Feature image: from the Lekwungen Gathering 2017, photo credit: Kirk Schwartz
Long after, or the aftermath of colonies
Reflection on the round table “What is the Future of Artistic Practices?” with Skawennati, Andrea Fatona, Ayumi Goto, Stéfan St-Laurent
Gathered around the table, in the middle of the great hall of the Songhees Wellness Center in Lekwungen country, located on the northeastern coast of the Big Ocean, four people dedicated to discussing the creation of visual distribution and its organization propose possibilities through the plurality of possible futures. While I keep a clear memory of all the discussions witnessed during the Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires Gathering, I write the following immersed in my current state of mind, a year-and-a-half after the event. It is shortly after having arrived on the island of Montreal, the place where people split into, Tiohtia:ke in Kanien’ké:ha, Mooniyang in Anishinaabe, and shortly after having watched the full recording of the Gathering, that I write these lines.
To begin, I would like to propose a concept in my language, gagana Sāmoa, which is rooted in the great ocean archipelago where my ancestors are from. Gafa [ŋafa] means kinship, ancestral lineage, and the contemporary genealogical narratives that have been created for ancestral deities, in order to make an adequate space so that they can exist with us in the present. By calling upon the concept of gafa as an introduction to this reflection on the gathering, I invoke the ancestors to highlight several key themes addressed by the participants: futures free from the impacts of racial hierarchy, of colonial domination, or of capitalistic overconsumption. Above all, I take from those conversations the emphasis on spoken, sensorial languages, as well as the various concepts of birth and time bequeathed to us by our ancestors, paired with the ones we summon in our imagination through the channels of creativity and dialogue. In our culturally-specific speculative practices, we have the ability the jump from present to future, without being constrained by what is visible or legible in the present, to realize future knowledge and temporal realities.
“I believe that we who have been removed from the foundational spaces, whether by transatlantic slave trades or through a profound oppression of Indigenous peoples, have lost the ability to dream.” When Andrea Fatona suggests the inability to dream among certain key populations within the context of ongoing restoration of balance and cultural powers on the territory of so-called Canada, as well as in so-called Australia where I grew up, she demands an affirmative future for these communities to which she belongs. I spent a great deal of time in a state of grief caused by what has been called cultural loss, but I understand it today as a cycle of continuous transformation perhaps more appropriately named renewal. This is a key concept brought forward by Congolese choreographer and philosopher Zab Maboungou at the Gathering one or two days prior. The ability to dream, whether one is asleep or awake, is absolutely necessary. Speculation and dreaming go hand-in-hand. Andrea guides us towards a pairing of acquired memory, unknown history, and the embodied relationship between dreaming and a common destiny so that hope may find its roots within ourselves, who are human beings among other entities on this Earth.
The need to relate to our ancestors or to be rooted in a territory should not be confused with an individual or nationalist quest for identity, because if we observe the former through the lens of gafa, we can achieve a level of accountability towards our kin and extend kindness to other living beings. This is how we are able to dream ourselves into the present, beyond the confines of a race, of material capital, and of colonialist frameworks of domination. Skawennati’s ideas about the present being closely related to the future through the care that she puts into meeting her children’s needs is very telling on the matter. As a society obsessed with overconsumption, we may try our best to develop leadership focused on the next seven generations, but we are still faced with the challenge of overcoming existing social structures and projecting ourselves beyond them. The project of a common destiny brought forth by Skawennati in her piece titled “Otsitsakaion” (she who dreams in Kanien’keha) is nothing short of a projection of universal consciousness through the eyes of Otsitsakaion. She sees the entirety of human history through dreams, encouraging her to create a confederacy of five planets, much like the Haudenosaunee Confederacy which was comprised of five nations, before the integration of the Tuscarora later on. Therefore, gestures carrying affirmative possibilities manifest themselves throughout this piece which is described by Skawennati as a space-time spiral revolving around five planets, as opposed to a circular lens around our so-familiar planet Earth.
Superimposed to this backdrop is the concept of peace as a structural motive for the potential alliance between the five planets of the new Confederacy brought forth by Otsitsakaion. Furthermore, peace is better lived and understood in her work as an absence of war before transitioning into an absence of injustice, and ultimately leading to a governing structure characterized by responsibility and kindness. This future, defined by an extended understanding of well-being and by potential universal peace, offers a kind of loving artistic response to the points raised by Skawennati - as well as other Indigenous artists such as Jolene Rickard and Ngahiraka Mason, among others. The points that she raised were centered around philosophical, political, and cultural concepts ignited by our ancestors before they were interrupted by colonial disruption, slavery, and land, water and airspace theft. We must come to the realization that romanticizing the time before contact isn’t helping us to get a realistic grasp of events. It is through contemporary art that we can overcome the great challenge of creating a social shift where caring dignity is accessible to all and will offer a solution to capitalism. What makes contemporary art part of this solution is its ability to generate scenarios of a better world, free of debt and violence, and devoid of misery.
Lately, in Australia, there is an increasing number of media stories covering extreme drought conditions and water flow interruptions all over the territory surrounding our two great rivers, Darling and Murray, as well as their connecting waterways. We observe millions of fish, horses, kangaroos and other animals who died of thirst in their search for water. This is not one of our regular droughts, for which the country is known. This is an issue rooted in greed, caused by the rice and cotton industries, cereal growers and cattle farmers, who are hoarding a significant volume of water from the rivers. This practice severely threatens indigenous species, and could cause soil erosion affecting the land, but also neighbouring towns and their histories, landscapes, soundscapes, food and cultural sovereignties, having an impact on many Indigenous Nations living around the Australian fluvial network.
I spoke of my concern regarding the exploitation of these rivers, the inaction of the Australian government and the potential corruption within its structure to Kaurna and Maori artist James Tylor. He took me on a tour of these threatened sites through his new photography series Water Economies, where sacred landscapes along the rivers are stained with golden spots. Evidently, contemporary art can highlight the current issues of this area, but it also has the ability, I hope, to spark a revolution of the mind to inspire the population to act in order to create a future where the “cultural flow” of these great rivers may be revived. These liquid arteries deserve better respect; they deserve to be honoured in a more meaningful way than their current treatment in Australia. They have sustained Indigenous civilizations for far longer than 65,000 years, and I wonder if the images captured by the press will inspire action, or if we will have to wait for far greater climate catastrophes for the powers to decide that adequate restoration of these vital landscapes is needed.
Taking into account the triangular and rectangular shapes in James Tylor’s work, which represent the rerouting of waterways for commercial and urban infrastructural purposes, we are brought to criticize the extreme development happening on a global scale in a more speculative manner. Andrea Fatona asked, “What is the nature of the relationship that we want to establish with this world with regards to its economic resources?” We owe it to ourselves to leap towards an embodied consciousness linking us to the numerous energies of this universe. Such an understanding of other beings and other sources of energy on Earth other than through logic, to which we are often drawn, will lead to other perspectives. The concrete example of community gardening in Toronto highlights the refusal of commercial-based, capitalistic-sourced food sourcing (in the summertime), the refusal of noise pollution interrupting our ability to connect with plant life and time on these small parcels of land in an urban setting, just as much as in the country. This kind of refusal of logic expressed by Toronto gardeners embodies new connections, and a push back on the surrounding individualistic philosophy.
Andrea has been working on the archival of Black artistic practices since 1989, at that time she came to the realization that there was a lack of historical memory to inform the current generation of the potential consequences for the future, and to question what needs to be changed or to be kept. She criticized the coming of a new wave of artists, curators, and art critics, who are missing key elements in their training. This state of affairs pushes a number of my mentors, colleagues, and friends, to take on higher studies in Australia and in Aotéaroa-New-Zealand for the purpose of better knowing and elevating the accomplishments of the previous generations. And this is due to the will and voice of the people who have experienced these key events or who have had access to them.
For example, director and curator Wiradjuri Kimba Thompson, founder of the famous Melbourne-based Indigenous artist-run centre Blak Dot Gallery, resumes her academic career this year in the doctoral program in curatorial practices at Monash University, from which I graduated. In particular, she was involved in the Indigenous promotion of the RMIT and Monash University of Melbourne’s Master of Fine Arts, which mobilized to resist the celebrations of British colonization during the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and to make significant progress in the renewal of ancestral practices in southwestern Australia, including the manufacture and wearing of possum skin cape. Kimba Thompson and Maree Clarke set up the first-ever exhibition of Indigenous art at the Victoria Art Gallery, the country’s largest institution in terms of Indigenous art collection, exhibition budget, and public programming. I owe part of my artistic and curatorial development to Kimba, as I was one of many people guided by the most experienced members of the community around the Blak Dot Gallery in the Melbourne and regional cultural milieu.
Different generations live side by side, debate, and help each other. The homogenization of contemporary art promoted in biennials and major exhibitions going on world tours is at the heart of questions about the possible anchoring in various territories. What linearity in the history of canonized art is used to facilitate the circulation of artistic works, but in my opinion, without specific and necessary anchoring or contextualization? If we succeed (and this is spreading more and more) in creating more exhibitions, performances, publications, and other artistic events that make the intellectual and aesthetic histories we carry in all of their complexity, the future is looking more positive.
Stéfan St-Laurent mentioned the striking need to see the emergence of so-called parallel or underrepresented art histories in contrast to those of Western Europe and European America that we already know. These art stories will have to be written, studied and propagated—going back thousands of years to the present day, and countering the misconception of a universal art history that is necessarily Western. As the Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires Gathering is a window to several generations of artists in disciplines other than visual arts, I also see myself as a complex carrier of Indigenous art stories from my birthplace, the Great Ocean. When Stéfan St-Laurent shares his experiences of otherness and exclusion in Acadia—especially related to attitudes towards sexuality and the possible evolution of artists—it reminds me of my own case as well, far from being the only one in the great Samoan diaspora.
There are certainly problems to be addressed in the short and long term in order to achieve growth. The margin of success deemed possible in our communities, often diminished in their ability to imagine, makes it difficult for us to position ourselves in a place where it is possible to develop and to live other experiences. Often those would require us to extract ourselves from our native lands. But I believe it is the contrary! In a world of increased mobility and communication, it is not interesting to continue to structure our relationships with the world around us through old divides that limits our ability to take learning or leisure trips that end with sharing upon our return. We are beings of possibilities, in the ways that are available to us and to those already known to our communities.
Circling back to the concept of gafa, I propose to consider what constitutes a colony, an extreme domination of a moral, political and sensory nature over diversities othered at the time of colonial invasion, no matter the source, because it incorporates the achievements of the empires that preceded it. Ayumi Goto shared her experiences of Japanese culture in diasporic situations in Canada, recounting the fact that many people express compassion for her family for the forced internment during the Second World War, even though her own family had never experienced it. However, she is proving to be “a bearer of the weight and responsibility of having been the colonizers in the rest of East Asia and the West of the Great Ocean”, which is a significant burden. Not only is it a question of identifying and understanding recurring motives, skills or attitudes across generations, but also of expressly overcoming them, from intergenerational traumas to multi-ethnic or multilingual statements.
How can we ensure access to the perspectives that are too often excluded or diminished by colonial histories? Since we find ourselves in an over-informed, overloaded, over-indebted world, as Ayumi Goto expressed it, a considerable challenge to overcome remains the possibility of choosing the right information for ourselves. As for the Japanese concept of piety and subsidiary responsibility, “oyakōkō,” as she reminds us, has long been the devastating moral engine for the exclusion of other Asian and Oceanic cultures since the centralized Japanese empire. By contributing to the violence of the empire, Japanese women also embodied the doubts and attitudes of the time. Thus being Japanese in the territory called Canada can provide many answers depending on the maintenance of cultural roots, the guilt over the past and the multi-ethnic enrichment that is spreading locally on these Indigenous lands, waters and skies.
I would like to come back to the comments made by many of the speakers, who felt that Indigenous art, Black art, Acadian art, among others, cannot be summarized or limited by the relationship to the land, slavery, disturbance, or other major themes associated with them. This is not a deterritorialization, as some purists claim, against cultural evolution. Nor is it a transition in favour of a denial of any cultural belonging or responsibility as promoted by the prevailing state of mind of the cultural community in the United States. Contemporary creation is valid for all sections of the population. I am thinking of the literary works of Edouard Louis who divorces himself from the classist violence in his personal life expressed in novels and narratives, or the incessant offences of the political ruling elites on the working classes. I am led to rethink the Australian government’s punitive policies against the maintenance or revival of Indigenous cultural practices related to spatial speculation and sustainable aquaculture in various territories. Ayumi Goto, meanwhile, expresses her desire to strive to imagine how her artistic work will be perceived or apprehended if she creates it in the future, in 500,000 years, realizing the possible relationship with a comparison 500,000 years in the past. From then on, we are called upon to see in our relations with all humanity, as well as with so-called more-than-human beings, which present as opportunities for a profound rethinking of our way of life, of knowing, of building and of loving in this universe.
In the renewal of the cultural and political ties represented by the coconut fibre rope called “ʻaha” in Hawaiian language, from the sensory visionary essay by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua and Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, we find inspiration and hope. Without rooting themselves on a romanticized the past, these authors show us how ways of conceiving the world and managing actions by which the world can be built, are part of the order of temporal circularity and Indigenous spatial kinship. As cultures related to the Great Ocean, the semantic and culturally supported equivalent in the Samoan language, “ʻgafa” reminds me of the learning workshops on the coconut fibre rope used in the nail-free construction of oval houses and large balanced canoes. There are also sustainable artistic creations made by my grandmother Manō Nātia Tautua Lunaʻi, using materials collected from the forest behind our ancestral village on Mount Vaea overlooking Āpia, the main city in the western part of the Samoan Archipelago divided into two countries. My grandmother has long been innovative in sewing parade and ceremonial dresses, among other uses of her craft.
I mention this specifically to emphasize the intergenerational aspect of sharing the knowledge necessary for a considerable overhaul of our present, in order to better prepare us for the future that is under construction. Combining an imaginary future and a temporal conception distinct from those already well known since the globalization of colonial European thought, the most urgent and radical contemporary artistic practices demonstrate the possibilities that have emerged, both on the spaceship of diplomatic peace missions on five planets and in other recent works. It is possible to project oneself while nourishing oneself with the plurivocality and striving to love oneself through one’s chosen or received territory and kinship.
For more information about the Lekwungen Gathering 2017, click here.
Other Roundtable Resources
Léuli Eshrāghi, Australian artist, curator and writer from Sāmoan, Persian and other ancestries, holds a PhD in Curatorial Practice completed at Monash University in 2018, and a postdoctoral fellowship at Concordia University in 2019. Léuli creates performances, installations, writing and collective/individual curatorial projects centred on embodied memory, ceremonial-political practices, language renewal and futures of wellness.