You’re trying to read a flat pattern, like the sea, the land from high above.
— Kim Scott, True Country
My nana used to take me driving, weaving traces, up, down the west coast, bilya, boya, wardan — river, rock, ocean.1 In Aboriginal practices of place-making, boundaries transform undifferentiated space into specific localities, places, home. Boundaries defined by language, cultural and sociopolitical practices, ecology, ceremony and by worldly actors who inhabit and take care of place.2 These boundaries are storied threads that simultaneously demarcate points of difference and coming-together, unlike dominant European boundaries, which attempt to flatten and divide space into a static gridded form — empty space apt for (European) occupation and control. Aboriginal boundaries are string-like, dividing, re-converging and weaving storied webs of connection.
Ua numi le fau (2016), curated by Sāmoan-Persian curator and artist Léuli Eshraghi and exhibited at Gertrude Contemporary as part of the Next Wave Festival, attends to counter-hegemonic indigenous and other marginalised ways of knowing and place-making.3 The exhibition takes place in Narrm, unceded Country of Wurundjeri peoples. The bay of Narrm is visually mapped in a semi-transparent vinyl work, Makin’ Waves (2016), by Megan Cope and Robbie Thorpe and placed across the gallery’s front windows. The work inverts the bay, and ocean currents filled with key phrases from Thorpe’s activist work resound the multiple and ongoing traumas caused by settler-colonialism and call to re-instate ‘Bunjil’s Lore’, ‘Black Lore’. Thorpe’s idioms allude to the Aboriginal history of the local area — pre-gentrified Gertrude Street, at the heart of Aboriginal activism, community organisations, gatherings, creative activity. The street-facing placement of Makin’ Waves suggests that it may be possible to rewrite (once?) colonising institutes, like galleries — implicated in the process of gentrification — as sites of counter-hegemonic resistance.
The title of the exhibition, Ua numi le fau, decentres the English-speaking monadic white subject. ‘Ua numi le fau’ is a Sāmoan expression that gestures to the way intricate webs of meaning, ecology, life, love and death are encoded in language and woven into our ways of knowing and being. Eshraghi explains:
Ua numi le fau is an expression in my language meaning the string tied to the lupe pigeon is entangled, both in hunting the prized bird in Sāmoan vao forests, and in relationships being complicated and difficult.4
The practice of decolonisation interrogates and decentres dominant settler-colonial and Western epistemologies, opening space for subjugated ways of knowing and being. Even as ‘we’ insert and withdraw ourselves from the fabled Western scripts of individualism and progression, protean assemblages of biological and abiotic actors make places and subjects.5 These processes become embedded in language, in strings or traces that cut across and enliven places and subjective experience.
The curatorial approach firmly situates Ua numi le fau in Narrm, the setting of the settler-colonial mythscape staged inter alia as Melbourne. Careful to avoid any totalising frame, Ua numi le fau engages linguistic, visual and aural modalities for the conceptualisation of knowledges. Eshraghi’s broader project appoints a range of media, disciplines, artistic and ceremonial practices that occur inside and outside the gallery space, re-asserting his statement in the exhibition catalogue: ‘This exhibition takes a journey through languages, bodies, places and moments’ and is ‘variously invested in the possibilities and challenges of a return to country, of love, of healing…’.6 For this reason, I engage with the exhibition space at Gertrude Contemporary and the exhibition catalogue as elements of the same text. A range of artists are brought together: Atong Atem, Carlos Motta, Dale Harding, Frédéric Nauczyciel, Mandy Nicholson, Megan Cope, Robbie Thorpe and Yuki Kihara. The artworks variously attempt to resist and hold to account the narcissistic and predatory forms of knowledge production inherent to settler-colonial and capitalist systems. The exhibition asks: how might diverse and radical subjectivities coexist and destabilise Western hegemonic paradigms for knowing, being and place-making?
Eshraghi’s curation is considered and reflexive. The selection of artworks creates a mise-en-scéne, which is attentive to the performance and performativity of subjectivity and identity. Rather than attempt to represent some anterior or essential indigenous or minority identity, the works reflect the diverse, situated subjective experiences of the artists and participants involved. This allows diverse social and cultural modes of signification to co-inhabit the gallery space without sublating the untranslatable elements into any totalising lens, be it indigeneity, gender, race or sex.
Take for instance the multimodal representations of subjective experience exhibited in the main gallery: South Sudanese, Narrm Melbourne-based artist Atong Atem’s studio photographs explore blackness and identity in the context of African diaspora; Sāmoan artist Yuki Kihara’s photographic series inflects the existential question of how to live in the fragmented present while acknowledging its displaced histories, with questions about culture and the violence of colonialism; and Carlos Motta’s video work, narrated in Kogi and Spanish, speaks of colonial violence and seeks to recover subjugated knowledges, rather than a mythical paradisiacal pre-colonial past or identity.7 While these works variously address questions of subjugation and subjectivity they enunciate these concerns in divergent ways that resist translation into the one. In this way, the exhibition avoids the risk of being read as simply an expression of flattened marginal identity or a benign celebration of multiculturalism.
The signs of difference recount a storying of space that never quite reaches narrative completion, never quite adds up. It is the negotiation of agonist and complimentary threads in these in-between spaces, where resistance to Western cultural hegemony is produced, subtly forcing a shift in viewing paradigms.8
As with Eshraghi’s earlier curatorial work Vai Niu Wai Niu Coconut Water (2015) exhibited at Caboolture Regional Art Gallery, Ua numi le fau attempts to resist the hegemony of English. Languages usually denied access to the circuits of power are foregrounded and celebrated. Symbolic of Eshraghi’s curatorial approach more broadly is the refusal to italicise non-English words in exhibition catalogues. In typical practice, italicisation is a political-editorial tool that asserts English as lingua franca in settler-colonial and global contexts. Embedded in language are ways of knowing and being that presuppose subject positions and conceptions of space. The use of multiple languages decentres the English text and urges a multilingual, multimodal reading of the exhibition. The reader is prompted to consider how language is strategically deployed to claim and inscribe places with meaning. Dominant ways of knowing are undermined for the benefit of entangled, multiple, situated and embodied subjects who resist being resolved into a totalising theme.9
Central to linguistically situating the exhibition in context, in place, is Mandy Nicholson’s thanks to Country and ancestors in Woi Wurrung. This helps position the exhibition and its interlocutors in place. A Wurundjeri-willam artist, Woi Wurrung speaker and translator, Nicholson’s acknowledgement written in Woi Wurrung is placed at the top of the first page of the exhibition catalogue. Like her acknowledgement to Country and ancestors, Nicholson’s painting, Barak (2006), in the front gallery inscribes place with complex patterns of meaning that are encoded in the Woi Wurrung language and social, cultural and artistic practices. Nicholson’s painting is a personal mapping of biik (Country) that traces local meaning, Country and peoples. It visually engages a politics of decolonisation — concretely decentring settler-colonial mappings of space — while celebrating her peoples’ consanguineal links to eminent Wurundjeri-willam Ngurungaeta, William Barak (c. 1824–1903). Nicholson’s work moves beyond simple linguistic or visual representations of cultural identity to the performative nature of inscription, of the interconnected ways of knowing and being that enliven people, place, Country.
While Aboriginal English is overlooked as a potential modality for resistance and the expression of Aboriginal subjective experience, the inclusion of local Aboriginal language (Woi Wurrung) reflects a commitment to recovering subjugated place-based knowledges that correctively re-inscribe place with meaning. Written words only offer an approximation of the rich and complex situated social and ecological relationships and practices that are encoded in the Woi Wurrung language. However, along with her painting, Nicholson’s work prompts the reader to consider their own relationship to heterogeneous ways of inhabiting this place — Narrm. A place that nourishes life, but one that has also been rendered a site of trauma by ongoing settler-colonial processes.
French artist Frédéric Nauczyciel’s video works, A Baroque Ball [Shade] (2014) and Red Shoes [Kendall Miyake Mugler] (2015), from his House of HMU series share the front gallery with Barak. Both are almost washed out by sunlight entering through the gallery window. A subtle and incisive curatorial decision, which raises questions of projection and desire, the viewer is prompted to ask what desires am I projecting onto the subjects represented and how does this distort their subjectivities? Moreover, it raises the question of the priority of the eye over inscription. While the viewer is unable to be visually ‘immersed’ in the work, the striking and iconic movements of the voguers in the videos hold the viewer’s attention. In A Baroque Ball [Shade] the dancers move in and out of the fixed frame, not only referencing but reclaiming voguing as a black, queer-trans cultural and community form. Central to the origins of voguing is its challenge to dominant conceptions of beauty — racialised as white and depicted in magazines such as Vogue. Voguing originally arose in black and Latin American queer-trans communities in Harlem. Participants transformed the poses of Vogue models into a highly performative, participatory dance form. With voguing, a counter-hegemonic space was claimed for the performance and embodiment of black and other ‘devalued’ forms of beauty and elegance.10
However, voguing eventually dissolved into the mainstream, with Madonna appropriating its form and appellation in her 1990 music video Vogue. In Nauczyciel’s videos we see the re-appropriation of voguing as a site of black, queer-trans cultural production. Voguing makes available a mode and space for performative agency, which is not situated outside or beyond the re-inscription or reiteration, but in the very modality and effects of that re-inscription.11 It is in the act, the inscription and effects of performance that subjectivity is cultivated.
Eshraghi’s decision to include work by a white artist representing black, queer-trans subjectivities and identities poses an interesting question about the politics and ethics of representation and collaboration. Nauczyciel’s videos are the first works that the viewer sees when entering the gallery, provoking the viewer to consider how subjectivity is produced by situated and embodied practitioners who, in the contemporary moment, are always already engaged in transcultural, intersubjective relationships. The work invites us to regard the specificity of race while engaging in a broader landscape that challenges the viewer to move beyond race and recognise the gendered, sexed, colonial and sociopolitical concerns expressed. It presents transcultural collaboration as a potential site for the disruption of dominant epistemologies.12
In the main gallery are Bidjara-Ghungalu-Garinbul artist from Central Queensland Dale Harding’s embroidered works. Harding’s three works, And all who enter (2010), Blakboy, Blakboy, the colour of your skin is your pride and joy (2012), and It puts a rose in every cheek (2012), form part of the artist’s exploration of the histories and linguistic concepts of his peoples, and gender, sexual and cultural identities. The works are double-framed, evoking the in-between space in which identity is figured; the viewer is reminded that subjective experience cannot be viewed through singular frames. Moreover, it plays with the notion of what happens when cultural experiences are re-framed as art. Harding playfully subverts icons of Australiana; vegemite jars become jars of sodomite, a pink kangaroo and a cockatoo gesture towards queer cross-species kinship, two grass plants, known derogatively as ‘black boys’, appear phallic-like with pink, brown and cream colouration, accompanied by the text ‘I AM THE NEW BLAK’. All of these are embroidered into grid-like textiles — a form historically considered a domestic craft — disrupting simple notions of identity formation. His subversive use of a typically domestic form can be read as a refusal to be domesticated by a settler-colonial theme or puritan notions of the homely space.
The gridded pattern of the textile resounds the exhibition’s broader theme. Like Harding’s work, Ua numi le fau weaves subversive threads of resistance into gridded space, the hegemonic settler-colonial technique for mapping space (i.e. the Hoddle grid) and putting subjects in-place. The grid merges a cartographic system for representing space, land and peoples with systems of governance. It aims at controlling whatever it conceives, producing sets of coordinates that symbolically manipulate space and peoples, transforming them into retrievable data.13 This dominant European rendering of space epistemologically reduces and flattens complex ecological and human relationships, rather than recognising the lived processes, social, cultural and ceremonial practices that enliven space. This impoverished understanding of space overlooks the forms of entanglement that are expressed in the phrase Ua numi le fau and enunciated in the exhibition.
Responding to this hegemonic, settler-colonial conception of space and subjects, Eshraghi asks: ‘How might resistance, healing and sovereign futures be sited/sighted?’.14 In the ‘utterance of the present’15 — its displaced histories, peoples, ecological lives, its contradictory and asymmetric articulations of power and knowledge — what does it mean to make space for pedagogy and performance that decentres hegemonic modes of knowledge production? Can a speculative vision of sovereign futures be represented? How can we site/sight indigenous ways of making and inhabiting place while articulating them within the incommensurable terms of settler-colonial systems that we hope to decentre?
The success of Ua numi le fau is that it stops short of formulating an answer to these questions. Rather, the exhibition creates open questions and invests the present with new meaning at the limits of linguistic and cultural translation. Ua numi le fau makes space for the performative nature of differential subjectivities, for patterns of polysemy, for remaking boundaries — that are more like storied threads of difference and connection than geometric coordinates — for exposing the limits of claims to singular ways of knowing and being in place. This loquacious get-together finds agency in an interstitial space and it utters the refusal to sublimate divergent forms of subjectivity or expressions of identity into any totalising vision.
Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and independent researcher, a descendent of Numbulwar where the Rose River opens onto the Gulf of Carpentaria. He lives and works in the Northern Territory and Naarm.