West Island, in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, is home to The Big Barge Art Centre, aptly named for its location in a restored former working barge. The centre comprises an artist studio and a gallery and enables the community to discover traditional and non-traditional art-making.

This special issue of four stamps, released on 18 October 2016, features artworks that arose from two recent projects at the art centre – Art Adrift and Art Afloat, conceived by coordinating artists Sandy McKendrick, Cara Ratajczak and Emma Washer. (Emma is also the director of The Big Barge Art Centre.)

“Both projects explored the maritime, nautical and seafaring history of the islands and also the connection we have on the islands to the ocean we are surrounded by: the ebb and flow of the tides and the rising swells; celebrating life spent on the sea. Almost every community member owns a boat to get out on the water as much as possible. Life on the sea becomes as natural as time spent on the land. The flotsam, in a vast array of textures and colours, serve as a means for each individual artist to express themselves, as well as to communicate their unique identity and their relationship with the Indian Ocean,” explains Emma.

The designs, by Lisa Christensen of Three Branches Design, highlight the bricolage nature of the artworks and the nautical theme that defines them. The works have all been photographed by Cara Ratajczak.

The stamps

We spoke further to Emma Washer about artistic life on Cocos and how The Big Barge Arts Centre evolved into a cultural hub for the island.

What inspired you to build a community arts space on Cocos?

I have always had a love for art, from an early age. Following on from my Bachelor of Arts degree in fine arts, studying sculpture and textiles, I went on to do many courses in community arts practice and community planning, and loved the idea of being able to work with communities, especially remote ones like on the Cocos Islands. I wanted to create a space in which the community could come together to be creative and be immersed in arts, productions and music.

Emma Washer swimming with snorkel and mask
Emma Washer

How has the community embraced the project?

From the very start of the project, which was the huge task of restoring an old wooden barge to become the centre point of the arts space, the community support has been amazing. However people could help, whether it was with machinery, tools, knowledge or encouragement, we were always surrounded by really positive energy with this project to get it off the ground. Now that it is a fully functional arts space, the community are eager to be involved and attend events at the space, which are inclusive and fun for people of all ages.

What led you into your career as an artist and, more particularly, art that focuses on the use of reclaimed materials?

As long as I could remember I wanted to have a life surrounded by art and the making of things. In high school I practically lived in the art room, and getting to university to study arts was a clear path for me. Halfway through my degree I returned to the islands after a few years away, and walking along the beach for that first time I was just so overcome with the desire to work with these fascinating and yet environmentally devastating materials. I wanted to find a way to be able to use them to make interesting works of art whilst being able to do my small part in cleaning up the beaches and protecting our marine environment. I was hooked, and 18 years later I still have so many ideas for works with this flotsam that I do not have enough time in the day!

What are your hopes for the future of The Big Barge Art Centre?

To keep working towards promoting and providing a platform for local artists to thrive and for the community to come together to enjoy a life surrounded by art. We are in the process of setting up a second gallery and would also like to start to offer artist retreats as a way for people to come and experience the making of art with flotsam on the islands for themselves.

The Big Barge Art Centre
The Big Barge Art Centre

What do you love most about life on Cocos and how does your location influence your art?

I love everything about life on Cocos. Foremost the environment, it is so stunning and pristine. The colours and marine life are incredible and it is so easy to get out on the water and be amongst it all. I love the remote nature of the islands and yet the feeling of belonging to a small community. I always feel so alive and inspired here, and no matter where I travel or explore around the world I am always so happy to know I can call this place home.

The Art of Cocos (Keeling) Islands stamp issue is available from 18 October 2016 online, at participating Post Offices, and via mail order on 1800 331 794, while stocks last.

This content was produced at the time of the stamp issue release dates mentioned within this article and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team