Have you ever heard of Australian South Sea Islanders? I hadn't until I was lucky enough to meet Janet.

Australian South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland between 1863 to 1904 from more than 80 islands in the South Sea, including the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea. Kidnapped or tricked (known as blackbirded) from their islands of heritage, and brought to Queensland as labourers for the sugar cane industry, history suggests this was part of Australia’s slave trade, and at its peak, the recruiting accounted for half the adult male population of some South Sea islands.

Artist, Janet Ambrose, delved into the history of Australian South Sea Islanders through her art and recently held an exhibition in Mackay with her portraits of members within the community, sharing their stories and educating us on a cultural group I personally knew nothing of.

"The physical removal of the South Sea Islander doesn’t take away the person from place.

Like the mangrove plant, with roots and memory, sets down in new places, new perspectives and adaption to their new home, showing strong resilience in their new environment.

For some, conversations continue within families and friends, and for others, forgotten in time with the assimilation to the western way of life.

These conversations explore the human face of the South Sea Islander community, the removal from their homelands and life in a new land and, of adaptation."

Firstly, can you please tell the BOOM community a little about yourself?

I am from South Australia. My parents are English migrants, and they eventually settled in Victor Harbor to raise me and my two siblings.

My father was a musician and my mother was an artist who also taught yoga in a small country hall in Port Elliot, this was in the 70s. My father played piano and we often had a 25 piece band in our lounge room on a Friday night, consisting of mostly jazz friends and young kids. He played gigs around the district and my brother soon followed playing drums and percussion. 

Over summer holidays we would make the trip over to Melbourne. Dad would buy sheet music and for me, I got to visit the Art Galleries. This was the beginning of my interest in art. I have drawn and painted for as long as I can remember. When I went to High School I was prohibited from doing Art as a subject so I had private lessons with the art teacher. Mum and Dad provided all that was needed to feed our creativity, they gave so much, we were so lucky. 

I went to Stanley Street School of Art in Adelaide where I was influenced by Bruce Sellick from the Jam Factory who encouraged what he thought was a distinct drawing style. My passion is portrait work and painting en Plein Aire’, this I have done for many years. 

I enjoy creating the art rather than pursuing a career. I live in a remote location and the support we receive from the Flying Arts Alliance has been critical in gaining new opportunities and has been instrumental in my successes. 

How did you first become aware of Australian South Sea Islanders? 

When I arrived in Mackay seven years ago I met a lady by the name of Lorene. I asked if I could take her photograph and we got talking. I became curious as to who this cultural group are. I began reading about their history and meeting up with other Australian South Sea Islanders. I can’t recall learning about this distinct cultural group in my school education. 

What was your inspiration behind doing an exhibition on Australian South Sea Islanders? 

The inspiration behind this project has been the collection of the stories whilst doing the portraits. I visited people in their homes, sat with them and listened to their stories, some were joyful, some were sad, most spoke of their history and how they negotiate life in Australia. 

They told stories of how they came to live in Australia, stories of kidnapping and slavery of their grandparents were told. We do have a history of slavery in this country that isn’t spoken about, and as we know, denied by our Prime Minister in a recent interview. 

Did the conversations with each individual have an effect on their portraits? 

I found sitting with each participant, their stories were so important to tell. I think I captured the essence of each participant by the emotions they displayed whilst listening to their stories. 

What have you learnt from your research that you would like people to know or take with them?

We have this wonderful community living amongst us. The largest population of South Sea Islanders outside the Pacific Islands live in the Mackay region. In my travels, I have found most don’t know who they are nor do they know the difference between our Torres Strait and Aboriginal communities. Awareness is the key for this community. Interestingly, this distinct cultural group only gained national recognition in 1995 and state recognition in 2000. 

The younger generation are learning of their history. They are in a better position to gain a higher education than their grandparents were ever able or allowed. We need to have in our national education curriculum the history of our Australian South Sea Islanders to begin this conversation of our country’s scarred history which to date has been denied. 

In spite of this our Australian South Sea Islanders have been resilient and strong despite the hurdles they have had to face. This has been for me a humbling experience in sitting with them listening to their stories with such dignity and grace. 

Have you any thoughts for future projects on Australian South Sea Islanders after the exhibition finishes (I understand if they’re top secret)? 

It is my hope that this exhibition will grow with more participants. I would like to add more stories and portraits to the book I have produced for the exhibition at Artspace in Mackay. I’d like to see it published and to see the body of work travel to other galleries, to bring awareness to this wonderful community, and, that they receive the recognition they deserve. 

And lastly, what does it mean to you to live a big, beautiful life? 

I’d like to answer this question with a quote from my friend, mentor, elder of her community, Maudie Corowa
"It doesn’t matter where we come from and reflecting on our own lives, we are a whole orchestra made up from different instruments. If we hit a note the whole orchestra brings out a beautiful sound, doesn’t matter where that instrument came from, it is tuned and and to be tuned, we have to learn how to play that instrument. Everybody has an instrument, all these make this beautiful sound. You could be a violin, you could be a drum, but together is the togetherness that I find we need. Harmony."
This to me is what it means to live a big, beautiful life.
Thank you Maudie Corowa.


Janet is hoping to take the exhibition on tour south, to the Sunshine Coast and/or Brisbane in 2021 (so if there's any gallery owners out there send her a message!) and you can also check out her work and future exhibitions online ~ follow her on Facebook and Instagram
Janet also celebrates six years (in September 2020) as a Breast Cancer Survivor and hopes her victory can give hope to others who are currently dealing with the devastating disease.  

Stay tuned as I'll be talking with South Sea Islander , Marion Healy, next week, who features in the Janet's video (above) and opened Janet's recent exhibition in Mackay.


Guru Jumpsuit 'Frangipani' ~ BUY NOW!

Sandrin Tunic 'Island Stone' ~ BUY NOW!

And last but not least... have a listen to Janet's brothers band, The View from Madeleine's Couch, they're actually one of my Brisbane favourites and the perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon (or any afternoon!)