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Dunedin School of Art Tautai Artist in Residence explores legacy of Pacific slave trade

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Otago Polytechnic Dunedin School of Art 2019 Tautai Artist in Residence Jasmine Togo-Brisby this week celebrated the opening of an exhibition that examines the legacy of the Pacific slave trade.

Togo-Brisby’s exhibition, Birds of Passage, is the culmination of a 12-week artist residency at the Dunedin School Art and the result of a partnership with Tautai, a national organisation dedicated to the development and ongoing support of Pacific arts and artists.

A multi-disciplinary artist from Queensland, now living in Wellington, Togo-Brisby is a fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander who has ancestral lineage to the Vanuatu islands of Ambae and Santo.

South Sea Islanders are the Australian-born descendants of Pacific Islanders forcibly taken from their homelands to Australia as a result of slave labour policies employed by the Australian government between 1863 and 1903.

Togo-Brisby’s exhibition examines the historical practice of "blackbirding", a romanticised colloquialism for the Pacific slave trade, and the contemporary legacy that this practice has imparted on those who trace their roots to New Zealand and Australia through the slave-diaspora.

"The impetus of my artistic practice is my people, my culture - and creating works as a conduit to healing."

For Birds of Passage, Togo-Brisby has worked with two key mediums: photography and sculpture.

The walls of the gallery hold a series of enlarged ambrotype portraits (printed on reflective vinyl) and a series of glass ambrotypes. Echoing the conventions of traditional European portraiture, mugshots from Pacific labour contracts and ethnographic imagery, Togo-Brisby inserts herself, her mother and her daughter as subjects.

Although they seem not dissimilar to the proud photographic style adopted by so many 19th-century European colonialists, the artist offers both overt and subversive commentary by the inclusion of a schooner - a vessel often used to transport slaves - as either headdress or ornament.

In the centre of the gallery space stand six black sculptural forms in the shape of sailing ships; comprised of crows’ wings, they are affixed to colonial-like wooden stands and, despite their bleak commentary, are darkly beautiful, too.

Togo-Brisby says the use of crows’ wings is apt: the birds are abundant in North Queensland’s plantations, where many Pacific Islanders were forced to work.

"It’s important for me to create work that my community can see themselves in," she says.

"The experience of our diaspora can be isolating, so I’m trying to create spaces for our stories to exist.

"I’m creating material culture that is ours - that we can easily identify as our own."

-Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Tautai Artist in Residence, will present a public seminar on her work on Thursday 13 June, 12pm-1pm, at the Dunedin School of Art, Riego St, Dunedin.

Exhibition details:

Birds of Passage

10-21 June, Dunedin School Of Art Gallery, Ground Floor, Reigo St, Dunedin

Gallery hours: Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm

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