Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Feeling post colonial in Brisbane

This is an essay I wrote while on Christmas holidays 2015, about my response to the recently finished Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) at the QAGOMA, Brisbane. One and a half years into my PhD, there were many half-formed thoughts.

As the plane was touching down, speeding up and opening its wing flaps, I felt myself suddenly smile. Feelings of joy, relief and excitement suddenly filled me. I was on holiday. Somehow landing in Brisbane made it official in ways that leaving my history research and share house in Melbourne hadn’t. I’m never quite able to leave my research; the PhD gnaws guiltily all the time. The break time felt official and what was more I was going to spend some of it looking at art and visiting my favourite gallery - a luxury after the past eighteen months work.

Before I caught the bus to my friend’s house on Kipling Street I caught the train to South Brisbane, where I had decided to spend a day looking at the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Though I’ve visited many of the previous Triennials I was surprised by certain themes standing out. I hadn’t been long inside the pleasant air-conditioned gallery before I realised that post-colonial themes as well as reflections on history were a significant part of this year’s APT. This wasn’t surprising as many artists and exhibiting groups from the Asia Pacific region selected in previous years had engaged with themes of everyday life after various upheavals, political, environmental, social. Reflecting on histories of certain places of significance to the artist has been a theme throughout the APT. However, the political overtones and undertones in many artworks were far more obvious to me on this viewing. The street name of Kipling set of this reel of post-colonial connotations, inflecting my day with new tones.

APT8 can be read in a number of ways, the Triennial itself has always been an accessible and welcoming exhibition in spite of the often complex and challenging themes it contains. A dedicated children’s program and free entry, as well as opening weekend for the general public are all part of the project. There are collaborations between local and international artists as well as unique commissions making this different to other reoccurring exhibitions for its ongoing forging and re-forging of relationships across the Pacific. This project pioneered situating Australian art in an Oceanic context and in this context it has grown and flourished. This Triennial saw a return to the solid APT staple approaches and themes including old techniques engaging with contemporary life in industrialising societies as well as new techniques used to imagine traditional cultural spaces and practices. A sense of flux and fluidity surrounded me in ways I hadn’t expected or perceived in previous Triennials.

A critic could equally review the exhibition through the lens of the body, or performance, which are two acknowledged themes of APT8, or the materials used and strategies executed. Rather than taking one of these themes, this review follows my responses to the artworks along the themes of colonisation, life after empire and in so doing touches on each of these themes.  

In Pursuit of Venus [infected]

The first and hardest-hitting of the post-colonial artworks was Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015). I walked into the darkened room with four horizontal video screens. I sat down and was immediately transfixed. First encounters between indigenous peoples and Europeans unfolded in front of me. A bored, red-coated colonial soldier, with his rifle, barrel facing the sky stands shifting his weight from one foot to the other. It seems hot and he eventually takes his red jacket off and lays it carefully on the ground, looking about him but not seeing anyone he continues to stand awkwardly. The landscape which surrounds him is rendered in animated yet painterly textures, larger than life exotic foliage divides this scene from others taking place nearby. The camera moves to the right and another scene comes into focus: female hula dances, a missionary trading with an islander, an artist painting en plein air, and on it goes.

The sound of calm water lapping at the shore can be heard over the sounds of the people. Among other soldiers, missionary figures and explorers, I can also see Captain Cook and his ship in the bay behind. Nearby, unnoticed by the sweating soldier, a haka is taking place. Three men dance for themselves unaware of the newcomers. As the camera moves inexorably on the sounds of other groups of islanders and interlopers, and interlopers conversing with islanders, can be heard. The sounds of these encounters are muted, however, and at times inaudible for the singing of a woman’s voice in her native tongue, or the crescendo of a tense drum soundtrack. The tension builds to a final scene in which Cook is fatally stabbed but the images scroll onward and cycle back to the beginning. Any sense of resolution is deliberately elusive.

A chiefly figure ceremonially gifting an object wrapped in matting and cloth to a blue-coated tri-corn wearing European. He unwraps the layers to reveal a hat like his own, and then to his horror a human leg. He gasps and leaps backwards away from the gift and wretches or vomits. His fellows, armed and now also shocked point their weapons at the chiefly figure. It is likely that this episode is taken from an actual event as many of the figures peopling Reihana’s living wallpaper are drawn from history. Vignettes featuring Cook, Joseph Banks and lesser known, but no less significant figures like Omai (a young man from the island of Huahine near Tahiti – taken aboard The Adventure during Cook’s second voyage – becoming the first South Sea Islander to be seen in Britain). Also depicted are Hawaiian monarch Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu (c.1729-1782) and Polynesian navigator Tupaia (c. 1725-1770) whose skills are utilised by Cook. All of the encounters and vignettes in this tableau are poignant and moving and so much happens simultaneously. History research often makes me feel overwhelmed in this way, as though I could not possibly come to understand the complexity of these events, let alone do them justice in writing. Reihana’s project was six years in the making, I don’t doubt that she felt these difficulties too.

The Europeans are a recognisable though varied bunch. Tahitians, Maori and Polynesians are represented with sensitive detail to dress and mannerisms and the longer I spent watching the more diverse their appearances became. In this way Reihana has included within a condensed space the diversity of the Pacific at the time of contact with Cook and people travelling with him. As a critical imagining of this historical moment from the perspective of Indigenous people, I found In Pursuit of Venus [infected] very moving.

Accompanying the artwork is another video, that of the artist being interviewed by two senior QAGOMA curators. Reihana explains that her Maori and European heritage lead her to think about what these things mean in a way that was not black and white. While watching I was reminded of Patrick Wolfe’s words that invasion is a structure not an event. [1], The events in this artwork, small scale and intimate, violent and confused, are the start of an avalanche - the effects of which we still feel today. The slow moving but unchanging pace of the camera across the landscape/wallpaper added to this sensation that colonisation has had an unstoppable force behind it. Alternatively we can view the ongoing scrolling of the camera as representative of time, never slowing, never speeding, always present.

I later discovered that In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] was not in fact part of the APT but has been on display since May 2015. Reihana’s significant piece is well placed close to artworks in the APT and thematically it is not out of place.

Artists have to ability to engage intimately and critically with colonial histories, to reclaim the voices of people who have been silenced by colonial domination. Historians must tread much more carefully and if they do their job their work is no less powerful. In light of these disciplinary differences I really felt my responses to the artworks in APT8, I was moved, I became uncomfortable and shifted in my seat.

Savage interventions and re-hanging history

Two installations also blew me away by speaking directly to the colonial past. Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub (2010 – ongoing) and Brook Andrew’s Time (2015) are a sort of post-colonial writing back in the form of interventions in the gallery space. Raymond’s installation mimics a nineteenth-century gentlemen’s club, reimagining it through Maori eyes, while Andrew’s re-hanging of the same era’s Australian painters in the QAG’s permanent collection replaces the single colour walls with a chevron pattern drawn from Wiradjuri cultural iconography, rewriting the grounds on which artists of the past and present meet each other. Both artists engage with colonial history by re-presenting it through their own eyes. Their installations have the qualities of an exhibition within an exhibition.

My experience of Brook Andrew’s intervention was quite uncomfortable. The second room in particular did a good job of making me uneasy and not unexpectedly, to question my allegiances to certain art genres. Impressionism has always been among my favourite genres of painting, I’m not ashamed to love Claude Monet. John Russell, an Australian impressionist working en plein air in France is one artist included in Andrew’s re-hanging of the Queensland Art Gallery’s permanent collection. Russell was also a fan of Monet’s work and the small selection of his colourful seascapes reflects this. It was from a cliff top of the island Belle-Île (off France’s Quiberon peninsula) that he painted these works circa 1900. Monet was also painting in the area and the two men became friends. They were using the same colour palette and enduring the same unpredictable weather on a coast known as La côté Sauvage (the wild coast). [2] I think the artist was well aware of the textual ironies he was creating. I enjoyed the re-hanging of Australia’s big name “dead white men” painters, while also becoming unsure if I could enjoy impressionism the same way again.

Raymond’s installation is the ultimate writing back to the colonial past. An exhibition within an exhibition it takes the audience into a space that re-presents elements of colonial display in unexpected and challenging ways. Objects borrowed from the Queensland Museum and the University of Queensland’s Museum of Anthropology are placed alongside a wide array objects borrowed from individuals and communities across the Pacific region. There’s a joyful engagement with, for want of a better or worse phrase, cultural appropriation. In the words of the project’s promotional material:

“Founded in 2010 by Rosanna Raymond The SaVAge K’lub presents 21st Century South Sea SaVAgery, influencing art and culture through the interfacing of time and space, deploying weavers of words, rare anecdotalists, myth makers, hip shakers, navigators, red faces, fabricators, activators, installators to institute the non cannibalistic cognitive consumption of the other.”[3]

There is a lot of humour in this work. The juxtaposition of serious museum pieces with crass and pop cultural figurines alongside beautifully woven feather cloaks surrounded by vibrant street-art wallpaper makes this space unique and exciting to be in. Looking at the reappropriated cabinets of curiosity it was impossible not recognise these objects as belonging to people, friends of the artist perhaps, and this made the space a very personal one. Speaking to a time when objects transported back to the centre of the empire came to speak for groups of Pacific peoples, the artist and her group of collaborators, have courageously set the terms of their exhibition - choosing which objects enter the exhibition space and the manner of the dialogue. Added to this will be periodic performances activating the space (represented by the VA in SaVAge, a Samoan philosophical understanding of space as active, activated by people, relationships and reciprocal obligations.[4]) I found it a space of possibility, where open ended and exuberant engagement with culture could take place, simultaneously affirming and strengthening identity for the artists and sharing knowledge and understanding with the audience. APT8 as a whole shared this exuberance, or perhaps because I desperately wanted it to be a space where new voices could be heard and listened to and a sense of possibility reawakened, that is what I found. I sought and found a sense of healing inside the gallery.

Several hours and many artworks later I caught the bus to Kipling Street. Old double-story Queenslanders and Poinciana trees with bright red flowers slid past the bus window as I approached the suburbs. I was struck with a weird sense of nostalgia at the sight of these raised houses with lattice verandas and tin rooves. The nostalgia wasn’t my own though, I’d only lived in Brisbane for two and a bit years. I couldn’t claim to be from here. And I hadn’t missed it either but I was somehow excited to be back. The excitement I felt as the plane touched down returned on that bus trip and I felt comforted that people were going about their day, driving home from work along winding streets. The hot sleepiness and country-town vibe that people associate with this city was what I thought about on the bus.

As I walked towards my friend’s house I saw a group of Muslim men leaving a mosque (though to the outsider it looked a lot like a large house mid-way through renovations). I arrived at Sarah’s house and was greeted by friendly voices saying “hello”. The house was not one of the latticed Queenslanders I had passed on the bus, but a simple fibro complex with four adjoined units. I could see two little faces behind the screen door, but behind them was hard to see from my position in the bright sun. I smiled at the door and said “Hello” and then, “What’s your name?” By way of answer, one voice said, “Sarah will be back soon”. Thanking the friendly voice I let myself in.

Sarah and her partner rent out the other three apartments to recently arrived refugees. Fike and his brother Neher, who I later meet properly, live in the apartment next door; they are from Eritrea and have been living in Kipling Street for about two years. They are energetic and feisty with each other like most brothers. With me they are almost shy, but grow bolder by the second. After I struggle to pronounce their names I ask them to call me Nik. They practice the sounds a couple of times before recommencing play on the driveway. In between playing they do their English homework. In one of the remaining two apartments is a Sri Lankan Hindu family, who’ve escaped Buddhist extremists; they also have two kids who play with Fike and Neher.

Sarah arrives and immediately we start talking about the exhibition. But I also want to know more about the families living on Kipling Street. We walk round the back to let the chickens out – four feisty Sicilians far more adept in the hot weather than I am - make a bee-line to the juicy green grass under the Frangipani tree in the front garden. In the last apartment is an Ethiopian family, with a little baby. Sarah outlines the harrowing story of how they got to Australia through Malaysia after the father spent two years in a forced labour camp. I realise that my nostalgia about Brisbane has another layer to it now. Refugees now comfortably settled in a little community are equally appreciating the things I miss about Brisbane. It makes me happy that these families are enjoying the all the things I once took for granted.

As I leave Kipling Street and Brisbane I am left with a new image of the city, no longer a series of sleepy suburbs with flaming red trees, Brisbane’s quiet welcoming streets have become a place of respite for others after years of trauma. These new settlers are shaping the fortunes of the city now.

[1] Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology, p 2; “Nation and miscegeNation,” p. 96.

[2] Helene Barbara Wineberg, American Impressionism and Realism, Queensland Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 2009, p. 129

[3] http://www.tautai.org/the-savage-klub-inaugural-high-tea/

[4] https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/apt8/artists/rosanna-raymond

Image:  Lisa Reihana In Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015) (still)