed is the curatorial premise that underlies this exhibition, the ideas and issues that Kevin has developed and explored in the most thoroughly argued and considered catalogue that accompanies this exhibition. It is this intellectual construct that holds this project together and gives it direction.

This is in a sense the directorial take on the themes. But the history of a place is really the story of the people who experienced it. And Kevin has constructed this exhibition through the stories of 13 individuals who reflect the diversity of the Tasmanian experience—an indigenous Tasmanian, refugees, environmentalists, and others—and he has invited 13 artists to interact with one of these people identified and selected by them, to consider their story in the shaping of their own imaginative response to the complex haven that is Tasmania. The artists are predominantly Tasmanian, work in different media and with different relationships to the land, the place and the person.

So this exhibition speaks to us in many voices—one curator, 13 artists, 13 Taswegians, as well as those who wrote essays in the catalogue. Imaginative, lyrical, historical, romantic, angry, political, idealisitc, tragic, confusing—an amalgam of voices, an amalgam of experiences, accents and passions—that together weave a multilayered story doing justice to such a complex theme.

Let me concentrate only on one pairing as an example—that of the work of Pip McManus entitled ‘Unpromised Land’ in response to the story of Critchley Parker. I choose this story, as my connection with this project was initially through Kevin’s research about Critchley Parker.

Critchley Parker Jnr was a young man who lost his life in the pursuit of the fulfilment of his vision to settle a significant number of Jewish refugees in the South west tip of Tasmania after World War 11. Critchley Parker was apparently driven by three motives: a genuine concern for the refugees, a keen interest in Tasmania’s economic development and his romantic attachment to a Jewish journalist and activist—Caroline Isaacson.

Parker saw the Jews creating what he described as a ‘new Jerusalem’ around Port Davey and Mount MacKenzie—an area rugged and almost inaccessible—with no roads or towns, just mountain peaks, sheer gorges, wild rives and some of the loneliest and wildest stretches of coastline in the world. Parker saw Jewish settlers engaging in pastoral work, agriculture, fishing and developing a thriving fish canning and processing industry. He said they could build industries such as the manufacture of cotton and carpets and mine rich deposits of gold, tin, iron, copper, oil and coal. He saw them producing liqueurs, spirits, perfumes, carpets and the latest fashions, turning Port Davey into the ‘Paris of Australasia’. He envisioned the development of a fur industry using local animals—wallabies etc and a furniture industry using the local timber. He saw the establishment of schools, a university, a rich sporting and cultural life and a community based on principles of racial tolerance and international brotherhood that would eventually welcome peoples

from all other cultures.

In 1941 Critchley Parker led a state sponsored journey to this site, with Caroline Isaacson and a photographer all accompanying Isaac Steinberg who was in Australia to seek an unsettled part in the world where Jews could settle and establish an autonomous colony and live in peace. Steinberg had been previously negotiating a settlement in the Kimberleys in Western Australia. After their return and their report the Tasmanian premier was reluctant to commit himself until he had seen more detailed proposals but agreed to the idea in principle.

Therefore Parker decided to set off again by himself to further explore the terrain. The weather was atrocious—rain, hail and thunderous, and although he was an experienced bush walker he became trapped and died there.

Critchley Parker left brief note for Dr Steinberg saying:

It is at Port Davey that I hope the Jewish Settlement will start, not far from where I sever all earthly connection with it.

I came to this magnificent harbour some weeks ago and planned to traverse some of the country north of it. Bad weather and my consequent failure to get in touch with my base make my fate certain.

To die in service of so noble a cause is to me a great satisfaction, and if, as I hope, the Settlement brings happiness to many refugees and in so doing serves the state of Tasmania, I die happy…’ (Steinberg—The Unpromised Land p.144—5)

In this story are teased out all the elements of the Tasmanian story which have entranced Kevin—the promise and welcome of a haven, the prelapsarian landscape, the dream and vision, the potential of the conflict between the establishment of a settlement and concomitant industry and its inevitable impact on the unspoilt landscape- romance, bravery, open mindedness, foolhardiness—a great adventure and a tragic end.

Pip McManus’s ceramic work depicts letters and plants from the native environment. It is entitled ‘An Unpromised Land’ and alludes to the disjunction between the search for a refuge, a promised land and the history and prior claims to that land. It poignantly contrasts the yearning, the beauty of the land and the inevitability of failure.

Other partnerships are predicated on different relationships and concepts—all rich in the artists’ evocation of the individual’s story and of the meaning of Tasmania to themselves. I invite you to explore, admire and consider each work at your leisure. Each work is challenging and thoughtful and is deserving of attention and I commend every artist in the show : Penny Carey Wells; Patrick Collins; Hermie Cornelisse; Robyn Glade-Wright; David McLeod; Pip McManus; Milan Milojevic; Geoff Parr; Anna Phillips; Helena Psotova; Judith Rose Thomas; John Vella and Paul Zika—even though all their works could not be represented here at Craft Victoria.

I mentioned at the outset that Kevin’s invitation to this exhibition really challenged me. Let me briefly explain. The sheer ambition in conception of this project and the thoroughness with which Kevin explored it as evidenced in the catalogue—left me overwhelmed and feeling that I could not say anything other or as well as he himself.

Secondly—in the end this is an art exhibition and until one experiences the physicality of the art work it is hard to appreciate their imaginative creations.

And—the themes explored are in themselves so profoundly significant and challenging, for instance—the notion of the Promised Land and its relevance to Israel

-         the role of a land as a refuge and the consequent displacement of the indigenous peoples such as we so shamefully acknowledge as part our shared history in this country

-         the stance of our current government vis a vis refugees

-         the competing claims of wilderness, conservation and sustainability and industrial progress

-         and finally, the ever elusive dream of a haven, or golden land—a prelapsarian paradise. And quite coincidently, while I was preparing these words, there was a Leunig cartoon in the Age which read:

‘I went to Mars on a rocket ship
To look for signs of life
I found a woman there
She became my wife
We had some little babies
They were so unique:
Neither Earthling not Martian
Did they speak
Yet they sang, they played,
We slept peacefully together
We dreamed
Of a planet up above
Where there is new life
And there is love

But, on the other hand, Tasmania has provided and will continue to offer this paradise for some and I conclude in the words of one of the artists, Patrick Collins:

‘This particular reference to Tasmania and its pristine wilderness resonating in the human search for a place of peace and tranquillity on the troubled planet, a place where one can develop one’s highest potential in freedom and harmony with ourselves and our environment’ (Patrick Collins, p.25)

Helen Light

20th July 2003