This text and images were presented part of a public forum Making Art in Asia Pacific hosted by RMIT School of Art Research Centre, Contemporary Art and Social Transformation (CAST) with participating artists from the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial, QAGOMA, 2018.
As the only Pacific representative on this panel, I want to start by unpacking this word Pacific. When European navigators and sea farers were traveling through this region as early as the 16th century the word Pacific was derived from the word passive in relation to the nature of this vast body of water. The Pacific region covers approximately one third of the earth’s surface. As a woman from this region, I find it strange that we refer to our planet as “earth” when the majority of our planet’s surface is salt water.
Solwara is the Melanesian word for Saltwater. Solwara is my word for this region known as the Pacific or Moana for Polynesians. Solwara peoples don’t see this region as disparate islands separated by ocean.
We see ourselves as connected by the fluidity of the ocean. A common phrase that I love that encapsulates my idea of the Pacific region in Pidgin English a creole language spoken across Melanesia is Wan Solwara, which means One Ocean, One People. The Pacific region is also known as Oceania, which includes the island of Australia. Solwara and Moana peoples see Australia as ‘The Big Island’ in the Pacific.
Within Oceania there are approximately 1500 languages. 800 of those languages are in my country of Papua New Guinea, Australia’s closest neighbour and former Territory until 1975. Another 300 languages exist across this land, this nation – Australia, predominantly speaks English. Today we meet upon the land of the language groups of the Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung peoples. I honour and respect any elders and descendants of these peoples that are present here today. Much of my practice has been established and forged here on the land and waterways surrounding this city. Language and the use of it is important to me, given that a vast amount of languages that are here in Oceania.
Going back to this construct or idea of the Pacific, I’m now going to dissolve it. By dissolving it as a construct, I won’t refer to it or make an attempt to place my art in the idea and boundaries of what the Pacific is in my practice. Understanding my identity and lineage is of great importance to my people, the Gunantuna, who are more commonly known as the Tolai. We are one of 1000 cultural groups that exist in in Papua New Guinea, a nation of 8 million people. When I’m in my homelands, the word Pacific in relation to my identity, no longer exists. I become a Tolai woman first, then a Papua New Guinean. I’m labelled a ‘Pacific Islander’ only when I’m in Australia, Europe or America.
This overview foregrounds the social-cultural-political context that my practice exists in. I’m constantly navigating between being a woman of this region, who’s now living and trying to be the best guest I can be on the big island of Australia, whilst looking at the rest of the world and how the themes and concepts in my arts practice relate more broadly on a global level.
Most recently my work was curated and commissioned in the context of my Gunantuna identity. Curator and PhD candidate Léuli Eshrāghi commissioned my work in an exhibition drawing upon the experiences of migrating cultures across the Solwara Moana region. Leuli was one of 5 indigenous curators who worked with the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane on a collaboratively led project called The Commute. The focus of the project was to give the 8 indigenous artists hailing from across the Solwara region an open criteria for making art with a substantial budget and building curatorial – artist relationships. It has been a dream project to be a part of. Building relationships in Indigenous communities is paramount to our well-being and survival, particularly with some of us who have traumatic colonial histories. As curator, Leuli ensured I was always supported throughout the project, both personally and creatively, he would attend birthday party pick ups with me and my son, have regular face time chats when he travelled overseas and cups of tea at each others homes.
My favourite artist–curatorial relationship building experience was in summer last year, it was actually our first intentional relationship building moment as part of the project. We went to Sunnyside Beach. For those of you who aren’t aware, Sunnyside is a nudist beach about 70kms south of Melbourne. We spent the day bathing nude in the beautiful ocean on a very hot 37-degree day, conversing and looking at each other’s bodies, without judgement and in complete liberation.
Both Léuli and I have explored the sovereignty of our bodies in our work and have often spoken about how the impact of religion, colonialism and ideas of shame around our bodies enforced by the church within our nations of Samoa and Papua New Guinea. Because of this history we no longer see the physicality of our bodies like we used to. Our communities have become so conservative around how our bodies are seen individually and collectively. I attended the opening weekend of the Asia Pacific Triennial at QAGOMA and my Gunantuna community were present as they were a part of the public programming that took place on Saturday, in which we honoured the death of a significant elder in our community Gideon Kakabin who was commissioned for APT 9. I was very conscious of my behaviour and how I presented my body publicly whilst my community were present, so much so that I felt restricted by it.
As part of The Commute exhibition, Léuli and I also co-wrote a text titled A Tinata Tuna a glossary of language terms relevant to me. A Tolaisphere of my historical and contemporary world utilising tri-lingual text and language terms of what it is to be a Tolai woman living and working today as an artist. Throughout this text Léuli and I were able to share stories, make connections and critiques of the German colonial and trade history that existed in Samoa and New Guinea.
My work in The Commute explores the visibility and invisibility of black women’s bodies in cultural institutions in Australia. Drawing from my own personal and professional experiences of working in a museum, I kept hearing similar stories of women of colour being excluded professionally, including subtle and overt racism in their workplaces.
When you’re a minority working in a cultural institution, particularly a very colonial one, your body either stands out, because of your difference or you are overlooked or excluded as your presence alone can sometimes be deemed a threat to disrupting the status quo. I kept hearing all around me, from women in particular the difficulties they were facing in their workplaces. And their experience was echoing mine. In my first year of working at the museum I endured bullying and an acute racist experience that was so emotionally overwhelming, I couldn’t even articulate it.
So I decided to channel all of the difficulty it into my arts practice. I started to examine my own coping mechanisms. In order for me to continue working in this environment, what was it that I was doing in order to survive, mentally? The first thing I noticed was the way I dressed. Initially I dressed to blend in, to not be noticed. The museum has an internal library and the librarians often place books out in display cases and shelves in thoroughfares throughout the museum and it was during that acute racist experience that this book literally popped up.
Sara Ahmed’s text was crucial for me in understanding the position that I was in and profoundly articulated what I and the other women around me were all experiencing. The titles for some of the photographic works I’ve created are referenced from this book. After examining the way I dressed to go to work, I then looked at my working environment. My office cubicle that I worked within was a place of solitude and affirmation. I had my words, images of my community and family as references of strength all around me in that small, sterile office space. I noticed that other women of colour in my workplace did exactly the same thing.
I then thought about what I did for emotional support when I had a rough day at work. The telephone or mobile phone literally was my sisterhood lifeline. I borrowed this phrase from Areej Nur, a Melbourne based writer and media producer for the ABC. I can’t tell you the amount of hours I’ve spent on the phone talking with women in my community of the difficulties we’ve all faced in just trying to get employed and stay employed. This then lead me to think about the space that black women and non-binary or third gender people in our communities hold for us. It’s a space of vulnerability and strength. This is what I wanted to capture, photographically whilst making this work.
In preparation for the photographic shoot I asked Namila Benson who works for the ABC and Shantel Weatherall who was made redundant twice in the same year, to dress in a way that was unapologetically bold and that embraced their womanhood and blackness. Léuli was with me again during the production of this full day shoot. I paid every single person who offered their time and bodies for the production of my work. I approached the women who I wanted to photograph in a way that did not perpetuate the trauma of the representation of our bodies historically in ethnographic images, and consulted with them every step of the way in how their images would be portrayed, reproduced and displayed. An ethical and culturally sensitive approach.
I chose Namila and Shantel as they’re two of several women who had shared with me their difficulties of experiencing racism in their workplaces, but most importantly they’re two women who I also call upon for support, they’re very much a part of my sisterhood lifeline.
This is the work installed at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. I replicated an office cubicle with a computer, telephone complete with partitions, not too dissimilar to my own working environment. The telephone has a looped audio recording of actual accounts of women and third gender experiences of workplace difficulties interspersed with my voice reading quotes by Audre Lorde. I left a stack of post it notes for people to share words of affirmation for anyone who visits and can relate to the work. I turned a very difficult complex working environment into a space of healing for not just me, but those who I engaged to be part of the project.
During the finalisation of Sisterhood Lifeline, I examined what the definition of Sisterhood was for me and how this language term could potentially exclude individuals who don’t identify within gender binaries. I asked Léuli if I could draw upon his experience as a queer male presenting person who works in cultural institutions. His response to my request for his participation in the project completely liberated him and his sense of identity and made him feel included. Another curator-artist relationship building moment. I publicly acknowledged Léuli on the night of the opening of The Commute in front of 200 people at our individual artist talks. I emphasised how important his support and participation was during the entirety of the commission and that I completely accepted who he was and how he identified as a person. I want to paraphrase a quote that Andy Butler mentioned at a recent curatorial symposium, when we allow people on the margins to be included and heard, everyone benefits.
Seeing Namila and Shantel’s bodies at such a large scale, taking up so much space is about familiarity for me. It’s not often I get to see bodies like this reflected back to me. The shape of their bodies, the texture of their hair, the way they dress and assert themselves is what is familiar to me. As women we’re socially conditioned to make ourselves small, dim our lights, don’t be too ambitious or worse we compete with each other. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and boldness of the women and third gender people who support me and hold me to account when I need it.
Sites of trauma can be sites of healing, this is one form of decolonial practice that I’m using as an artist who also works at a museum.
The Commute was presented at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane 2018
Transits & Returns is the final iteration of this project, Vancouver Art Gallery 2019-2020
Author Lisa Hilli 2018