Lucy Jackson – 15 November, 2017
New Zealand had and has a part in this narrative, through the fleet of ships who transported the Pacific Islanders to Australia, and the Chelsea sugar factory used sugar harvested from these plantations in the 1880s. Sadly, the whips and ropes masters used on these people were also made from New Zealand flax. Perhaps what needs to be realized in 'Colonial Sugar' is that although New Zealand does not have a plantation history, as Australia does, our history is literally entwined with theirs.
Tracey Moffatt and Jasmine Togo-Brisby
Curated by Aaron Lister and Robert Leonard
16 September—19 November 2017
Consciously or not, many of us probably have some idea of the origin of sugar, and perhaps even the history behind how it became one of the most consumed and contested ingredients in the 21st century. For me, my memory comes from my early childhood which was spent in a small town in Queensland, called Nambour. Sugarcane plantations are a familiar landscape, it was Nambour’s primary industry until 2003. When I walked into the gallery showing Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s Bitter Sweet (2013-15), and I inhaled the sweet smell of sugar, I was transported back to an early memory of chewing on sugarcane in Queensland. But while the innocence of childhood is sweet, the reality of the sugarcane industry is bitter. I started to piece together the history of where our sweet treat had come from, and the history that came before us but continues to live on through generations today.
Colonial Sugar at City Gallery Wellington, is comprised of two artworks, Bitter Sweet and Tracey Moffatt’s Plantation (2009). It is a small exhibition. However, Moffatt and Togo-Brisby tackle complicated and intense histories in their work. While dealing with a local history pertinent to Australia and more specifically Queensland, the works can also be tied to larger global concerns of slavery, fear and desire, and the trauma that remains in society years after the situation.
The history behind these artworks is introduced clearly by the curatorial text prepared by Aaron Lister and Robert Leonard. As they explain, during 1863 to 1904 there was a lack of convict labour in Australia and so 62,000 (recorded) Pacific Island people were taken from their homeland and enslaved on sugar plantations in Queensland. Sugar was a growing luxury in the 19th century, and the Queensland government encouraged sugarcane plantations. The descendants of these people are referred to as Australian South Sea Islanders, of which Togo-Brisby is a fourth generation.
Stumbling upon an unmarked mass grave on a sugarcane plantation informed the influence for Togo-Brisby’s Bitter Sweet. The sculpture sits at the back of the gallery and the visitor is propelled towards the golden, sparkly pile of skulls. Made of resin and sugar, the temptation to see more, to be closer, to touch, leaves me to question the fear crossed with desire that this narrative ensues. On the one hand, you are hurtled into asking the back story of where these skulls originated from. On the other hand, the sculpture does what the sugar industry does too well, seducing us with sweets, filling our nostrils with sweet serenity and addicting us to the smell and the imaginary taste. Bitter Sweet tricks us. The sensory experience of both smell and sparkly sight, give an aloof virtuousness to sugar, however Bitter Sweet throws the viewer back into darkness when we sight the skulls in a pile, a universal symbol of danger and death.
Made out of exactly what her ancestors cultivated daily, Togo-Brisby explores how trauma can be oppressed and then manifest itself in future generations. Togo-Brisby’s great-great grandparents were taken from Vanuatu as children to work on a sugarcane plantation. The effectiveness of Bitter Sweet, is in its ability to produce a reaction from all viewers, regardless of whether they have a personal connection to the issue, as the artist has. We may think not only of the descendants of ‘sugar slaves’, but also what became of the people controlling these plantations.
Colonial Sugar begs us to consider the wounds that never heal, the histories we come from, and perhaps our participation in them now. New Zealand had and has a part in this narrative, through the fleet of ships who transported the Pacific Islanders to Australia, and the Chelsea sugar factory used sugar harvested from these plantations in the 1880s. Sadly, the whips and ropes masters used on these people were also made from New Zealand flax (1). Perhaps what needs to be realized in Colonial Sugar is that although New Zealand does not have a plantation history, as Australia does, our history is literally entwined with theirs.
In the adjacent gallery, the visitor is presented with a myriad of Moffatt’s photographs, grouped in pairs. The colour photographs present themselves as chapters in a longer narrative, snapshots of a past time giving us glimpses into the turbulent history of sugarcane plantations. They may have an implied narrative, however Moffatt enables us to put the story together for ourselves. In Plantation, we see a bare-backed man, set against the landscape of the sugarcane crops, and at odds with a house of colonial architecture. This anonymous man stares upon the plantation and the Queenslander style house and we wonder who he is. What is his identity? Like the history of Bitter Sweet speaks to, there are anonymous skulls, however what happened to the survivors? How did they identify? As Togo-Brisby speaks to, trauma transfers. Is this man a slave, or is he a descendant staring upon a place of previous trauma? Perhaps this is up to the viewer to determine.
Moffatt plays with ideas of want versus fear and in response we may question our position in this narrative we are unfolding in our minds. It has been stated that this man is “a figure of a fear or desire” (2). Surely the same can be said of sugar in general, the fears of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses jumping to mind when we consider how much sugar we consume daily. But for most, the desire and addiction to sugar’s sparkly allure keeps us coming back for more.
Using cinematic tropes and drawing on the history of photography with diptychs replicating a stereoscope camera, Moffatt surrounds this difficult period of Australian history with the glamour of cinema and photography. Does this glamourize something far from glamorous, or does it give us a point of recognition to work with? As Moffatt gives us a history, she also deconstructs this history by using artifice in her work. Plantation, as the curators point out, could be Queensland, but also could be anywhere in the world where people were enslaved in plantations. Through Colonial Sugar, we consider both Queensland’s unique history with sugarcane plantations, but also the global history of slavery and use of non-European for slave labour.
Colonial Sugar acts as a departure point for further enquiry on part of the viewer. The exhibition pierces my memory, and can make us squirm with unease. It is not easily forgettable, and a powerful example of a strong history that has been disseminated through contemporary art. In fact, it could be the basis for a much larger exhibition and associated discourse. These artists are giving voice to the voiceless, and allowing us to never forget the often forgotten.
Colonial Sugar is a teaching tool, makes you feel something, and makes you more aware. It asks us to consider if there really is anything good about the sugar industry. After all, its seduction is underlined by the story of sufferance. If we can be more conscious of global slavery and the history of trauma and how it manifests today, perhaps we will be more mindful of where our material luxuries come from, and our actions in reinforcing or rebutting their origin and production. To conclude, there is also the realisation that no matter our position, the history that came before us that we try to forget, manifests itself elsewhere. Like energy, it never goes away, instead it is transferred. How this history is transferred, into oppression, fear or ignorance, is what’s really interesting.
(1) Scott Hamilton, EyeContact http://eyecontactsite.com/2016/10/the-delicious-smell-of-death
(2) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Tracey Moffatt, Plantation, About https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/60.2010.6.a-b/
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