Whenever we establish our spaces, specifically for us, those spaces are inherently seen as threats.1
Joseph Cullier, cofounder of The Black School
In his address to the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Awards Dinner for the University of Auckland, Fijian Pākehā artist Luke Willis Thompson described receiving his first undergraduate scholarship as ‘a moment of mobility ... the first time I had a sense of freedom and self-governance from simply being valued by way of being in the room.’2 For many Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), Western universities are not sites of emancipation or validation, but hostile institutions where social hierarchies are reproduced and specific knowledges are privileged at the expense of others. This essay unpacks the politics of space through an examination of discursive art projects that take ‘the colour-line’ as a starting point to complicate and resist binaries of centre/periphery, insider/outsider, knowledge consumer/ knowledge producer and individual/collective—to interrogate the dialectics of race, space and pedagogy. The projects discussed herein are public expressions of self-determined autonomous Black spaces explored by individuals and collectives within a critical art context.
I write from the position of a Fijian Anglo-Australian woman, statistically predisposed to not complete tertiary studies. I’m a ‘first-in-family’, low socioeconomic status (SES), culturally diverse kid who grew up in single-parent, social housing for the majority of my school years. Now, after fifteen years working within the institution, I’m acutely aware of how spaces are marked, divided and held in the context of higher education and what it means as a woman of colour to be present and take up space in the institution as a settler on unceded Wurundjeri land. Fijian Pākehā curator Ema Tavola reminds us of the politics of presence in the PIMPImanifesto:
Acknowledge everything that comes with presence. Presence isn’t power, but power disjoints the normative settings that define our [in]visibility. Enable mutual discovery and exploration. Where history has embedded exclusivity, presence requires structures to shift.3
This principle is echoed in decolonial pedagogies that call for educators and students to know and understand structures of power and colonisation, to disrupt them as a strategy to recentre Indigenous ways of knowing and support Indigenous self- determination.4 A commitment to mobilise and disrupt colonial pedagogies and to engage practices of self-determination in hostile spaces are core to the projects discussed here.
Community Reading Room x Black Tourmaline
I established the Community Reading Room (CRR) project in 2013 as a way of acknowledging the increasing number of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) creative arts graduates from Australian Universities who felt marginalised in classrooms that centred Western art histories and practice methodologies while ignoring the historical contributions and contemporary practices of non-Western art traditions. Connecting with other contemporary artists of Pacific heritage emphasised to me that many of us felt frustrated by a curriculum that ignored our presence. There was a general unwillingness by our educators to acknowledge that much of the work dismissed as ‘identity art’ or ‘art therapy’ referred to universal notions of place, identity and belonging, and provided an insight into our geopolitical concerns around environmental sustainability, human rights, Indigenous knowledges, globalisation, migration and the preservation of culture. The CRR collection of books and exhibition ephemera centred the creative practices of non-Western artists, with a focus on First Nations artists. These texts connected me with practices and knowledges that were beyond the lived experience of my educators and, by presenting them to the public, I hoped to recentre these narratives and practices in a way that other artists might find beneficial.
As an iterative and site-responsive project, the CRR has been presented in various art spaces throughout Melbourne over the past six years. During the 2017 residency at Testing Grounds, I was moved by the number of visitors who shared spontaneous stories of their unsettling experiences of higher education in Australian institutions. For example, BIPOC students who changed their mode of study from on- to off- campus because they found the constant microaggressions from lecturers and other students too painful. Others recounted that they just didn’t go back after the mid-year break because the classroom discussions were poorly moderated by lecturers who lacked the skills or interest in creating spaces for safe and generative dialogue. Similar stories kept emerging and each person expressed an overwhelming exhaustion from managing the emotional labour of going into these predominantly white spaces that actively denied their personhood day after day, year after year. The effects of this are cumulative. I am reminded of Myisha Priest’s cautionary essay about the health impacts of oppression, where ‘racial, gender and economic disparities are playing themselves out in the bodies of black women, manifesting themselves as fatal disease and chronic illness.’5
These moments of informal discussion and sharing of experiences informed the most recent iteration of the Community Reading Room in 2019, which invited the public to anonymously share their experiences of mainstream education in an Australian context. The name Black Tourmaline was chosen because the energetic properties of the prismatic crystal repel negative energy and cleanse toxicity: a symbolic and material antidote to the internalisation of harmful systems of oppression. I was also interested in problematising popular ‘resilience’ narratives in opposition to narratives of ‘resistance’ within educational contexts.
As a collaborative art project, Black Tourmaline was rhizomatic by design, whereby the key artists and collectives each developed a budget and event or program that resonated with the theme of self-determined learning spaces and healing from the trauma of institutionalised racism. The anchor to the Black Tourmaline project was produced by Laniyuk (French, Larrakia, Kungarrakan, Gurindji) for this mob collective, Inez Trambas (Afro-Greek), Mary Quinsacara (Latinx) and Aisha Trambas (Afro-Greek), who each curated a public program that prioritised the intellectual, spiritual and physical wellbeing of BIPOC. The program was envisioned to be both healing and practical: it included a journaling session with Soreti Kadir, yoga with Lauren Gower, performance poetry workshops for mob with Maddee Clark, Neil Morris and Alison Whitaker and a hip-hop cypher panel centring the voices of b-girls Stash, demilition b-girl (aka Demi Sorono), Melo and Sammie. The six-week program ended with a gathering of Black educators to discuss what a Black school might look like in an Australian context.
Trambas’ programming of the event titled ‘BLK School Discussion’ and facilitation of Black autonomous space—that is, experimental, inherently transient and non-hierarchical—prioritised the voices of First Nations’ educators. It acknowledged the need for BIPOC communities to connect in real time to share skills, survival strategies, knowledge and experiences that remind us that we are not alone and that care for self is a necessary and political act.
Blak 2 the Future
In April 2019, Rosie Kalina (Wemba Wemba, Gunditjmara) and Hannah Morphy-Walsh (Niram Baluk) curated the exhibition Blak 2 the Future under the mentorship of Paola Balla (Wemba Wemba, Gunditjmara) for the Wominjeka Festival at Footscray Community Arts Centre. Kalina described the central installation titled Blak Oasis as ‘[a] space for young Blak peoples to gather, take up space and create works that are for us, by us, in an environment that was safe for us to be ourselves.’6 Visitors to Blak Oasis were greeted with a sign reading, ‘We stand on Kulin Land. This is a safe space 4 QNB (queer non-binary), POC and all abilities. Pls check ur coats and settler privilege at the door.’ This powerful demarcation of space continues the lineage of protest occupations for Aboriginal sovereignty and simultaneously deflects the white gaze through the staging of gatherings and architectural interventions that restrict access for specific communities—reinforcing the idea that Black pain, trauma, joy and healing do not require an audience.
Initiatives like Blak 2 the Future and the Community Reading Room resist and refuse the mobilisation of Blackness as spectacle by centring Black agency, setting the rules of engagement and controlling access within historically white spaces. Artist and educator Kameelah Janan Rasheed reflects on the movement between ‘publicness and privateness’ as a political strategy in the context of optic awareness, asking ‘what does it mean to be covert, what does it mean to be a bit withholding, what does it mean to be a bit reticent as like a literal strategy toward sustainability.’7 In her recent exhibition with The Black School, Rasheed disrupted colonial archival categories by using space to map a pedagogical experience through her assemblage of curated books, creating intentional juxtapositions and placing unexpected texts in close proximity to each other. Rasheed explains how time and duration are thoughtfully considered in the way that she designs her installations.
In my practice, one of the things that’s really important to me is thinking about duration and how long people can literally stay and linger in a space. So, in designing the resource room I wanted to create as many opportunities for unfolding and actually sitting and engaging in and enduring through that space as possible. As a literal invitation – you can stay here ... You can actually be here and occupy the space because there are so many spaces, particularly in galleries and museums, that don’t feel welcoming. I wanted to literally construct a space that was an invitation to hang out and engage in that process.^8
The Black School
The Black School (TBS) is an experimental art school established in New York City in 2015 that teaches radical Black history. Cofounders Shani Peters and Joseph Cullier describe their practice as ‘working at the intersections of K-12 and university teaching, art, design, and activism.’9 Since 2015, TBS has facilitated over fifty workshops with community groups and schools. The mobile school places Black liberation as the foundation to empower workshop participants to identify a specific need within their community and from this, develop creative strategies to achieve a goal. They have also created a set of pedagogical tools in the form of surveys and the ‘Process Deck’: a ‘a tarot-style interactive methodology ... to be used in an art making capacity to help individuals, classes, and organisers explore how art can activate change on a local level.’10 TBS makes space to facilitate Black learning, visioning and local community action from the premise that ‘the knowledge you have is valued.’11
In 2018, Cullier presented Black Space (Sam and Leroi’s Dilema), an immersive tent installation that doubled as an educational space to host workshops, meetings and performances. Enacting Black agency in spaces where visitors are accustomed to having access because of their settler privilege and entitlement is a political gesture and Cullier reflects on the importance of creating unapologetically Black- centred spaces: ‘I’m specifically interested in self-determined Black spaces. Not just “can Black people come and ‘be’?” But can Black people say, “you can’t come and be – this is just for us at this moment.”’12
While the push for decolonial pedagogies have gained momentum over the past twenty years—highlighting the inherent tensions between Indigenous and colonial epistemologies—the artists discussed here are connecting with legacies of self- determined learning that predate the decolonial project within academia or the educational turn in contemporary art that emerged during the 1990s. This essay considers the making of spaces inside and outside institutions, centring the work of educators and activists working at the nexus of social justice and art who hold space for discourses of resistance and reimagine self-determined learning spaces to empower their respective communities. The Black School, the Blak Oasis and the Community Reading Room each embody the radical potential of learning and community organising outside formal institutions and, in doing so, continue the long history of community-led archives, knowledge-building and spaces created for minoritised peoples. George J. Sefa Dei reminds us that while it is important to create space, it is equally important to hold space and mentor future generations:
What makes our institutions ‘successful places’ for Indigenous [Aboriginal] and racial minority learners is our ability to resist marginalisation and to claim a space. This is a constant struggle. Once we claim our space, it is even more difficult to hold on to that space.13
Torika Bolatagici is a Fijian-Australian mother, artist and educator who produces multidisciplinary projects centring the counter-narrative of marginalised histories and knowledges through curatorial collaboration, photography, video, installation and publication.