This post was written by Steven Pidgeon, and originally published on Griffith Asia Insights.
Questioning why certain stories are told while others are erased, as well as who decides which is which, is a powerful tool in deconstructing colonial narratives that govern the modern world. The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art has provided a unique space in which the politics of (in)visibility have been questioned specifically in relation to the Asia-Pacific region. The theme of visibility/invisibility was insightfully elaborated upon by Vincente M Diaz, Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, as a collaborator on the Air Canoe project. The project focuses on the northern Oceanian region which has been called “Micronesia” and seeks to reclaim Indigenous Islander peoples’ connection to and relationships with water, land and skies—as well as to their past, present and future.
Visibility is negotiated through terms of recognition which have been dominated by colonialist, Western views of reality, and what is human distorting and erasing Indigenous knowledge and culture. Recognition is defined as identifying something or someone based on existing knowledge, but when the foundation for knowledge is constructed based upon stereotypes, historical prejudices, and colonial narratives, how can the terms of recognition be renegotiated? Specifically, regarding places such as Micronesia, questions of how we define what an island is, its relationship to the surrounding ocean, and the relationality between human beings, the land, sea and sky, are all conventionally unrecognised in Western discourse. While Western discourse regards the island as small and isolated, Indigenous understandings see the island as encapsulating the ocean to its bottom, the land, the air, the sky and stars, and all living entities within this space. The island is not a self-contained thing. The Indigenous word of island is “Ae-Lang”, which was explained to not be mispronounced English, has its own meaning as the “currents” (Ae-) of the “sky” (Lang). Colonialist understanding of the ocean sees it as a barrier, which isolates and disconnects, whereas the Indigenous perspective sees the ocean as the great connector.
The concept of “hungry listening”, as explored in Dylan Robinson’s book of that title, refers to the indigenous word for the colonizing outsider. While previously, colonizers were hungry for land and for gold, this same voracious appetite is evident in the “hunger” for the so-called “exoticism” of indigenous art and culture. This superficial appreciation poses a policy of recognition without teeth, lacking genuine recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and cultural rights. This intense desire for art is, rather than a genuine “making visible” of culture, nothing more than a new form of colonialism. On another level, there is ongoing so-called “post-colonial” tension between how “art” itself is defined from a Western/European perspective, as opposed to the characterisation of indigenous art as “ethnographic artifacts” of primitive and savage cultures.
Australia is not exempt from the cultural and political erasure of Micronesian island culture that inspired the Air Canoe project, and that Diaz spoke to in the All A Part Symposium, despite forms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ art, music and culture being “celebrated”. The discussion brought reminders of Brisbane Expo ’88 to the fore, where performances of Indigenous dancing and music sat, somewhat uncomfortably, alongside the bicentennial “celebration” of Australian colonialism. Yet the struggle for genuine recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty and cultural rights remains ongoing. Legal recognition of native title essentially became an exercise in bait-and-switch where recognition only took place in order to justify extinguishment of title. The issue of Indigenous sovereignty wasn’t addressed by the Court, as it considered English sovereignty to be the backbone of the skeleton of Australia’s legal and political system. However, it has been argued that recognition of Indigenous sovereignty would ‘go to the very heart of restructuring the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia’. Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander culture continues to be celebrated in the public sphere through art, while legal and social violence is maintained and rendered invisible.
Another struggle within which the discourse of visibility/invisibility and the struggle to renegotiate the terms of recognition has been demonstrated within the recent campaign in Australia regarding the recognition of the LGBTIQ+ communities within the Australian 2021 Census. The Census itself is a foundational institution within most Western societies for negotiating the relationship between people and place, as well as demonstrating historically the lack of counting indigenous populations. The intersection between indigenous struggles for recognition and queer recognition has been explored.
Air Canoe helps us to resist superficial forms of visibility by highlighting Indigenous ways of life, beyond the surface, it connects land, ocean, sky and humans. Engagement with the Asia-Pacific region has largely been based on and shaped by, colonial discourses that have decided what (and who) is visible and is not. The conventional terms of recognition given to Indigenous peoples all over the Asia-Pacific region continue to be an unjust representation of life and culture. While conventionally the question of ‘making visible’ has been shaped within the context of colonial discourse and government policy, together with normative understandings of what constitutes life, culture and history, the Air Canoe project seeks to resist these conventions by making visible the epistemic foundations of Indigenous life and culture that have been rendered invisible at every turn; the intersections of science, technology, art, philosophy and knowledge.