This paper looks at the role of the Indigenous writer in relation to Indigenous intellectual property. It was delivered at the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival Symposium, Melbourne, Australia. This paper was made possible with generous support from Creative New Zealand and Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust.
“We are the best authors of our own stories & history”
I was invited to be apart of a panel a couple weeks ago by Ema Tavola called Research, Histories, Re-learning: The miseducation of Pacific Histories. The other panelists were Siliga Setoga and Yolande Ah Chong. Yolande in one sentence summarised this entire panel “We are the best authors of our own stories and histories.”
Indigenous practitioners constantly fight a tokenistic treatment of their art in the form of essentialist readings and positionings. Contemporary art adheres to certain schools of thought, terms and definitions, that are estranged from Indigenous communities, and the practices within them. As an Indigenous writer, I find myself asking what impact this has on perceptions of contemporary Indigenous art practice. There is a perceived need to fit our work and thinking within these contemporary art constraints, rather than establishing forms of articulation for ourselves. What this does in turn is not only undermine Indigenous frameworks from which art is made, but also box Indigenous practices.
There are no better story tellers than ourselves, we are more than capable of our own writing, through our own words and on our own terms.
We live in a time where our global communications are mainly controlled through key colonial – now hegemonic – languages and cultural prisms. Language determines how we express ourselves, learn, and come to place ourselves in the world. Post-colonial theory has highlighted the need for us to reconsider the language we use. Many terms that are now a well-formed part of the English contemporary art language are not appropriate when addressing Indigenous practice. Aotearoa New Zealand-based Tongan curator Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai reasserts that the euro-american art historical terms ‘art’ and ‘heritage art’ or ‘craft’ create false binaries for indigenous practitioners with so called ‘heritage art’ being made by contemporary makers. Tongan terminology however doesn’t differentiate between fine art and craft therefore distinctions force this contemporary art practice to sit within misleading positionings.
In a way, Indigenous practice requires far more resources to receive an authentic understanding of practice. We need to produce multi-lingual interpretations, overcome cultural barriers and educate, as well as appreciate. What this does though is establish laborious frameworks before the audience has even laid eyes on the artwork. This experience of viewing furthers the us-them dichotomy by marginalising the work as ‘Indigenous Practice’; instead what these practices deserve is an equal treatment with an understanding of indigenous epistemologies and philosophies. This can happen through the decolonisation of language.
There is some responsibility as an audience to open up our perspectives of viewing. What keeps art interesting is the continual learning, afforded by our unique perspectives and places in the world. But in this situation the passive viewer has little control over the articulation of Indigenous practices, rather submitting to the experience that was on offer.
Where the real responsibility lies is with our writers. Writing archives art in a way that transcends time and archives art, thoughts and culture with authority and longevity. So if Pacific practices aren’t apart of that culture of critical art writing than Pacific practices become silent and in 10 years time, there will be no reference to landmark exhibitions that exist today.
In general when non-Indigenous people write about indigenous art there are 2 approaches. 1 is to not actually critically analyse the work because they only focus is on the cultural and historical ideas, reading as a history essay being of no use to the artist only fluffing around the conversation. The other is to only analyse the work with an obvious lack of understanding of pacific ways of being, making the entire argument flawed because of a lack of contextual understanding.
Publishing writing is the key to owning our own stories. It’s not necessarily about the individual voices that get published but instead about a collective ownership where artists, curators, galleries and writers all feed into reestablishing our understanding of Indigenous practices by enacting Indigenous modes of thinking and being while being ready to engage in debate. Being told what you are about gets old, we need to be the ones doing the telling.
Of course, there are many ways to make art in the world and there are thousands of different art histories, yet the dominant lexicon of art seems to fit only one of these interpretations. Indigenous cultures have been exhibiting, curating and making for thousands of years. Today, in a multicultural society with engrained notions of class and race hierarchies, the underlying question is how we maintain the integrity and multiplicity of all art.