“Driven by curiosity and captivated by the image of a woman with a pearl necklace I found in my late father’s personal archive, I begin the journey towards the painful discovery of my father’s ex-wife—and the mother of a half-brother I have never met.” So says Greek artist Ioanna Sakellaraki as she introduces her new photo project, The Seven Circuits of a Pearl—an epic photographic and mixed media odyssey that weaves us through not only the artist’s own family history, but also across the history of the early Australian pearling industry too.
Set against a velvety, sea-like backdrop, the images appear to us in a palette of deep lapis blue, inky black, and intense jade green—the exact sort of green that light makes when it pierces the water’s surface and illuminates the ocean floor. Many of the images appear this way, in fact—like theatrical representations of underwater vignettes that have eclipsed out of the shadows momentarily. Full of items like pearly jewels and vintage photos, all of them seem to tell stories of distant lives.
If this project were a novel, we might call Sakellaraki’s opening sentence a ‘hook’—a delicious prologue designed to pull us into the story. But what exactly is the story, or stories, here? And what do pearls and pirates, shipwrecks and seafarers have to do with this secret pocket of Sakellaraki’s father’s life? Well, as with all great stories, we should begin at the very beginning.
“The Seven Circuits of a Pearl is primarily a story about islands, human relationships to the sea and the consequent cultural worlds, historical narratives and set of practices built around geographies and ecologies of the ocean through centuries,” says Sakellaraki. Spending her childhood on the Greek islands in the Aegean, her relationship to the sea was formative from the get-go, she says—not just because of her location, or because of the classic Greek myths she grew up that “spoke of the birth of seas and islands,” but also because her late father was a sailor and marine engineer, and she often took “maritime adventures” with him.
Then, in 2020, Sakellaraki’s relationship to the sea was reignited again, when she moved to Melbourne, Australia to undertake a practice-based PhD in photography. Once there, she began exploring the coasts around her new home with her camera, and researching the area’s maritime history too. In the collections of institutions including the National Library of Australia, the State Library of Queensland and the Shipwreck Museum of Western Australia, she zeroed in on the prominence of pearls in the region, finding them in everything from naval expedition documents to Aboriginal art collections to personal diaries.
“As an explorer in this new land myself, my curiosity about Australia’s maritime history revealed the significance of the first pearl fisheries and an early industry of explorers, pioneers, forced labour, tropical cyclones, shipwrecks, death, wealth, secrecy and power that came with it,” she says, adding that from the Roman Empire to the present day, pearls have been “treasured, sought, traded, bought and stolen.”
It’s a history Sakellaraki wanted to attempt to tell in pictures, and so she began taking trips and making landscape photographs in places of particular significance to the pearling industry, such as the Torres Strait Islands, focusing her lens on the ocean, the movement of the waves, and the textures of trees, rocks and caves. These pictures then went on to become the main canvases of her images, like the base layer of artworks she would then collage onto with both fragments of other images and drawings, as well as physical objects like textiles, pearls and shells.
Meanwhile, inspired by all of this new research, Sakellaraki also began retracing her father’s own maritime explorations to faraway lands by delving into the archive of pictures and letters he left behind after his passing. In this collection, she made two shocking discoveries. “The first was when I noticed the name ‘Anna’ written on the back of one of his photographs of a woman wearing a pearl necklace, which I later came to discover was my father’s ex-wife I had never known about. The second was when I came across an image of my father, in front of a boat, holding a baby that was neither me nor any of my sisters. This image then led to the discovery of my half-brother, Anna and my father’s son—another person I hadn’t known existed until then.”
Suddenly, she says, the stories she had been reading of shipwrecks and people lost at sea seemed to echo closer to home, and her own understanding of her father’s life was capsized by the discovery. “By bringing the archives of my father with me, I began connecting with home from elsewhere, developing a network of threads between the personal and the collective, the known and the unexplored, the real and the imagined, all fragments of the same recurring themes in my practice; memory, loss and fiction.”
The images in The Seven Circuits of a Pearl are richly layered and complex works; each of them detailing elements of smaller, personal stories that, when seen together, make up a much larger, overarching narrative centring on the sea and how it shapes both lives and cultures. Many of them seem to draw our gaze to ghostly eyes and faces beneath the surface—an effect Sakellaraki created by “cutting through some images and blowing out microscopic details in other ones.”
There are layers upon layers of visual elements, details, textures and symbols that recur in this project, all of them representing different aspects of Sakellaraki’s research. Jewel-encrusted rings speak to the idea of male explorers bringing back pearls for their wives as commodities; Japanese lettering alludes to the Japanese divers who lost their lives while pearling in the Torres Strait; snakes and spiders represent creatures indigenous to Australia; and repeated instances of peeling walls represent the inside walls of pearl mollusks.
The series opens with a surrealist, turquoise-tinged image that appears like a seascape featuring mountains made out of pearls. “This image borrows its background from the outline of the coastline on Thursday island, one of the Torres Strait islands,” she explains. “The pearls come to cover the mountain line in its entirety and the curtain of the background aims to create a stage revealing some sort of suspense.” And the necklace that appears suspended above the landscape represents the pearl necklace Anna was wearing in the image she found.
Elsewhere, the photograph of Sakellaraki’s half-brother as an infant sits at the centre of a labyrinth. Sakellaraki named The Seven Circuits of a Pearl after the classic motif of a Cretan labyrinth—a seven-circuit pattern that has been found carved into rocks at sites of ancient archeological ruin, and harks back to the early Greek myth of Daedalus, who made a maze of this shape in which to trap the Minotaur. In Sakellaraki’s version, however, it’s her half-brother at the centre of the maze; her father’s own hidden being.
In the end, Sakellaraki says, The Seven Circuits of a Pearl has been an expansive exercise in using photography to visualize memories—“but memories that have not been lived by me, instead only imagined, based on what I found in the various archives I’ve investigated.” And that’s absolutely what emanates from these images—many intermingling stories, like a chorus of voices talking all at once.
For the artist, the very process of working on The Seven Circuits of a Pearl even felt a little like a pearl forming in itself. “A pearl is formed by the intrusion of a foreign object into the living oyster and getting trapped there, slowly turning into a pearl by being coated with shell material called nacre. I sometimes feel like an intruder in my father’s archive, constructing my own escape from the labyrinth or trap I built for myself,” she says. On a final, musing note she adds that a pearl is a beautiful thing formed as a result of a small disaster, which she can’t help but feel is metaphorical for the way she created this project after discovering her own, life-altering ‘disaster’ among her father’s belongings; a secret that emerged from the depths and changed everything she thought she knew.