When artist Beth Sometimes got talking to a fellow at an outback roadhouse one day, she was immediately struck by something he mentioned in passing. Over a steak sandwich, Jack – who was a retired souvenir shop owner in Central Australia – told Beth that over the years he'd received "hundreds" of letters and returned souvenirs from travellers who attributed "guilt and misfortune" to having purchased objects that contained images of, or artwork from, local Aboriginal people.
Jack shared the letters and souvenirs with Beth, who then collated them into an exhibition and an online gallery called The Sorry Souvenir Phenomenon. The stories they contain are heartbreaking, chilling and astonishing. Like the letter, pictured above, written by Eva Schmidt from Germany. “I believe this boomerang might have had some kind of a curse on it,” she wrote. “It is my sincere desire that this item be returned to the Aborigines who crafted it, as I cannot bear the horrific and strange occurrences any longer.”
Eva described some of the tragedies that had befallen her family since she returned home to Germany, with boomerang in tow. Her eldest son lost his job. Then her youngest son was hit by a bus and lost the use of all his limbs. Then her daughter Renata lost her boyfriend “in a mysterious accident” and became suicidal.
Eva also outlined how the boomerang had led to “all sorts of things… coming back to us”. She wrote letters to her relatives to notify them of the family’s misfortune – and every single letter bounced back to her. “It made no sense at all,” she wrote. But it wasn’t all bad. Their pet cat, who had gone missing three years earlier, “came walking into the kitchen at dinner time as though nothing had happened”.
Eva’s final words to Jack were plaintive: “All I want is for things to return to the way they were before. I hope that ridding ourselves of this item will suffice.”
Then there’s Mr Jack Hunter from England who returned a spoon containing the image of an Indigenous elder from Yalata, South Australia.
“Please… lift the horrible curse that has afflicted me,” Jack begged in his letter, having outlined a litany of misfortunes he had experienced after “removing” the object: bowel cancer, the death of his wife, the death of his horse, the loss of great wads of money.
Frank Myers from Kentucky, USA, returned a shot glass decorated with a dot painting in the hope that it would bring him sobriety and win back his estranged wife. He closed his letter fervently vowing to “never to leave American soil again, nor collect any item that is not rightfully mine”. Henry Petermann from South Carolina returned a postcard containing “some sort of Aboriginal animal spirit totems that are messing with my life”. He outlined in detail the deaths that occurred in the four years following his purchase: “My childhood buddy George died in ’86, poisoned by bad fish. My two sisters went the same way. My brother and his wife were… killed by an alligator in Florida. It is unclear the exact cause of death of my aunt Jacinta and her twin boys, as their bodies were almost completely consumed by the turtles she kept as pets.”
Not all the letters contain such disturbing stories. A cheerful Ikuyo Harukosama from Japan returned a pair of dot-painted sunglasses, which she thought were “very beautiful” but which caused her to see dots on everything. Just small dots to start off with “like Yayo Kusama’s Infinity Room,” she wrote, only then the dots became much bigger and she became obsessed with wearing the sunglasses. “I like very much the work of Ms Kusama but having the job and the dot obsession at same time is becoming very difficult,” Ikuyo wrote in her letter to Jack. She signed off chirpily: “I do not want money back as I am very pleased for this experience.” And next to her name, she drew a smiley face covered in dots.
The letters reveal a lot about our human need to seek out reason when life throws the random and inexplicable in our path. Read them, see the souvenirs and experience more art and stories from Beth Sometimes at her website, Honeymoon Gap.
Photography: Beth Sometimes