The Company project, 2016
Early Dutch immigrants to Australia
Brisbane / Cattle Creek

Speech pronounced at the BAMS (the British Art Medal Society), 12th of april 2019

This is a lecture about the development of ‘the Company’ award: two medals dedicated to the early Dutch emigration into Queensland, Australia :

1. “The Cattle Creek “medal

2. “The new generation “medal

First of all a general statement about my work :

1. A medal is the result of visual thinking

2. A medal is a homeless medium bravely looking for its own definition

3. A medal is a mentality, a nearly Darwinian voyage

4. The process of medal making evokes one question: ‘what makes form into a medal?’

5. My work has been created directly in clay. It is sculptural: the right material in the right place. All formed by hand and coloured by shoe polish.

Around 1910, a group of young Dutch people, born in the late 19th century began to hold meetings (in the outer Amsterdam working-class area of Buiksloot) to discuss the possibilities of migration to Australia. They all had personal histories of family hardship, meagre diet, premature family death through tuberculosis contracted from overcrowded, damp living conditions. Families had moved from rural areas into the city as a result of economic depression in the agricultural sector. They were caught up by industrial unrest in the cities and high unemployment. The young group of committed socialists named themselves symbolically in English: ‘The Company’ in preparation for a new life in British Australia.

Many were under thirty, politically aware and had adventurous attitudes about migration, mostly ignorant of farming. From 1912 until 1920, about 80 individuals , in a kind of chain, organised by ‘The Company’ migrated to Queensland, Australia. They choose to settle in a semi urban area around Brisbane and in the remote wilderness of Cattle Creek, 400 miles northwest of Brisbane. This history has been written down in a book by my second cousin Diane Gabb, and inspired me in making two medals, named the ‘Cattle Creek’ medal and ‘The New Generation’ medal. I would like to thank her very much for that. Each voyage took about 8 weeks during which men and women were segregated into separate third-class communal cabins. As it was 1914 there was considerable tension between German and Dutch travellers in shared cabins. The sudden declaration of war prohibited the ship from allowing passengers to go ashore at any foreign ports. Few fresh provisions were available during the voyage. Children died from contaminated ship’s food. Finally, they arrived in Brisbane and there they were united with the other members of the group. The original plan was to travel 400 miles north to develop a communal farm on uncleared land. The more vulnerable people, mentally and physically, decided to settle around Brisbane. The more energetic people continued to travel into the remote and undeveloped country. From the last railway station they had to walk for a 70 miles.

“The new generation” medal

The photo of the Sunday morning family meeting in Brisbane was serene, but too complex for a medal. Too many figures in the shadow of a dark architecture. I had to reduce and simplify in order to find my own artistic vision. Besides that, I wanted to avoid a straightforward reproduction of the photograph.

‘How do you transform information into a medal?’

I decided to transform the architecture from a house into the architecture of a landscape. I removed the elder people in the shadow to emphasize the younger ones in the spotlight. On the photo, the children were staring directly into the camera. In the modelling of the clay, I have changed this position slightly. I literally chose for the next step, the next movement. Now they are communicating to each other. A connection was born and so was the title of this medal: ‘The New Generation’. The reverse shows an echo of the map of Australia, in which you see a powerful print of “The Company “ just on the location of Brisbane.

“The prickly pears” medal

The original intention of the Company was to set out for the area of Cattle Creek. They had previously selected the land from a map, the land they never saw before. They could lease the land on condition that they eradicated the Prickly Pears, a weed which is extremely difficult to destroy. At that time, 400.000 hectares were covered by this cactus plant. The photo shows an exhausted settler in a forest, leaning toward a cactus tree. This was my inspiration for my second medal. I made a drawing and discovered an unexpected religious association: the human figure standing in the wilderness had been changed into an exhausted Saint, leaning against a cross with a halo as a hat. The obverse shows a human being as an integral part of the wilderness, surrounded by the threat of the Prickly Pears. The hat, leaning backwards, emerges into the expression of a halo.

Three sketches :

1. The combination of text and wilderness

2. To create a figure as an entity with nature.

3.How to fit a reverse into the rough contour of the medal.

In the final version the obverse shows a human being as an integral part of the wilderness. Only some engraved lines give the illusion of a body suggesting a kind of classical contraposto . A triangle, thorn like hole gives us the entrance to the reverse. The strong impression of the stamp into the clay shows the text : Dutch immigrants 1908-1920. The name of “Australia”is pushed against the irregular, rough edge of the medal. This version is more appropriate than the other two, concerning the subject matter of the obverse.

The migration of the medals

The size of a medal is more than inches. The medal is a gesture. To honour the efforts of the company members, it was obvious to me not only to make the medals, but also to take them back and donate them to a local museum, nearby Cattle Creek. It proved to be a trip into the remote wilderness, more than 3000 miles. And our family expedition found the original wooden house, built in the 30th in Cattle Creek. Before that house they were living in huts made of bark. Now it seems to be paradise, but still without a supply of water. The Prickly Pears reappeared everywhere. The local museum in Munduberra was not specialised or interested in art. The medals were doomed to disappear. Therefore, I decided to abandon the idea of leaving the medals there. More attractive was the idea of creating an award ‘The Company Award’ for those who are interested in history, not only academic but also by active participation . For a period of a year, I entrusted the medals in a specially designed box to my cousin Keith Needham, who had been our companion during the 3000 miles. As I mentioned in the beginning of my lecture: making a medal is nearly a Darwinian process of selection. As a metaphor I will finish now my speech by showing you one example from my Darwin road , that means from the more than 80 variations : “The Beagle in summertime”.

Thank you.

Geer Steyn

Paper published in "the Medal", a magazine from the British Museum (you can read it here).

© Geer Steyn