Salote Tawale is fascinated by the relationship between the individual and the collective. The prolific artist, who works across performance, moving image, sculpture and installation, has shown everywhere from the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and Para Site, Hong Kong, to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. Her work often combines sly humour and a material inventiveness. She says growing up Fijian and Anglo–Australian shaped her perspective on the world.
Tawale’s latest exhibition is I remember you, on show until January at Carriageworks. For The Influence, the artist chose to speak about A Fashionable Marriage. The 1986 installation by Lubaina Himid brings together figures from the British art world with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and explores the ways in which people are shaped by structures and systems. It helped Tawale, who first saw the work at Nottingham Contemporary, envision what her art could be – and already was.
What surprised you about A Fashionable Marriage?
I’ve seen it twice now. It was also at the Tate. But at Nottingham Contemporary, there was [something] about the way it sat in the space. At one point, it was almost a theatre set and at the other point, it was a painting show. There were cut-outs that were standing up on found furniture.
There was this larger work that was off-centre, behind the cut-outs. There was something about the balance of the room. It was the materiality. It was political. It was historical. I think she originally studied theatre design. It has the theatre element, but it is also like a cafe sign. It has this everyday application to it.
A Fashionable Marriage references William Hogarth’s painting, Marriage A-la-Mode and challenges the racism and sexism of the 1980s British art world. Why do you think it works as social critique?
There is something very intelligent in the way she treats that initial work and repositions it from her point of view of being a Black British body. My position is Fiji–Australian woman. [My work] has always been from this perspective. My everyday and someone else’s everyday will be a little bit different.
There’s a sense of positionality and also a sense of visibility. The way I paint a brown body or I talk about the work of an artist living in the diaspora – that is the position I come from. Bodies are political and you see in her artwork these depictions that relate to the original. There are some Margaret Thatchers in A Fashionable Marriage too. These are contemporary political contexts. We are all embedded in these histories and legacies and there is a real sense of empowerment to how Lubaina painted.
At the time Lubaina was working on her postgraduate and she put an ad out to find other Black British artists. It wasn’t so easy for her to find them then. Now Sonia Boyce just [exhibited] at the British Pavilion [at the Venice Biennale]. All these artists who were curating each other into shows created a movement.
Lubaina ended up winning the  Turner Prize for this work. There has been a lot of discussion about that – how can such an old work win? But there’s a real place for it because it’s about remembering history that hasn’t been properly remembered. It reimagines history and repositions it on multiple levels.
Wasn’t she the oldest artist to win the Turner Prize?
And she was also the first Black British artist to win. It is amazing. Before I even knew what was being depicted stepping into that work – the textures and the painting styles! Straight away, there are so many things to decode.
There was an extreme playfulness in the materiality that was fully my jam. Seeing that work allowed me to let go a bit more. I went back to my studio and was painting bottles. I was buying different papers and screwing them up. I was thinking about painting as a sculpture and painting as a performance and all of those things. It really helped in that exploration; it gave me freedom to explore the other elements of building an installation. The cut-out has turned up in my work a lot, ever since I saw that show.
I do appreciate, in a way, even though a work from ’86 won her the Turner, she has been making art since then. As an artist, you just keep going. Her practice is testament to that. Artists are just working away. They are making their own opportunities.
I imagine what it would be like to see Lubaina’s work as an undergraduate – it would have blown my mind. I think a lot about longevity – you have to grow into your ideas.
At the time she was tired of the hypocrisy of the London art world and moved to Northern England. She was talking about the way money flows, how hard it was for artists of colour to have agency back then.
I got to meet her once and was a real fangirl. I asked her, “What’s changed since you won the Turner?” And she said, “Now, I just think of a show and people work out how it is going to happen.” We had an artist-to-artist chat. And I thought, What a great lesson in talking to different generations of artists.
How do you keep going as an artist?
A lot of things shift – but a lot of it is having good community around you. I’m also queer – so [there’s also] the queer community. People can be a part of your three-year plan.
I have found my own community of artists that know me. They will tell me, “The reason this is so hard is because do you need to be doing this this way.” And you need people in your life where you can be that for you and you can be that for them.
Have you ever wanted to give up?
When I finished my undergraduate, I kept giving myself two or three years. If I am enjoying what I’m doing in two or three years… It doesn’t have to be paying for me but it needs to be working for itself. My mum was always worried about how I was going to live. The year before I won the Create NSW fellowship – she was like, “Oh no, my child is going to be 45 and living in a caravan.”
Sometimes I live my other lives out through artwork. I have an art cooking group. I am an artist and lecturer. I think arts practice is about the day-to-day. There is so much about what happens in my life that becomes a part of artworks. Whenever I have a complaint about something or get tired [I remind myself], You are getting to make artworks about your own ideas.
Himid’s mother was a textile designer and you are interested in the way materials evoke memory. I remember you incorporates fragments, objects, sounds from your childhood: an esky, a leopard-print blanket, a bike.
And things that exist in other archives, more official archives, in a different way. I think Himid’s work fortified me at the right time. I had already made installations that were part painting and part video and part animation. I had been building my own lexicons of materials that relate to Australia and Fiji. Quite often, if you are a Pacific artist, there is this idea of, what was this “traditionally” made out of? I hate that word! There was something about what she was using and how it related to her experience of the everyday that was happening in my work but helped me push it forward even more.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 23, 2023 as "Salote Tawale".
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