More than just tea towels: the migrants, makers and merchandise of Reef Productions

Queensland Museum Network’s Museum Development Officers provide vital support for regional community collections across Queensland. The Museum Development Officer program is an important partnership between the Queensland Museum and Arts Queensland. The program employs five professionally qualified Museum Development Officers, known as MDOs, who are based in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Ipswich and Toowoomba.

For the last 12 months, Cairns MDO Dr Jo Wills has been working with local arts worker Nerelle Nicole and Cairns Museum on an exhibition project called Reef Productions: migrants, makers and merchandise.

Opening as part of Reconciliation Week 2021, the exhibition explores the story of migrants and Indigenous artists working in a Cairns-based souvenir/ screen printing company between the mid-1970s and late 1990s. 

A chance meeting leads to a new journey

I first came across the name ‘Reef Productions – Made in Cairns’ on a tea towel in 2015 when I was curating one of the galleries for Cairns Museum’s redevelopment. I can remember being curious but at the time was too busy to delve deeper.

Fast forward four years, however, and it’s a different story. Whilst viewing the Thancoupie “A Legacy of Cultural Power” exhibition at CIAF in 2019 I was introduced to Andy and Joan Csorba while standing in front of a large screen print on fabric. ‘Have you ever heard of a company called Reef Productions’, I asked? ‘Yes’, grinned Andy, ‘we used to own it.’ And so began my, and Cairns Museum’s, Reef Productions journey.

Rainbow Serpent Print, Roslyn Serico (Kemp)

After visiting the Csorba’s farm to view the material, I discussed the collection with Cairns Museum. Museum Manager, Suzanne Gibson, sought funds to undertake a significance assessment and I, along with Indigenous cultural worker, Nerelle Nicol, began a period of detailed research and analysis.

As part of the project, I was required to mentor Nerelle and support and undertake research. Nerelle worked closely with the Indigenous artists and this was critical to building an understanding of the content, context and personal stories within the artworks and company history. At the same time, I met with former owners and the artists who had worked with them to create designs.

Fan Palm Medley, Joan Boissevain

From its beginnings in the front room of a house in Cairns’ northern beaches, Reef Productions produced portable souvenirs that illustrated the tropical charm of Far North Queensland. It also worked on commission, creating items for organisations or special events and anniversaries.

When the company changed hands in the mid-1980s, the designs evolved to include Indigenous culture and stories. Andy worked with a range of artists, including Thancoupie, Jenuarrie, Roslyn Serico (Kemp), Connie Rovina (Barker) Heather Walker, Ludij Peden and Joan Boissevain.

Research reveals a layered story

Our research uncovered a story and collection with multiple layers and threads. All participants had some sort of migration story to tell – they had all moved to Cairns, be it from areas within Queensland, Australia or from overseas.

The Indigenous artists bought a cultural dimension to the business – through their design style, working for Queensland Aboriginal Creations or through their personal experience of mission life and search for identity. Embedded too, were stories of environmental change, tourism and lost heritage places. We found out about the different artists, their work and inspiration, and their relationship with Reef Productions.

Research into other collections showed that some of these works are held by Queensland Museum and many by the State Library of Queensland in the Glenn R. Cooke Souvenir Textiles Collection. Our work contributes detailed provenance knowledge to these collections, and to understandings of souvenir production at this time.

These findings, as well as the extraordinary aesthetics of the collection, are just some of the reasons Cairns Museum decided to acquire it. They then applied for funding to support Nerelle and I to co-curate the Reef Productions Exhibition.

A new exhibition for Cairns Museum

The exhibition showcases only a small selection of works due to the size of the gallery. Featured, however, are items from each era of ownership, and works by as many artists as possible.

Reef Productions Exhibition , Cairns Museum, 2021

Also included is a recreated trade stand, based around photographs from the Sydney Trade Fair, and a screen printing interactive based around a previously unseen work by Rosyln Serico (Kemp).

The opening of the exhibition was a chance for owners and artists to reconnect.

This project celebrates the work of these artists and entrepreneurs. From a museum perspective, it illustrates the value of contemporary collection, the importance of community engagement, the need for copyright vigilence and the joy of research and discovery. And, as a story, it represents the importance of relationships – for those who were part of Reef Productions and those involved in putting this research and exhibition together.

Reef Productions: Migrants, Makers, Merchandise is on at Cairns Museum for three months from 29 May 2021.

Compiled by Dr Jo Wills. Read more more about Jo’s work with Reef Productions and Cairns Museum, as well as other projects across Far North Queensland on the Museum Development Officer website.