CURATEd BY Katya García-Antón
Our sovereignty is embodied, it is ontological (our being) and epistemological (our way of knowing), and it is grounded within complex relations derived from the inter-substantiation of ancestral beings, humans and land. In this sense, our sovereignty is carried by the body and differs from Western constructions of sovereignty, which are predicated on the social contract model, the idea of a universal supreme authority, territorial integrity and individual rights
– Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters, 2007
OCA was pleased to return to the Dhaka Art Summit 2018 with ‘Sovereign Words. Facing the Tempest of a Globalised Art History’: a platform of panel discussions, lecture performances, group debates and readings during the Dhaka Art Summit 2018. ‘Sovereign Words’ is a new iteration of the ‘Critical Writing Ensembles’, committed to the strengthening of critical writing within and across communities of the world. This edition was focused on writing by peers from Indigenous communities around the world contesting the Western canon.
‘Sovereign Words’ is conceived by OCA, and organised in partnership with DAS, Artspace Sydney and the Australia Council for the Arts.
Máret Ánne Sara
Santosh Kumar Das
Venkat Raman Singh Shyam
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
S. C. Albert Soren
How many legal forms can the encounter between a national state and an Indigenous people take? This presentation traced the various approaches that have been taken when a national state has established its presence in a territory that was previously populated. Can the national state simply use the people already situated there as resources along with the riches the territories already offer? For example, as slaves? Or can they just cleanse the territories of the people living there? Can they simply criminalise the people’s presence or can they tolerate them being there until more worthy interests emerge? Or should they be informed? Should one consult them? Could they be given veto power? Or even the right to come up with initiatives themselves? This presentation followed this line of thought with examples from history as well as examples from today’s reality to analyse the encounter between national states and Indigenous peoples.
Note: Due to technical difficulties, Somby's presentation was not recorded. The video link here is of his honouring of National Sami Day on 6 February 2018.
Indigenous people’s survival and existence are associated with the lands where they have lived since time immemorial. The importance of lands is the very survival of Indigenous cultures and their articulated ideas of communal stewardship over land, as well as their deeply felt spiritual and emotional nexus with the Earth and its fruits. Hence the claiming of land rights means ensuring the security of land ownership which guarantees the economic viability and development of such communities. Land is the central issue when discussing Indigenous peoples’ empowerment as it is the basis for the enjoyment of their cultural rights and ensures their basic rights while respecting their distinct identity. The Indigenous notion of the ownership and management of land is based on the customary laws which are considered more or less a collective property. This presentation offered a brief glimpse into the status of Indigenous peoples’ land rights in Bangladesh.
This presentation of Cope's artistic practice, focused on the transition from mapping practices to her most recent sculptural work. Looking into mapping practices as colonial tools, and mining industries which both alter Indigenous landscapes and their economic, relational and ecological systems, she discussed the impact of Australia’s colonial settlers on the artist’s traditional Quandamooka country and offered a snapshot of an industry that has relied heavily on both Aboriginal aqua-cultural systems and labour in the region. This presentation explored the role that contemporary art has in the promotion of Indigenous culture and provided legal documents to challenge the notion of the hegemonic state.
In Léuli Eshraghi’s words, “This piece reflected my many journeys in recent years connected with relations across the coasts and inland mountains rimming the Great Ocean. A third of our planet’s surface, home to millions of Indigenous and migrant beings, including plants, fish, animals, birds, spirits and humans: this is a continent rendered invisible in dominating Euro-American military and economic endeavours." Eshraghi aimed to approach diasporic yearning for homelands / waters / intergenerational trauma and mourning for repeated genocides / epistemicides / ecocides / linguicides, alongside the development of contemporary Indigenous sovereignties as part of responsible belonging, caring and visiting. This presentation brought sensual lessons and languages to the fore in understanding how curating / artmaking / writing by Indigenous peoples of the Great Ocean are practices of leadership through service, and healing through cleansing.
The exhibition To Strike – To Leave My Mark (2017–18), celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative through the work of its ten founding members: Michael Riley, Bronwyn Bancroft, Arone Meeks, Euphemia Bostock, Fiona Foley, Brenda L. Croft, Jeffrey Samuels, Tracey Moffatt, Avril Quaill and Fern Martins. The exhibition's curator, Djon Mundine, explained; “The group is interesting from several angles in that the group was across all genders, ages, and training –all had, or were attending, Western art courses or art schools, most members were women (7/10), almost half were refugees from Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland (4/10), the other half were from New South Wales (NSW), most weren’t teenagers anymore, and the two ‘gay’ men members had been ‘out’, proud and well known nearly all their lives. I really, first met several of this group who were in the Koori Art 84 exhibition at Sydney’s Artspace in 1984. I was living and working as an Art and Craft Advisor in central Arnhem Land then and had just curated an exhibition of the Art Gallery of NSW’s bark painting collection in 1983. Following the Koori Art 84 show, several artists started to correspond with me and wanted to visit. They were travelling to the Tiwi Islands as part of their Western style art courses to be exposed to ‘real’ Aboriginal art. About half of the ten visited and worked and formed relationships with Ramingining or Maningrida communities.” A number of the original ten members moved on to great achievements in terms of global art world recognition, as much as they left their mark in establishing the co-operative that has influenced and provided openings for so many Aboriginal artists: Tracey Moffatt presented a solo exhibition within the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. In this presentation, Mundine honoured both her and the rest of the ten for their struggle and triumph.
Máret Ánne Sara
In the afterword to her debut book Ilmmiid gaskkas (In Between Worlds), Máret Ánne Sara writes “People say they don’t believe in such things anymore. Still, they don’t dare to deny it either.” Ilmmiid gaskkas explores Sami beliefs vis-à-vis contemporary reality through the voices of teenagers and their experience of Sami worlds. In her presentation, Sara read sections of her book that speak about the traditions of Sámi storytelling, the use of this philosophy in modern literature and in a political settings. She also made use of her artwork to showcase how she addresses the same topics through different artistic forms and approaches.
In this presentation, Kimberley Moulton looked at the past seven years of her research into ancestral belongings in international and national collections. Through imagery, journal entries and critical engagement with the history of collecting and institutions, in Moulton’s own words this presentation “highlighted the personal effect working within these spaces has had on me as a Yorta Yorta woman and looked at how the intersection of First Peoples’ contemporary art practice and cultural material work can decentre the white paradigm.” This presentation also reflected on the legacy of Captain James Cook’s maiden voyage to trace the path of Venus and the mission of Terra Australis 250 years ago, which resulted in the very first cultural objects to be stolen from Australia.
Santosh Kumar Das
From a personal perspective, Santosh Kumar Das’s presentation gave insight into his practice: “I focused mainly on the freedom that being a speaker of the folk or Indigenous language of Madhubani has given me as an artist and as a human being. It is like when an idea comes to me, in the mind it has a certain language, a certain form. I watch it for some time carefully and realise it is in the language or form which I have known so intimately all my life. It is always in the folk language (read visually as ‘form’) of my place. At times, the source of the idea may be quite diverse and strange. Maybe a film poster or maybe the figure of a bridge seen from a distance. But ultimately as it begins to solidify, it starts to take on the form of Madhubani. It is like a mother tongue; speaking in it comes more naturally to a child. We don't think much while speaking in our mother tongues. We feel and express. There is no strain and risk. It is the same for me as painting in the style of Madhubani. It is the language of my thought. And the form itself has been a rewarding experience for me. All these years, I have just tried to be honest to the medium, i.e., that of the lines drawn with a pen nib on paper.”
For many Sámi people, duodji (commonly translated as Sámi handicraft, the word was used extensively to define the community’s creative activities) is one of the strongest indicators of Sámi identity. Their relationship with their traditions signify deep collective values and norms. Intangible knowledge is an important part of both the process and the experience of duodji. Consequently, Sámi traditions and the practice of duodji are subject to varying degrees of knowledge and understanding. Iver Jåks stressed the importance of duodji as not being exclusively associated with memories, keepsakes and the past, and was concerned with giving his art relevant content as contemporary art. In this presentation, Snarby elaborated on how a deep and specific notion of duodji and ancient Sámi thinking incorporated with avant-garde art practices informs Iver Jåks’s three-dimensional works. Through his practice, which was closely associated with a broad, holistic understanding of duodji, he gave a voice to Sámi methods, traditions and experiences in an arena that had previously rejected Sámi art as ethnology rather than art.
Venkat Raman Singh Shyam
From a personal perspective, Venkat Raman Singh Shyam’s presentation addressed the transitions and turning points of contemporary Gond art over the last 30 years and its uneasy position within Central India’s institutions and commercial settings. In the 1980s, Gond artists started working for the first time with industrially manufactured pigments and on surfaces such as paper, canvas and gallery walls. As an art form that responds to contemporary currents while maintaining ancient principles, Singh Shyam’s reflections on its position also revealed a resistance to the gallery context that Gond art often comes into contact with. He explained the Gond conception of art in relation to beliefs about land and property: “the land owns us; the art we make owns us. We cannot own the land or art.”
Decolonisation is at least intellectually and aesthetically possible, even though the power structures of colonialism persist. However, colonialism transmutes; it shifts and rebalances, forever finding a way to maintain its power and hegemony. Post-colonial thinking, the process of re-imagination, is evident in public artworks in Australia and the impetus to challenge historical amnesia is being driven at a superficial level by arts funding bodies, with philanthropic money from urban development sectors and such resources. This presentation attempted to outline the ways in which public memory is being challenged to rethink the colonial meta-narratives: that of discovery, the terra nullius and White Australia.
This presentation traced the emergence of Indigenous cinema in Bangladesh, particularly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), positing it into the framework of the global Indigenous cinema movement: known as the Fourth Cinema. Chakma linked CHT cinema with a wider discussion of representation of Indigenous subjects as ‘others’ in the mainstream media, and discussed critical questions raised against this representation by intellectuals of the Global North and the Global South, highlighting what might be considered sovereignty in relation to CHT’s Indigenous Cinema.
Is there, or should there be, something called ‘Indigenous art’? Or is ethnicity a necessary or sufficient criterion for a practitioner of art to be categorised as an ‘Indigenous artist’? Tripura explains: “I wanted to explore such questions by talking about how I have dealt with them personally, such as when I once found myself resisting being labelled as an ‘Indigenous poet’, though I have also written a lot in support of the contested category of ‘Indigenous peoples’ in Bangladesh.” In this context, this presentation focused on how Tripura came to be interested in, and started writing about the identities and struggles of the self-identified ‘Indigenous peoples’ of Bangladesh: “My personal account was meant to serve as a window to the larger questions that concern academics, artists and activists alike in the contemporary world, e.g. how can art and literature help the Indigenous peoples assert and establish their identities and rights?”
This presentation explores the ethno-aesthetic nature of Taiwanese Indigenous performative arts and the works of Truku performance artist and activist Don Don Houmwm, Rukai sculptor Eleng Luluan, and Bunun curator Biung Ismahasan (Truku, Rukai and Bunun belong to three of Taiwan’s sixteen Indigenous groups). They are examined as a contribution to the discourse of Indigenous and cultural sovereignty. This presentation examined their performative approaches, practices and curatorial strategies relevant to Indigenous artistic practices, particularly those pertinent to cultural loss, recovery and activation. It firstly questioned how Houmwm performs Indigeneity, sorrow and solitude, exposing hybrid identities; then demonstrated how Luluan uses her Indigenous minimalist installations to explore multiple social discrepancies between intrinsic and extrinsic performativity amid material objects and soft sculptures; it finally showcased how Biung Ismahasan himself structures a performative encounter of Taiwanese Indigenous contemporary art by curating an off-site and culturally resonant space.
Hannah Donnelly asked: “How would our art histories be archived in Indigenous Futures?” This presentation explored future tense methodologies used to interview artists about the imagined collective representation of their work.
‘Indigenous’ is not just a term that attempts to corral thousands of local identities but one that announces a new way of being Native. Indigenous is a collective identity in formation that includes, but goes beyond, traditional identities. While it is the form through which local communities are mostly known, championed, and advanced, it can also be co-opted and distorted by dominant, non-Native cultures and discourses. How do Indigenous writers, thinkers, artists, curators, activists and other cultural workers negotiate the complex identity called Indigenous? In this presentation, David Garneau offered suggestions that have arisen from his own experience and recent projects.
Dr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Dr Spivak’s presentation addressed the precarious situation of the Rohingya people in relation to Indigeneity in the world today, with a special emphasis on the languages of the Bengal region. Rohingya are stateless people who are Indigenous to nowhere, and who speak a different language from Bengali; Spivak connected their current situation to the history of the region.