Considering that Tasmania is an island state with a convict history, one would expect to come across a pirate or two in the archives. It doesn’t take much to imagine the unpredictable characters who might have lurked in the shadows when the lights went out.
Spurred on by the unexpected discovery of her own convict lineage, emerging artist Eleanor Leleu bases her work on the underbelly of colonial history. To create her pieces, Leleu explains that she uses “archives, convict indents [the official lists of convicts being transported on a ship] and historical data such as journals, newspapers and colonial diaries.” With a background in research and antiques restoration, Leleu incorporates these skills into her practice to create sculptural installations imbued with historical narrative, often repurposing found objects to hold elements of written text and collage.
In June 2016, Leleu created a series of sculptures and works on paper for Anxiety & Wonder: A Convict’s Journey, an exhibition at Hobart’s Salamanca Arts Centre. The backbone of this work was research undertaken in the archive offices of New South Wales and Tasmania. It was here that Leleu located convict records like tickets of leave and gaol attendance lists. She also discovered newspaper references to colonial ships stolen by convicts, colourfully referred to as “piratical seizures.”
Taking her research on these “piratical seizures” further, Leleu’s current installation Piratannia sharpens its focus and evokes the 1806 theft of the Venus, a convict/supply ship from Tasmania’s Port Dalrymple. Like a compact bookend to Anxiety & Wonder, Leleu has created two replicas of pirate brigs from found wooden objects. Handwritten text lifted from colonial diaries and newspapers adorns the sails of the ships and references relating to the theft are etched into their hulls. Collections of vintage jewels and tin flotsam form a hoard of loot scattered around the base of the boats. Collage is predominant in Piratannia and this element of layered construction subtly recalls the time-consuming process of piecing together information from varied sources.
During her research for Piratannia, Leleu discovered that two female convicts, Charlotte Badger and Catherine Hagerty, were among the 12 miscreants who stole the Venus. Through their romantic association with mutinous crew members, Badger and Hagerty quickly became known as pirates and sailed with the stolen ship to New Zealand. Effectively erasing their tainted history, Leleu reveals that Hagerty “found the written criminal judgements and sentences for herself and Charlotte and threw the material overboard.” Once ashore, Hagerty unfortunately fell ill and died, while Badger spent time in New Zealand before eventually settling permanently in the USA.
In Leleu’s own journey she has recently relocated from Sydney to Hobart to attend the Tasmanian College of the Arts, a move that has allowed her work to develop further. Before becoming a student, Leleu honed her skills in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where she was taught by local craftspeople. “I met some retired restorers, tradies and upholsterers up there and asked them to teach me,” she explains. “This kind of work is very labour intensive and detailed, most of the time I only use hand tools. Restoring was helpful in terms of practical skills and it gave me a feeling for the past: the ability to link the past with the contemporary, a cultural continuity of sorts.”
Like Christina Henri, the artist behind Roses from the Heart, a series of large scale works memorialising female convicts transported to Tasmania, Leleu has access to a vast selection of subject matter to base her work upon. As long as the archives are open and time keeps passing, Leleu will always have history to uncover.