QAGOMA’s Pacific Art department continues to connect with South East Queensland’s Pacific community cultural groups and activities. As the reach and impact of the Gallery’s Pacific Exhibitions, Public Programs, and Learning activities develop, these connections have had increasing relevance. QAGOMA is committed to seeking opportunities to give focus to this as an area of research and active community engagement in the lead up to, and as an integral part of ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10).
Collaborative effort is being made across departments, and with key organisations and individuals within the South East Queensland Pacific Community towards providing more opportunities to Pacific voices and perspectives, maximise the contribution APT10 makes to broader community discourses, and foster meaningful connection and interactions between APT10 Pacific Artists and audiences.
Recently, the Gallery collaborated with the Pasifika Young Peoples Wellbeing Network (PYPWN) to host a Pasifika Youth Tour guided by the curatorial team for Pacific art and provide the opportunity to learn about QAGOMA’s approach to working with artists and communities in the Pacific region, and to share reflections from their own experiences with arts institutions.
Beyond this, the tour centred around visits to two main spaces. Firstly, Nicolas Molé’s installation Ile Vous regardent (They look at you). This work was commissioned as part of the ‘Yumi Danis (We dance)‘ project for ‘The 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8) in 2015-16. It focusses on the role of performance in Melanesia and was realised through a collaborative project which involved Molé working with a diverse group of dancers and musicians from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, West Papua and the Solomon Islands.
The youth were welcomed into this immersive experience that, as described by Ruth McDougall, Curator, Pacific art
emphasizes the importance of a relationship between the living and ancestral realms, set within a natural environment. Pausing to engage with this perspective assists one to approach the diversity of cultures, languages and customs comprising Melanesia. 1
Watch ‘Yumi Danis (We dance)’
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The tour also visited the Children’s Art Centre to view ‘Island Fashion‘ and meet with members of the team behind its design who shared a wealth of insights where questions and perspectives could be explored together. The space featured fashion, adornment and multimedia activities created by four artists from Australia and the Pacific – Letila Mitchell, Maryann Talia Pau, Ranu James and Grace Lillian Lee, who is the current Open Studio artist.
PYPWN describe themselves as ‘a group of young researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with a passion and focus on young Pasifika people’s health and wellbeing in Queensland.’ QAGOMA looks forward to continuing to collaborate with this and other groups to create unique opportunities for a growing network of young Pasifika peoples to meaningfully engage with the gallery’s Pacific collection, staff expertise, relevant exhibitions, and educational forums.
Ruha Fifita is Curatorial Assistant, Pacific Art at QAGOMA
Endnote 1 Ruth McDougall, Curatorial Essay, August 2017
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Feature image: Feature image: Pasifika Young Peoples Wellbeing Network (PYPWN); Ruth McDougall, Curator, Pacific Art (bottom left); Ruha Fifita, Curatorial Assistant, Pacific Art (second from top right)
Known internationally for its history as a nuclear testing site, and home to one of America’s most advanced military bases, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is also on the frontline of the global struggle against climate change. Yet, intertwined within the narrative of human disregard, and an increasing susceptibility to the dire effects of global warming, the people of the Marshall Islands are writing a story of their own — one distinguished by collaboration, resilience and hope. Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is one of many community members and artists giving voice to this story on a global stage.
Aerial view of the Marshall Islands
Jetñil-Kijiner is a spoken-word poet who was chosen to address the UN Climate Summit in New York in 2014. She has since spoken and performed around the world on related issues. As has become the norm for an increasing number of Marshallese, the pursuit of education and other opportunities means that she has spent most of her life ‘off-island’. Even so, the approach she takes to her work manifests a marked sense of responsibility to her homeland, and a determination to better equip herself to tell the story of its people.
In the lead-up to ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) 24 November 2018 – 28 April 2019, Jetñil-Kijiner became interested in the recent revival of Marshallese jaki-ed weaving and the dynamics of the weaving circle as important symbols of cultural resilience. A unique opportunity to participate in a 21-day weaving circle was made possible through a partnership between QAGOMA and the University of the South Pacific.
In a traditional hut located on the university’s new Majuro Campus, overlooking the expansive and idyllic lagoon, 13 expert weavers gathered from atolls across the Marshall Islands, working together to complete a series of special jaki-ed mats. The hut has no walls, making it ideally suited to the needs of the weaving circle. The women gather here to support and encourage each other. They weave as their conversation, riddled with laughter and wisdom, flows through and beyond the space. The hut is open in more ways than one — open to new ideas and innovation, the gaze and curiosity of bystanders and admirers, the questions and imitation of family, and interaction with the natural environment. It is a sacred space, where collective knowledge is both honoured and generated.
‘Jaki-ed’ weaving workshop
Installation view of ‘Jaki-ed’ mats in APT9
Jetñil-Kijiner’s spoken-word performance, commissioned for the opening weekend of APT9, is rooted in what she experienced in this space completing a mat of her own, while working under the instruction of master weaver Terse Timothy. According to Jetñil-Kijiner:
I was grasping at a new art form — I told myself this. A friend said, ‘You’re going back to your roots’, and I scoffed at the simplicity of this statement. It was trying, and failing, and trying again, and connecting, only slightly. There was never an arrival. There was a grasping. ‘There’s a gap over there.’ There’s a gap between the words I weave inside my own head . . .1
Watch the performance | ‘Lorro: Of Wings and Seas’ 2018
In her work — performed in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane and recorded for APT9 — Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner uses the symbolism of the weaving process and weaving circle to explore how women’s roles and identity are shaped by Marshallese culture, the nuclear legacy and a climate-threatened future. Its closing segment draws inspiration from the Japanese dance art form of butoh to capture the metamorphic influence of the nuclear legacy on the bodies of women. This work is a weaving of words and movement. Each strand connects local wisdom with discourses of global relevance, opening the weaving circle to a new audience — a circle defined by the open flow of learning, creativity, and a spirit of humble resilience that connects and characterises the weavers of the Marshall Islands.
Ruha Fifita is Research Assistant, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
Endnote 1 Blog post by the artist, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, 11 October 2017, <https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com/weaving-workshop-reflection-part-i/>, viewed June 2018.
Watch the performance | ‘She Who Dies to Live’ 2019
Produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and presented in conjunction with the PAA XIII International Symposium and QAGOMA
She Who Dies to Live is a multimedia spoken word experience asking us to consider how we tell the lives of Pacific women in our societies. With an all-female cast representing Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, and Hawaiʻi, She Who Dies to Live reimagines formative stories of the Pacific into a contemporary epic.
The Australia premiere of this production at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane on Tuesday 26 March 2019, featured a collaborative performance by Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, and Terisa Siagatonu, with contributive writing from Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala, and direction by Lyz Soto. This immersive performance explored the survival of culture and story in the face of colonization, nuclear testing, militarism, diaspora, and climate change.
Featured image: Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s performance Lorro: Of Wings and Seas 2018
Chris Charteris’s elegantly crafted swords, commissioned for ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) are made from a variety of natural and contemporary materials that reflect both the Pacific environment and the unique aesthetics of Kiribati culture. Each sword is a ‘one-off’ creation and tribute to the ingenuity, courage and resilience of this Micronesian community.
Bwebwerake — a Kiribati word meaning to grow or to evolve1 — is the title of Chris Charteris’s new sculptural work acquired for the Gallery’s Pacific collection. The word itself evokes the receding shorelines of this expanse of Micronesian islands. Comprising 32 coral atolls (and one raised limestone island) across three main island groups, the nation of Kiribati has the largest sea-to-land ratio in the world, with a total land area of 811 square kilometres spread over 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean.2 What has it meant for Kiribati’s people and culture to grow and evolve against this backdrop? Chris Charteris’s work for APT9 consists of 21 singularly designed, functional shark-tooth swords and is both a celebration of the extraordinary resourcefulness and customs that distinguish the Kiribati community, and a finely tempered testament to the artist’s unique experience with this place.
Chris Charteris is a sculptor and jeweller of English, Kiribati and Fijian descent, based in Aotearoa New Zealand. He was adopted at birth and, until his mid twenties, believed that his paternal heritage was Māori. Consequently, as a teenager he studied and taught carving, which led to work in marae (sacred places) restoration and then to running a Māori art gallery in Dunedin. Discovering his Fijian and Kiribati heritage in 1995 marked a turning point in his practice towards this Pacific ancestry.3
In 2012, upon his return from a trip to Kiribati during which he reconnected with his Kiribati family and heritage, Charteris initiated Tungaru: The Kiribati Project in collaboration with his wife Lizzy Leckie and filmmaker and animator, Jeff Smith. Bwebwerake forms part of the most recent iteration of Tungaru created for APT9. Charteris’s visit to southeast Queensland in 2017 was an important step in the creative process — he and his collaborators met with members of the local Kiribati community and studied both a suit of coconut-fibre armour and a series of swords that are being cared for in the collection of the Queensland Museum. Reflecting on the Kiribati collections of numerous museums around the world, Charteris describes the swords as ‘one-off’ creations. ‘They are totally unique and don’t follow a typical form’, he says, and they can be made from a wide range of materials, including large fish jaws, whale bones, shells, shark’s teeth, pandanus, te kora (coconut fibre), hardwood and stingray barbs.4
Bwebwerake refers both to the fan palm that Charteris has used to make his swords and his commitment to exploring new forms in response to new research. His swords are made from a variety of natural and contemporary materials, consciously reflecting the manner in which his Kiribati ancestors would have employed whatever materials could be found in their environment to create what was necessary for survival. He is also interested in how the swords were designed to inflict injury rather than kill (cutting or spearing the body without damaging vital organs). Whilst fighting was common as a way to resolve disputes, war was not. Fighting that caused death was socially unacceptable, and killing a person was a crime. Rather than be killed for such a crime a fighter would ask that a piece of his land be taken instead.5
A Western idea of ‘art’ has little meaning in Kiribati culture — the value of an object is based on its usefulness.6Bwebwerake seeks a delicate and accomplished balance between artistically honouring the unique aesthetics of Kiribati culture while retaining functional use. Each sword is a tribute to the ingenuity, courage and resilience of this community, their intimate connection to the ocean and dependence on its resources, their textured history and hard-won survival.
Ruha Fifita is Research Assistant, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
Endnotes 1 Email from the artist, 6 March 2018. 2 Save Kiribati, <http://savekiribati.com/about.php>, viewed August 2018. 3 Mark Amery in Chris Charteris & Jeff Smith, Tungaru: The Kiribati Project [self-published], Auckland, 2014, pp.19–20. 4 Email from the artist, 6 March 2018. 5 Amery in Charteris & Smith, p.48 6 Amery in Charteris & Smith, p.28.
Delve deeper with Te ma (Fish Trap)
In the shallows between reef and ocean, I-Kiribati people build robust heart-shaped structures from broken coral to trap fish on the tides. Known as Te ma, these structures can be found up to 100 metres from the shore and are collectively owned and maintained by Kaainga (communities). Like the Te ma in Kiribati, Chris Charteris’s fish trap is constructed from a natural resource found in abundance where he lives – ringed venus shells from the sandy beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand. Friends and family helped to stitch together the 8000 pairs of shells to form the 7.4-metre-long wall honouring the spirit of communal participation and ownership.
Watch performances by the Brisbane Kiribati community
These performances by the Brisbane Kiribati community on the opening weekend of APT9 feature song and dance in response to the ‘Tungaru: The Kiribati Project’. Tungaru is a collaborative project inspired by the strong connections that New Zealand born artist Chris Charteris has made with his ancestral homeland and extended i-Kiribati family. The indigenous name for Kiribati is Tungaru, which means to gather together in a joyous way.
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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.
‘Tungaru: The Kiribati Project’ has been supported by Creative New Zealand
Feature image detail:Chris Charteris’s Shark-tooth swords from Bwebwerake (to grow, to evolve) 2018 / Commissioned for APT9 / Image courtesy: Chris Charteris
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