Artists: John Akomfrah (Ghana/UK), Fernando Arias (Colombia), Regina José Galindo (Guatemala), Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola), Runo Lagomarsino (Sweden/Brazil), Sarah Munro (Aotearoa, NZ), Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria/Belgium), Siliga David Setoga (Aotearoa, NZ), Jasmine Togo-Brisby (Australia/Aotearoa, NZ), Jian Jun Xi (China)
Curator: Gabriela Salgado
Under what conditions does the Global South become relevant? Originally conceived to replace and reconceptualise ‘The Third World’, the Global South is somewhat of an amorphous term. More than a binary between a Global South and a Global North, or an East and a West, today the Global South is commonly understood as referring to people and places around the world who are negatively impacted by imperialism, capitalism and globalisation. Rather than a geographical denotation, the Global South then becomes a geo political framework understood in relation to a global north, ‘both entangled in long lasting historical relations of Western imperial expansion’.1 Connections held by people and places are thus enabled between various ‘souths’ who mutually recognise one another and view their conditions as shared. The Global South is, then, what Caroline Levander and Walter Mignolo call ‘an entity that has been invented in the struggle and conflicts between imperial global domination and emancipatory and decolonial forces that do not acquiesce with global designs.’
It is these shared connections that a recent exhibition at Te Tuhi, bringing together new and existing works by nine international and local artists, relies on. The exhibition title From where I stand, my eye will send a light to you in the North is taken from Otobong Nkanga’s performance piece Diaoptasia (2015). First presented at Tate Modern, London, Nkanga’s works on paper from the Social Consequences I series acts as a centrepiece for the exhibition. Across a number of vitrines in the centre gallery space the rather dystopian graphic prints are splayed out; featuring bodies, land and destruction, they read as a narrative of the ongoing effects of imperialism in Africa and the violent resource extraction that has occurred alongside it.
The economic aspect of imperial expansion also seems to be present in the work of Regina José Galindo. Tierra (2013) is a 33.30-minute performance where the artist stands unmoving as a digger much larger than herself excavates the soil around her. We never see the digger operator, just the motion of the machine and the results of its work. While in the setting of this exhibition it is easy to read Galindo’s work as a reference to land excavation, Tierra has been well documented as a reinterpretation of the bulldozer-dug mass graves of murdered innocent Guatemalan’s as revealed in the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt, the former President of Guatemala.
Siliga David Setoga’s This Land of Plenty (2018) features two villainised figures – Captain James Cook and Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, the current Prime Minster of Samoa – flanking an iconic image of Whina Cooper on the 1975 land march. The three light boxes utilise the language of road works, playing on the in/visibility of the hi viz fluorescent yellow and the in/visibility of labour forces who come to this land of plenty, and play into a system in which migrant people benefit from 'contested, stolen' Indigenous land.
On the reverse wall of Setoga’s triptych hang three photographs by Jasmine Togo-Brisby from her installation Sweet Jesus! (2018). Continuing the focus of previous works, Togo-Brisby reflects on her ancestral connection to Blackbirding, the devastating slave trade that built Queensland Australia and its sugar industry. The historic photos of labourers in Queensland – one a mass baptism – are now super imposed with the artist and her daughter; the words Jesus sculpted from sugar sits in the gallery space. The installation as a whole comments on the pervasive nature of Christianity as a tool of both slavery and colonisation within these communities.
Another photographic triptych, Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Redefining the Power III (Homem Novo/New Man series with Miguel Prince) (2011) includes a sequence of images: the first is a photo of a colonial statue of Pedro Alexandrino da Cunha, a nineteenth century colonial governor-general, the second captures the base of the same statue and yet the statue itself is now gone, and the third the same base now with living Angolans replacing the statue. Drawn from a larger series of works, Henda takes a tongue in cheek approach to repurposing the colonial monuments taken down in Luanda in the first years of Angolan independence.
This interrogation of the individual’s relationship to monumentalism is also evident in Jian Jun Xi’s Empire (2018). Empire, a 1:20 replica of the central rotunda of Washington’s Capitol Building made from red, blue and white tarpaulin, lies toppled over on its side. As a symbol of world power, it quickly becomes precarious – light and flimsy in its materiality, facing the door for birds to fly in and relatable in scale to the human body. The power it symbolises in one setting becomes overthrown in this one.
Sarah Munro’s Trade Item (2014–2018) is a series of embroidered works based off a drawing by Tupaia – the Tahitian high priest and navigator well known for accompanying Cook as a translator on his Pacific Voyages – commonly described as a Māori chief trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks. Munro swaps the crayfish for other introduced species and plastic as a comment on the way in which these new introductions have caused and continue to cause ecological devastation. This is Tupaia’s only known drawing of New Zealand and is significant as a rare depiction of the contact period from a non-colonial perspective. To have these images then reinterpreted by a Pākehā presents an irony within this exhibition.
If You Don’t Know What the South Is, It’s Simply Because you are From the North
This phrase, printed in black text on a blue stack of A3 posters, is Runo Lagomarsino’s contribution. The phrase itself points to the dichotomy or binary of the north and the south, one which the exhibition seems to repeat over and over. The ‘struggle’ – as Levander and Mignolo describe it – for independent thought and decolonial freedom is disproportionately prioritised. By positioning artists in relation to imperial power, the exhibition seems to reinforce the binary of north/south and coloniser/colonised that it is attempting to complicate. While the exhibition sets out to challenge ‘Eurocentric historical narratives’ what it proves is that each of these ‘global souths’ are so different and so distinct that when drawn together they result in a fetishisation of the ongoing effects of imperial trauma.
To return to the opening question, I wonder, under what conditions does the global south become relevant, and relevant in Aotearoa to be specific? While the ambitions of From where I stand, my eye will send a light to you in the North are noble, stretching a concept of a Global South so far results in an exhibition in which the works are fighting to have their nuances heard. Suffering from the blanket term under which they are grouped, the works together say not much at all, which is unfortunate for an exhibition that includes great work.
Lana Lopesi (Satapuala/Siumu) is a writer and critic of art and culture. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Pantograph Punch.