The (Very) Sad Fish-lady: A Migration Tale

5 September to 19 October 2013

Artist Joy McDonald collaborated with puppeteers Ruth Pieloor and James Scott, designers Imogen Keen and Hilary Talbot, with music composed by David Pereira and dramaturgy by Richard Bradshaw.

Joy McDonald, The Boatman marionette puppet, 2013, wood, metal, paper, fabric, and additional mixed media. Photo: Joy McDonald

The (Very) Sad Fish-lady By Vasiliki Nihas

That Joy McDonald is master of both illusion and allusion is demonstrable in her Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre exhibition which evidences the journeys taken and artistic processes explored to breathe life into her story of The (Very) Sad Fish-lady. This story has given rise to an illustrated children's book, a puppet play and an exhibition chronicling Joy's artistic processes and creative development.

Joy started life as Eftihia Economos, daughter of Greek immigrants originating from the tiny island of Castellorizo, its rich history and merchant culture closely bonding it to the nearby Turkish coastline which was once its hinterland. The (Very) Sad Fish-lady’s story belongs to herself, to Castellorizo, to Australia, to Joy and to generations of successive immigrants who journeyed to unknown shores in search of sanctuary and new beginnings, repeatedly torn between new and old belongings and longings.

Castellorizo has often been referred to as The Rock by its fiercely loyal inhabitants and their descendants, a connection shared by both Joy and myself. We are in the company of a number so moved by this place as to have published on our ties to this infinitesimal yet so very historically significant rock in the eastern Mediterranean. Despite or perhaps because of its isolation, it appears to have given rise to women and men of indomitable spirit. Together we share the love and memories of countless, resilient grandmothers who waited for their seafaring husbands to return to their families time and time again, keenly aware of the Odysseus-like dangers they would be encountering.

Joy's work, while being the creation of her imagination, alludes to both the beautiful but also rugged, inhospitable Castellorizo and to the generations of the (very) sad fish-ladies expectantly alert, ever listening for the return of loved ones from the opposite ends of the earth. In so doing, she creates an illusion, a tantalising glimpse into other lives. She welcomes us into the (Very) Sad Fish-Lady's home, for a privileged time, to experience her world. She takes us across vast seas and shows us the contradictory pulls of home and community, questioning the very nature of that home and our identity. She plunges us deeply into the dangerous waters of asylum seeking, of the anxiety and fear, separation, isolation and longing that goes with it. She shows us the consequences of decisions which threaten powerful familial bonds whose connecting fibres become ever more fragile over time and geography.

We inhabit the worlds of the (Very) Sad Fish-Lady through the theatre of storytelling and the ancient arts of marionette and Karaghioz (meaning black-eyed in Turkish) or shadow puppetry. Through these art forms reimagined and recreated, Joy skillfully blends the (very) sad with that which brings a smile to our faces and gladdens our hearts. It is Joy's talents as a multifaceted, multitalented artist, playwright and director, which recreates the thin transparent domed shell of home, and invites us to enter through the door of intimacy.

Our wise, coffee cup reading, (Very) Sad Fish-Lady, lives at the mercy of the elements and the vagaries of the Fates and is privy to the trials and struggles of her community while remaining physically just a little remote from it. At times, she so identifies with her geography that she becomes one with her surroundings, the elemental world of sea and sky. Yet, her world is also populated by kind, well-meaning creatures and individuals and while the lives revealed appear transparent, simple lives, nothing in life is as complex as its seemingly surface relationships and their inherent tensions.

Joy, not content with simply leading us into the world of our, (very) sad, reminiscent of a fish, lady living on her solitary rock, begins to fill in the blanks for us. She draws us a picture of daily existence, literally. Not only did Joy write the narrative, but three years ago began storyboarding it and accompanying it with the series of preliminary sketches which fuelled the book and later, the play. She elaborated the original story in what became the 19 finely drawn illustrations on display in the exhibition. Each is evocative and worthy of close attention. Coming together as an illustrated book for young people and their elders they entrance and transport disparate audiences of readers.

Still not content, Joy envisaged and created the narrative as puppet theatre, envisaging both the light filled central domed stage set, later realised by theatre designer Imogen Keen. Simultaneously Joy worked, over a very long period, on the shaping of the marionettes themselves. She made prototypes of our central character in her different guises, kerchiefed and fish metamorphosed, and created the prototype archaic, ageless boatman of our universal imaginations.

Joy's consummate skills as a ceramicist and visual artist are evident in the exhibition. She has been a professional puppeteer since the 1960's, when she toured Australia with the Tintookies and appeared on Playschool. She experimented with making her own puppets early on in her career and returned to the art of this craft in a number of her artistic incarnations over the years, having been tutored and mentored by the talented Richard Bradshaw, a master in the field.

So, she hand built each puppet from the making of the unfired clay models seen in the exhibition, to their plaster casting, to creating their faces using moulds, to giving them the mobility of mechanical joints and dressing them. She also incorporated the related traditional art form of shadow puppetry, originally created on vellum or translucent leather, as a series of Ottoman character stereotypes, and their Greek counterparts. The ages old traditions of this Karaghioz shadow puppetry are evident in Joy's more contemporary take on this craft as she creates memorable shadow puppets such as the strong man and the olive gatherer.

Having been privileged to be engaged with the creative development of Joy's production over a three year period, I have witnessed its earliest beginnings and its continuing evolution. I have heard the numerous questions asked, dwelt upon and answered, the ideas conceived and discarded, the models built and refined or even more dramatically, reimagined.

The haunting musical score developed to accompany the performance by the talented composer, performer, David Pereira, has been a journey in its own right. Composing music alluding to a complex pattern of Greek rhythms and notations while keeping true to the quest of elusive intangibles such as a Greek scent, flavour and richness has brought its own challenges and grapplings to create an almost surreal musical landscape in keeping with the visual aesthetic. Similarly, reference to the DVD of the creative development processes gives an insight into how the many creative forces at play came together to ensure the unifying integrity and authenticity of tone which characterises this production.

There is great thought, experimentation and depth which underlines Joy's production of The (Very) Sad Fish-lady. The most powerful statements often require only the simplest most elegant of forms to make their mark. Getting to that point is not a simple process but a highly involved one of organic complexity. This exhibition parallels the originality and freshness of thought brought to both the book and the stage. However good ideas do not always translate into artistic realities and the (Very) Sad Fish-Lady's world would not have been made real without the long term nurturing and support given to the creative development process. For this, the far sightedness and generous support of the ACT Government, CAPO (The Capital Arts Patrons' Organisation), Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre, the Street Theatre, friends, family and theatre colleagues are to be applauded.

Vasiliki Nihas is a published writer, had a long career in Cultural Consulting, was a founding member of the Cultural Facilities Corporation, former Deputy Chair of the Cultural Council and former Chair of Canberra Arts Marketing and of Jigsaw Theatre Company.