Waking Giants: The Politics of Existing
Our Visual Arts Co-Editor Lana Lopesi talks representation, immediacy and feminism with artists Leafa Wilson & Olga Krause, Hannah Brontë and Esther Ige in light of the exhibition Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise.
Lana Lopesi: For many women of colour just existing and being is something which is inherently political. Leafa & Olga, I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a ‘black’ body, and I am curious that you make decision as a Pacific women which would more commonly be identified as brown, why do you self-identify as ‘black’?
Leafa Wilson & Olga Krause: Yes, I have referred to myself and my body as black. People like to say that I am brown, and if you want to be pedantic about the point, yes, I am brown and at various times of the year I am beige. Under my clothes, I am a veritable palagi. But my body as a site of contest is black. It is politically black. I am politically ‘black’. This is not by any means of equating my experience with that of those who have suffered immeasurable pain and torment in places like the USA and such, but there are the relative experiences in my own lifespan that have identified me as other-than-acceptable, by that I mean ‘black’... it is my experience of subtle racial violence and the silencing that comes with that, that makes me know, I am other-than-white.
I remember every single day that I am in the mainstream art machine, that I have to behave in ways that don’t feel comfortable. I make others comfortable so that they are not scared of my ‘blackness’. At times I have to cope with the automatic dismissal of my intellect because in the subtext of a conversation, I can already hear the know-it-all-ness suppress my voice and air time. I know that this is doubly problematic too as a woman of colour. In fact, I have found that my voice is so insignificant to the dominant other that it was as though I uttered no words. My blackness saves me and is a strength to me.
People like to say that I am brown, and if you want to be pedantic about the point, yes, I am brown and at various times of the year I am beige. Under my clothes, I am a veritable palagi. But my body as a site of contest is black.
LL: Since Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise is so heavily focused on self-representation, Esther and Hannah, I want to throw that question to you both as well, how do you identify and why?
Esther Ige: I agree that we [women of colour] are inherently political, we can’t detatch that from us. Simply being present in certain spaces is a political act which I find very interesting. I think there many layers to what it means to be a black body in a white space. First, you are the unfamiliar because you are the minority, it is hard navigating that space and not getting convinced to subdue your own culture in order to assimilate.
I identify more with the emotional and psychological impact that occurs within those spaces, things like imagery and the lack of diversity in the media. The psychological and emotional effect that not being able to see yourself in certain spaces can have on a person of colour, is greater than what people belittle it to be. And if you do see yourself in those spaces there is a misrepresention. Even now [in 2017], you almost become a specimen and an object of curiousity, and there is a dehumanisation that occurs. The effect of those experiences is that you become hyperaware of yourself and how people are going to react to your presence, you begin to censor yourself.
The entire system was made to erase us so claiming back what was seen as something to be ashamed of is quite staunch. I see myself as a matriarch, a woman, an Indigenous person and always questioning.
Hannah Brontë: I think saying you're Blak in an Australian context as an Indigenous women is actually a hugely rebellious act. The entire system was made to erase us so claiming back what was seen as something to be ashamed of is quite staunch. I see myself as a matriarch, a woman, an Indigenous person and always questioning. I think identity is even a tricky word for me identity just is, the same way culture just is, it's always around me it's how I was raised it isn't new and will be around long after I'm gone.
LL: The urgency in what each of you have said reminds me of something I recently read: “In 20 years time no one will remember the economy but they will remember the art”. I really feel like now more than ever we need art that can comment on the politcal discourse. What are your thoughts on this? What is the role of art in this current political climate where minority rights are underthreat?
EI: Yes, definitely I think art can play an important part in the political state of the world. Especially now like you said where we are at a political climate for both woman and minorities. I think some may have the privilege to make their work non-political or to not make political commentary through their art. However, some may say everything is political how can we disconnect ourselves from the world and I can't give an actual answer to that.
I do believe art has the capability to have the role of both allowing people to have a voice where they may be voiceless and to engage with people on another plane. There is something about art and the way it can communicate that maybe other mechanisms do not have. To be honest I think there is this tension that is going on within the art world between art that makes political commentary and art that is said to not make political commentary.
HB: I agree the economy will fall by the wayside and the great art will be discussed. I want to make art that seeks revolution. Imagining the future to shine light on our present and how warped it is that I venture to do this. I believe within intersectional feminist circles women's rights are always under threat. For a very fuckin long time the white patriarchy has ruled, oppressed and enslaved us. It's always been important to speak up. I don’t however think art needs to be super literal to be powerful. There are works that simply are raw, honest and bare that can shift our psyches into action. I think great art hits you and won’t be ignored. It demands you. The art revolving and rising around strong matriarchal empowerment is growing so I predict in 5 years there will be far more all First Nation/ all Blak /all women shows more commonly. I can't wait!
They are going to recall the days when they saw for the very first time in history, that their salad days are numbered and that actually, everyone is going to have a share of the white cube. It’s going to be splashed with rainbows and blackness and it is going to revive the deadness present in contemporary art we all feel.
LL: And you Leafa & Olga?
LW & OK: If we are talking about the waking giants in the art world, like right here in Aotearoa for instance, yes, they are going to remember the art. They are going to remember it because it is the time when white people began to embrace their histories of out-and-out trampling over indigenous and coloured people. They are going to recall the days when they saw for the very first time in history, that their salad days are numbered and that actually, everyone is going to have a share of the white cube. It’s going to be splashed with rainbows and blackness and it is going to revive the deadness present in contemporary art we all feel. Feeling and emotion are not going to be distant memories but will enrich the world of art. Curators and critics are already being called to account, the metamorphosis is happening and it isn’t going to stop. If I were a homophobic, smiling-through-my-teeth racist who uses my redundant opinions about art by people of colour to keep their voices down, I would literally just stop now and consider another career path.
As for the economy, that’s so far from my radar that it’s criminal.
LL: Let’s go back to the exhibition, Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise, highlights both the age and timeliness of Lisa Reihana’s 20 year old Wog Features. What is the same and what has changed during your career of making art?
LW & OK: What has changed is me. Nothing else as far as I can feel. I have had the privilege of being able to able to work as a curator in a museum that values the voice of the mana whenua. Where we learn the kawa and tikanga of the first peoples. There are moments where we obviously all have to learn, but it is a great great privilege to be in the presence of the indigenous peoples of this land. I am always deeply moved and never try to assume that my suffering has been as bad as theirs, it’s similar, but different because I am indigenous to Samoa. So I guess I have been humbled and I realise my place as an accomplice in all of the tangata whenua actions toward their own sovereignty of their representation. So what has changed is that I am even more aware that my black voice matters. When I started at art school in 1984, I had a sense that I had a purpose for being obsessed with making art. That has not changed, I can recognise it better now and that it is whisperered to me by my ancestors.
The emerging order of art tufuga/tohunga now is just mindblowing and gives me major hope that things are improving as far as visibility and presence. There is so much more knowledge sharing as well. There are plenty more allies or accomplices who go with their gut and their heart and challenge the system. That is relatively recent. I remember being so jealous and so admiring of Lisa’s film Wog Features when it came out because I was onto baby number 6 and immersed in that world. It was a work that made me feel hope at that time.
Her presentation of racism flowing between pop culture and video art was really exciting for me when I first started art school she changed my mind a lot about video art which I thought was all abstract bougie and boring.
HB: Lisa Reihana’s work was very important for me in university when I first was shown it. It's still completely relevant I reckon nowadays though she would have had to put hard out warning labels on it before displaying it, political correctness is rampant even in challenging art spaces. Her presentation of racism flowing between pop culture and video art was really exciting for me when I first started art school she changed my mind a lot about video art which I thought was all abstract bougie and boring. Taking up the white cube with Blak voices is so deeply important and it's exciting that it's changing but it's also sad that past works are still so relevant and we have so far to go.
LL: Carrying on from that Hannah, there is something really enticing almost hypnotic about your work, I partly feel it’s the use of music. Can you tell us a bit about your work and why you chose to use the format of a music video?
HB: I chose the music video format because number one I love rap. There is so much information you can condense into a rap so finding a vehicle to pour out densely loaded visuals and lyrics I felt that the music video format was the best way. Secondly the music samples a chant in Gamiliroy language by my brother DEEkay which says " Women are coming, We are Rising, Pick Up your arms" So most mob pick up on the strength even if they don't understand the language.
LL: Esther your work uses quite densely loaded visuals as well, can you tell us about your work in the exhibition?
EI: I look for specific events in history that are significant moments for black people and where huge ground was gained. I want to draw people’s eyes to those moments. The video in my installation was a clip from archive footage of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 in America. The march was 54 miles long and took up to 5 days. It was a powerful demonstration and protest for African Americans to gain and exercise the right to vote. What I did with the video is that I zoomed in closer and slowed it down, with that small details become more pronounced like the demarcation of the road and the movements of their feet pushing against that demarcation. Even though I am Nigerian as a black person I am proud and amazed by that moment in history.
There were actually three marches that occurred in relation to the Selma to Montgomery March, and many complexities and horrific events that occurred in the journey. But there was this sense of working together towards something very important. The persistency, determination and strength that came from those people who went before is absolutely amazing to me. But it is not only about the victory but also about the ongoing journey dealing with deeply embedded systemic structures of racism.
LL: In many of the works in Still Like Air I’ll Rise, we see the use of the personal to comment on the wider social-political. So I want to ask each of you what does the personal bring to the political? What does it mean to have YOUR body in space?
LW & OK: For me, there has been only ever a glut of white/European performance artists celebrated in the art halls of fame (not going to name them...some are my heroes). I suppose I love to colour-up that white space by placing myself in it. It’s a provocation. It is an act of defiance when European art history rejects me. I don’t care really what occurs in the performance, but once it is performed, I consider that a black space, my space. And I am most definitely still present. I aim towards my soul becoming so free one day that I won’t have the need to persist in such acts, but that time hasn’t come yet.
I consider white space works super politicised because so many artists of colour have been locked out of the gallery. The white space performances for me differ greatly from works in public spaces because the gallery is the Mt Everest that we all wish to conquer. But in my mind, it was and always will be my right, the right of any artist of any gender, colour, creed (to a degree hahaha) to use up some space. To be the Rosa Parks of the galleries.
The personal is political. My identity, being born Indigenous, is politicised before birth. The two aren't separate, I'm Blak, I'm a woman and I'm queer, whether I like it or not I'm a minority poster child so you just have to suck it up and speak up.
HB: The personal is political. My identity, being born Indigenous, is politicised before birth. The two aren't separate, I'm Blak, I'm a woman and I'm queer, whether I like it or not I'm a minority poster child so you just have to suck it up and speak up. There's a deep privilege in my generation to have the freedom, safety and luxury to express my true feelings and disdain for colonisation and continual systems of oppression. It's a big responsibility and I don't take it lightly so for me the political is interwoven with the personal and it always will be.
EI: As human beings, I think it is hard not to work from the personal. I relate to my work in a personal way by being a person of colour and while our histories are specific to unique experiences they are also connected. All in all, it comments on a wider social-political context of black people, people of colour and minorities and the wider socio-political concerns of the state of the system.
LL: And lastly, while the exhibition is made up of women of colour, the power structures in an institution such as ST PAUL St Gallery may not reflect that same diversity. What does it mean to have a strong political and racial statement mediated by dominate culture and power structures? Does that change anything both, in general and for you and your work personally?
HB: I think there is an interesting space where you head into commercial galleries and it's a choice. You either are being done a favour by them or you are doing them a favour. I believe the latter. Those spaces are becoming less important and there's so much happening in alternate spaces now that the big galleries are trying to keep up. Now that diversity, gender equity and Indigenous issues are actually acknowledged those spaces are lining up to be pointed in the right direction of artists exploring these topics. But you have to remember your feet, I always think about and ask context, other artists displaying previous shows all that kind of info to make sure you aren't aligning with the wrong core values. It also does help in terms of big institutions to remember their history and how "recently" they've started "caring" about things that affect me and my people. Unapologetically Blak and female work is always what I'm gonna produce I just might bite a little harder if the institution is more restrictive.
LW & OK: Yeah. I considered that. But we need accomplices to be able to carry out the subversion. I mean, this is the reality. I feel that it is a step toward different forms of collaborating. While the curators Abby Cunnane and Charlotte Huddleston are of course palagi, I feel that as women of great integrity, they are attempting to rip the plaster off the big scabby wound so that healing can come about. To be honest, I feel, they are also brave, because in reality, not only is my performance untested, their interaction with my work is not tested as well. I might cause offence to some people, but I know that that is a risk that they have chosen to take. They ain’t no babies in this, they’re fully grown up and they are ready. Much respect to them for that.
ST PAUL St Gallery
24 February – 31 March 2017
All photos courtesy of the artists and ST PAUL St Gallery