Visual Art

Léuli Eshrāghi’s TarraWarra Biennial draws on subtlety and small gestures to privilege and celebrate the knowledge of the Majority World. By Amelia Winata.

TarraWarra Biennial

The work of Sonja Carmichael and Elisa Jane Carmichael, part of ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili.
The work of Sonja Carmichael and Elisa Jane Carmichael, part of ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili.
Credit: Andrew Curtis

At the recent opening of TarraWarra Biennial 2023, ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili, Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin gave a Welcome to Country in which she compared the atmosphere with an event two days earlier. Aunty Joy was scheduled to give a Welcome to Country for a “leadership speaker” event with former United States president Barack Obama, organised by the Growth Faculty. In a move that made headlines across the country, Aunty Joy claimed she was pulled from the forum after she was said to be “too difficult” when she wanted to bring a support person with her. She declared that ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili was the polar opposite of Growth Faculty’s inability to offer basic care to First Peoples.

ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili, a Sāmoan proverb that translates to “the canoe obeys the wind”, might be the antithesis of the institutional virtue-signalling that has infiltrated the visual arts sector and corporations in recent years. This year’s TarraWarra Biennial is the product of Seumanutafa and Tautua Sāmoan, Persian and Cantonese curator Léuli Eshrāghi’s ongoing consideration of the art of the Majority World – an alternative term to Second or Third Worlds or even Global South, which reinforce a Western-centric hierarchy – and decolonisation. Such careful corrections of flawed phraseology and frameworks position Eshrāghi as the ideal curator of an exhibition entangled in rich but sensitive material and experiences.

In many respects, Eshrāghi’s project is an Australian-specific response to American or Eurocentric decolonial projects, such as those produced by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, which have rarely considered the importance of Australia or its surrounding regions. As Eshrāghi states, although previous exhibitions have addressed the relationship between Australia and surrounding archipelagos, southern and South-East Asia, and the Great Ocean region, they have done so tokenistically, “always remaining a ‘101’ of said region or culture”.

All audiences are made welcome but Eshrāghi has gone to great lengths to ensure an environment of cultural safety that refuses to comfort self-congratulating white viewers. This is seen in the wall labels, which privilege the traditional Aboriginal Countries of the artists’ place of birth or residence and list their language groups, and in Eshrāghi’s lengthy catalogue essay of some 8000 words, which does not explain various First Peoples terms but rather includes an in-depth glossary as an appendix.

Minutiae also matters in the artworks on display. Mother and daughter team Sonja Carmichael and Elisa Jane Carmichael offer a tender representation of their Quandamooka heritage with Ngumpi (Home) (2022–23). Here the pair present an installation comprised of a ngumpi structure made from foraged driftwood as well as gulayi and mission baskets. Their chosen materials are loaded with meaning, having been gathered on Quandamooka Country by the artists or family members, and underscore the inextricable link between kinship and Country.

Suspended above the ngumpi is a large piece of kowinka-dyed silk and cotton that has been softly spotlit to produce a shadow on the wall behind it – the effect is beautiful. In many respects, this lighting acknowledges the work’s institutional setting and the fact that the entire installation is just that, an installation. However, the materiality of the work results in a piece that is undeniably alive and is a stark reminder of what hangs in the balance with the ongoing desecration of the environment.

Many artworks in ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili relieve the viewer of the showiness and monumentality that has surrounded recent blockbuster exhibitions – characteristics that are often trademarks of the biennial or triennial. Gulumerridjin, Wardaman and KarraJarri artist Jenna Lee’s to gather, to nourish, to sustain (2022–23) is a collection of three small dilly bags and 48 paintings on Awagami custom Haruki-shi paper. Only upon closer inspection does the viewer apprehend the delicate imagery as abstracted figures that visualise Gulumerridjin language. The combination of Japanese materials with Aboriginal subject matter alone is enough to scandalise viewers looking for “cultural authenticity”. Lee does have Japanese heritage but that is beside the point – ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili subverts the fallacy of “authenticity” at every point.

Small and delicate works continue throughout the exhibition. Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s An ocean (2023) is a collection of small clay lotas (vessels) nestled in a bed of sugarcane ash. A viewer peering into the blackened cavities of the lotas is presented with a poetic analogy for the dark sea voyages made by her ancestors to become indentured labourers on South African sugarcane plantations. The fine lines that surround each lota, only visible up close, suggest the ongoing, albeit almost invisible, trauma felt between generations.

Some artworks exhibit frustration at the continuing white supremacy of settler Australia. Phuong Ngo’s Remastered (2023) includes a small wooden table printed with text from its Facebook Marketplace listing that includes the line “This is mid-century made in Melbourne, not some cheap Asian import”. As Ngo points out, this reflects a history of racism encoded into law by the Victorian Factories and Shops Act 1896, which stipulated that all furniture be stamped with “European labour only” as a marker of quality while stamps such as “Chinese labour” signified a lower grade. Empty plinths surrounding Ngo’s work are painted in “white comfort”, underscoring the logic of the museum as a reinforcing body of racialised thought.

What makes ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili so successful is that it doesn’t acknowledge narratives that essentialise Majority World experiences as trauma porn. Rather, on display is a constellation of experiences – anger, pride, pain and recuperation rub shoulders.

A wonderful conclusion to ua usiusi fa‘ava‘asavili is a viewing of Leyla Stevens’ video GROH GOH (Rehearsal for Rangda) (2023), a weird and beautiful representation of the Balinese deity Rangda as an all-powerful shapeshifting entity rather than as her traditional framing in which she is shown as an “undesirable witch widow”. In the film, musician Karina Utomo channels Rangda through a heavy metal vocal performance. Stevens’ sexy and intimidating version of the deity paces a darkened set as she purrs and growls into a microphone.

In another scene, a group of female dancers learn how to embody Rangda, who is traditionally performed by men. This act imbues the deity with a feminist bent, which points to a broader question about how tradition fits into contemporary experience. Moreover, Stevens and Utomo have noted: “In learning how to perform or represent Rangda, we were having to translate cultural knowledge for ourselves, to bridge missing gaps in our connection to place, language and custom.”

Indeed, this is the critical nuance in Eshrāghi’s curatorial methodology – the fact that they recognise diaspora identity to be based upon holes in history and knowledge as much as on concrete facts. If the canoe obeys the wind, then it remains to be seen where the wind will take it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Obey the wind".

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