In a context of extreme political turns, climate catastrophe and renewed militouristic exploitation of lands and waters first known in kinship by First Nations across the Great Ocean, a number of works presented in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) provide compelling drive to hopeful, caring action and deeper reflection on latent messaging in Eurocentric cultural institutions in Australia and further afield.
I was fortunate to be invited to the official cultural orientation and blessing of the galleries for participating First Nations artists, as well as the unofficial First Nations curators’ discussions.
To my knowledge, this was the first time in the Asia Pacific Triennial’s twenty-five year history that the ceremonial protocols and intercommunal care for international Indigenous gathering were enabled and financed. Three welcoming ceremonies were conducted by cultural practitioners from the wider region around Brisbane, including local host First Nations, Turrbal and Jaggera, and neighbouring First Nation, Quandamooka.
We learnt creation histories of the ancestor Kuril after whom the point where the major Queensland cultural institutions have been built is named. We visited Indigenous public art installations, both old and new, around Kurilpa. We witnessed dancing and singing in languages by Turrbal elder Aunty Maroochy Barambah assisted by Garrawa, Waanyi, Butchella, Tongan, South Sea Islander arts practitioner Fred Leone. We saw a water blessing offered by Quandamooka artists Aunty Sonja Carmichael and her daughter Elisa Jane Carmichael. And there was a smoking cleansing through which we walked, reminding ourselves of arriving in Indigenous relational space.
Incredibly important for everyone present were the multiple moments where Aboriginal hosts from QAGOMA – Birri Gubba curator Bruce Johnson McLean, Fred Leone and others – invited responses, which in turn flowed in song, gift-giving, dancing and embraces spanning the depth of kinships across our Great Ocean homespace.
The Women’s Wealth project affirms Indigenous matriarchal strength and futurity. Co-curated by my mentor, Hakö curator and knowledge keeper Aunty Sana Balai, and QAGOMA curator of Pacific art Ruth McDougall, this is a significant project many years in the making. Presenting an exchange of senior and younger Indigenous artists working in fibre, ceramics, film and ceremony, Women’s Wealth is a legacy assembly of Indigenous artists undoing the violence of borders between islands and shores mongered in the late 1800s by European conventions. Between islands and atolls grouped as Torres Strait (Zenadh-Kes), Buka, Bougainville, Choiseul and more (Nukumanu), there is a wealth of intergenerational exchange and customary forms being revivified in a way that can only partially be presented in a gallery outcome.
Artists: Sister Theresita Alona, Adelaide Mekea Aniona, Pauline Kimei Anis, Kiria Asike, Elisa Jane Carmichael, Gwendalyn Dava Damusoe, Janet Fieldhouse, Jesmaine Sakoi Gano, Taloi Havini, Josephine Manta Kaepaku, Kay Lawrence, Georgianna Maetale Lepping, Joy Wongatina Pazabeto Madada, Emma Hopuhopu Makusu, Elizabeth Gawa Marata, Helen Dusimoi Miriona, Aida Hilo Pais, Elizabeth Watsi Saman, Imelda Vaevavini Teqae criss-cross Indigenous knowledges, territories and generations.
Having grown up with the daily fibre practice of my tinā matua Nātia Manō Tautua Faʻaseʻe in our villages in the Sāmoan archipelago, the matriarchal presence and indelible power in the multicoloured belongings created in ancestral hues - hutu ceremonial hoods, biruko choreographic fans, string bags, pandanus mats and video works - attests to Indigenous resistance in conceptions of circular time, land as skin, and relational space. These commanding fibre and filmic works are not easily digested in the highly charged space of a Eurocentric gallery; while the display is more akin to conventional ethnographic museum exposition, the impact of these Indigenous aesthetics making space for their communities first, and for uninitiated viewing audiences second, is significant.
My first encounter with the survivance (resistance, survival, presence) of the Okinawan or Ryukyuan Kingdom, doubly bound today by Japanese imperialism and American militarism, was through intellectuals critical of Asian settler diaspora in the occupied Hawaiian Kingdom; and now through the intimate photographic series, Red Flower: Women of Okinawa (2017) by senior Okinawan artist Mao Ishikawa. Her candid photographs attest to relationality as the first element at her disposal; rather than eschew all depiction of American soldiers she portrays romance and relationships on the beach and in the club across ethnic boundaries. Indigenous resistance to the hyperreal presence of American bases and Japanese societal norms carries through Mao’s work, accented by contemporary linguicide and militarised misuse of ancestral islands, to bring viewers into her complex worldview
Mao’s refusal on stage during the APT9 Symposium (aided only by a chuchotage interpreter) to be infantilised or rendered unintelligent for her command of English will sit with me for a long time. The violence of English reducing the artist’s voice and agency must be channeled into multilingual simultaneous interpreting in future triennial programming if we are serious about the value of repeat gatherings across Asia and the Great Ocean; if we are serious about the possibility of deeper engagement with various aesthetics, politics, creative histories and futurities beyond the recurring introductory waves in each Asia Pacific Triennial. Mao proclaims loud and clear through the Anglophone Sea: ‘We are not Japanese, we are Okinawan. Please take your American military back to America, out of our islands.’
Punake practitioner Latai Taumoepeau presented live performance on the opening night, and performance documentary photography of her major durational work, Dark Continent (2015). In this work – originally situated in 24HR Incident at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Haymarket/Chinatown areas of downtown Sydney – Latai poses recurring haunting questions to all who see and sea in the Australian settler colony, as well as the spectre of precarious yet fierce Indigenous peoples of the wider Great Ocean responding to climate catastrophe, Western decadence, and multinational greed hellbent on a futureless planetary sphere. Imaged through Max Dupain’s iconic Sunbaker (1937) work on Eurocentric beauty ideals and colonial claims to territory work, all lands and waters have been codified as the property of the European settler colonial majority in Australia whose largesse negatively impacts the surrounding archipelagos in ways unimaginable before 1780. Latai’s painstaking actions of fake tanning her body in the gallery space leave all kinds of residues and hints of skin politics. As First Nations peoples, whose territories are misnamed Australia, continue to be targeted through genocidal carceral policies, Dark Continent is many times over poignant when similarly referring to the nervous positionality of European majority to all minorities, Indigenous and migrant/displaced, codified as ‘Of Colour’. Who owns/claims/belongs to this fluid continent, this Great Ocean? Answering back to these redundant questions posed by liberal settler colonial morality, Latai seems to say, as if for the last time, that all of us who belong to our primary ancestor – the Great Ocean – have a genealogical link to sand, water, sky, air, whether the mythos of the beach for people codified as White deems to allow this or not.
Particularly sensual and simultaneously absurd, Latai’s significant practice straddles Punake, Tongan faiva and Western aesthetics/performance practices, beckoning to a world more complex, daring, caring, just like the many works by Indigenous women from all around the Great Ocean in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. It demands more of your emotional labour and intellectual rigour than Instagram posts and Twitter rants can ever truly poetically testify to. And thank all the Ancestors that this is so. We are in a great series of moments.
Léuli Eshrāghi [Sāmoa, Irānzamin, Guandong; pronouns ia, ū or any others] is an artist grateful to live on Kulin Nation territory. Ia work centres on ceremonial-political practices, language renewal and Indigenous futures throughout the Great Ocean. Ia exhibits and publishes regularly and serves on the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (Canada) board.