On this earth, nature is unforgiving, forever recording our treatment of each other.
The lustrous, sinister yet intriguing beauty of Lucy Bleach’s Brothers, made from obsidian and crystal, invited me to extend a hand and connect with the earth’s lithic beauty. As Brothers physically reverberated beneath me mimicking a volcano’s undiscriminating tremors through land and sea, she caused me to be one with the movements of the earth’s infinite architecture carrying us all through time and space.
On leaving this room, I ruminated on the ocean’s duality. Despite its intrinsic position within nature, humans have attached significant cultural meanings to this vast, stretching, ominous body. I thought of how the Chinese laid claim to the South China Sea because of a line someone drew on a map in 1947. At home, I thought of the ‘unwanted’; those contained on Manus and Christmas Islands. Othered and exiled by an ocean that many prayed would cradle them to a safer world. I wondered what, in this world, belonging means.
Irregardless of humans and their social and political constructs, it rolls on. The ocean. Detoxifying and oxygenating the atmosphere; as this prehistoric, largely unexplored body has done for billions of years, since even before the Earth’s accretion completed. I left this exhibition feeling heavy. Although, enriched.
When we left our place we were plenty of People, we are now but a little one. Ricky Maynard transcends time and embodies his forebears in this self portrait. Standing on the shore of Flinders, he looks from the place of the old Wybalenna mission back to lutruwita (Tasmania). Here, colonists used a body of water to remove people from their homes, contain and attempt assimilation.
Imagine though, if 35-thousand years ago the sea had not fallen with the Ice Age as it traced the climate’s ebb and flow. Or, 10-thousand years ago, had not risen to submerge the Bass Strait land bridge once more? Picture that Aboriginal peoples could simply walk back across – allegorically, if you will, of the hypothetical evaporation of these social constructs placed on this body of water.
In 1958, three year old Teeua Tetua’s mother blindfolded her with a cloth as they braced themselves for the deafening blast of the H-bombs that rang nine times through their island home, the Pacific Ocean atoll Kiritimati. We had the palm of our hands over our eyes. I closed my eyes but I could still see the skeleton of my fingers through my closed eyes, said Fijiian veteran Paul Ah Poy. 14,000 British troops, including 276 Fijiian soldiers landed on Kiritimati and Malden Island on their Cold War mission to test nuclear bombs. The British governor of Fiji said it’d be good to promote employment for young people in the colonies. Ah Poy thought they’d be doing sea training.
Torika distills this colonial legacy in photographs of veterans memorialising the nuclear testing series’. With the Fijian soldiers bedecked in medals from other nations’ conflicts – she represents the ownership that is asserted over faraway lands. When did they adopt this sick lens through which to see the world; one that validates the disparagement and destruction of other ways of being? This lens still pervades the world today. And don’t you remember, the bombs went off here in Maralinga, too?
Anthony Johnson’s poem, surfboard templates and fluorescent ripples on paper created by (all-too-familiar to Aussies) reflux and laxative tablets together alluded to the oceanic divide between Australia and Indonesia, which poses as a portal between two worlds. Johnson invokes a caricature of Aussies leaving their Chanel-sanitised, duty-free whiskey realm and joining their comrades in the blithe humid world where tourists ride doped up on the back of motorbikes without helmets. Oh, the insouciance. I thought of this portal and the privilege of its convenient availability to some who escape between these worlds, morphing into a still normalised version of Western culture, one seemingly inept at appreciating the beauty of the new world from a viewpoint external to their own lived constructs.
Seemingly harmless. But when I explored Marian Tubbs’ comment on private islands, the fish spouting rubbish from their choking mouths called the world’s winners and losers to mind, along with the problem of grotesque monetary wealth and what that does to people. I saw that ultimately it pollutes minds. And that pollution manifests itself in the dirt washed up ashore on other people’s land, carried by warming waves.
Jane Chang Mi’s half a meter, a photograph of a flagpole marking, she tells me, a large coral head. Here, the waves creep slowly higher up the flagpole, reaching for the flag of the low-lying archipelago itself.
The artists of Composing Archipelagos address the shortcomings of a capitalist, colonial world confined by political constructs. Simultaneously, they invite you to imagine a better world.
Aliansyah Caniago and Raisa Kamila welcome you to it with their game Cards Against History, in which the Christian Abel Tasman and Sumatran Sufi Hamsah Fansuri, two profound males from contrasting regions and cultural backgrounds, exist seamlessly alongside one another on the usual black and white cards. The ideas of belonging and journey evident in their unconnected writings represent joint streams of being. When filling in the blanks, the fluency of their united words reminds that every Christian lives in every Muslim, every Muslim in every Christian, every person inside the other. George Helm reminds us to honour the sacrality of the ‘āina. Our Church? Let us make our Church the Sky, the Land, and the Sea.
I think again now about this concept: belonging. In his self-reflective photography, James Tylor communicates his physical disconnection from, yet spiritual connection to, Aotearoa (New Zealand)- his Hawaiki, or ancestral land. Belonging is not only to do with acceptance from others. Tylor reminds that belonging is to do with the self, something to do with knowing your roots. Individually, and subsequently, collectively with others.
To free the ocean from colonial and capitalist confines and to think archipelagic is to be closer to the conviction of First Nations Peoples that we as humans, do not own the earth, but the earth owns us.
On the radio the other night, I heard Gunditjmara Keerray Woorroong woman and artist Vicky Couzens say: Most people, at one stage or another, come from an earth culture, and they’ve just kind of forgotten,
got a bit mixed up along the way. They’ve lost that connection.
Alexis-Martin, Becky. 2019 The atomic history of Kiritimati – a tiny island where humanity realised its most lethal potential’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-atomic-history-of-kiritimati-a-tiny-island-where-humanity-realised-its-most-lethal-potential-114870
Qalo, Isireli. ‘The Soldiers’, in Grappling with the Bomb: Britain’s Pacific H-bomb Tests, Maclellan, Nic, 221-30. Australia: ANU Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1ws7w90.22.
Rock J, Sima E and Knapen M (2020) What is the ocean: A sea‐change in our perceptions and values?. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 30(3): 532–539.
Tahana, Jamie, 208, ‘For veterans of British nuclear test, a 60-year fight for recognition goes on’, https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/356212/for-veterans-of-british-nuclear-tests-a-60-year-fight-for-recognition-goes-on
Madeleine Rojahn is a freelance writer with a strong community mindset. She has graduated from the University of Tasmania, Hogeschool Utrecht, and The Danish School of Media and Communication, and participated in an internship at non-profit media The Conversation.
Maddy is the co-producer of the recently published non-profit coffee-table book, The Bloody Unknown, about diversity, displacement, community, and migration in lutruwita/Tasmania. It is a collection of stories from 24 Tasmanians with refugee and migrant backgrounds, artwork from Indigenous and migrant Tasmanians, and community recipes.