Stingray indents at low tide, Minjerribah
Blue Assembly ~ Situating Knowing in the Majority World
PART I: MOANA IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
Léuli Eshrāghi: I think it is most apt for us to begin with our relationships to aqueous spaces and to a multitude of aesthetic and intellectual practices that manifest fluidity and interdependence. I was born on the sugarcane plantation-ridden coastlines of Yuwi Country in so-called Queensland, and grew up spending time in rivers, creeks, the mighty Great Ocean, across First Nations territories along the coast, and also in the Sāmoan archipelago where my forebears have lived and thrived for thousands of years. My clans (and villages, customary districts, islands) are Sā Seumanutafa (Āpia, Tuamāsaga, ʻUpolu), Sā Piliaʻe Faʻaseʻe Leliliʻo (Leulumoega, Aʻana, ʻUpolu), Sā Tautua (Salelologa, Faʻasaleleaga, Savaiʻi), and Sā Manō (Siʻumu, Tuamāsaga, ʻUpolu).
Cognisant of the sheer complexity and diversity of ways of relating, let us cheekily reference a recent classic of queer femme cinema. Let us also productively question the Eurocentrism of many current oceanic discursive and curatorial projects. Many which reference Indigenous and other racialized peoples whose oceanic and fluvial territories already bear the brunt of climate catastrophe, but do not centre these peoples and our responsibilities to more-than-human kin. Moana is much more than a Disneyfication of Indigenous deities and territories in the Great Ocean. Moana is the deep hues and undulating continuity of our primary Ancestor.
Perhaps this is how, in emulation of the settler-colonial emphasis on freshwater spaces that intersect with saltwater spaces, I’ve mainly lived on estuaries and along bayside shores as an adult: Meanjin/Kurilpa/Brisbane, Naarm/Birrarungga/Melbourne, Tiohtià:ke/Mooniyang/Montreal, Garramilla/Darwin, nipaluna/Hobart, and Paris. I know that using Indigenous place names next to the names of colonial settlements is a game of false equivalences, particularly as most Indigenous toponyms are genealogically related to specific lineages and locales, but here I hope they signal the diversity that is flattened with Eurocentric naming conventions and taxonomies.
Peta Rake: I write alongside you from the unceded and sovereign lands of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples, the Traditional Owners of these lands; by the body of water, called Maiwar, the brown snake; in Meanjin/Kurilpa, now known as Brisbane, where as a settler, I was born.
I would also like to acknowledge the lands to which we are currently adjacent: Quandamooka Country to the east, and the islands of Mulgumpin and Minjerribah; Yugambeh Country to the south, and Wakka Wakka, Kubi Kubi, Jinabara lands to the north and west. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Bundjalung Country, the Arakwal People, where my family lives and where I learnt to swim in the oceans and tea tree lakes of Cavanbah/Byron Bay. I still swim there often, but the headlands and marine topology shift and move with the sandbanks and tides as humans encroach, clear and creep closer into the intertidal zone—a hallmark of settler-colonial impact. Here, neck deep, I look out from the most easterly point of what we now call Australia, to the Great Ocean.
I like you have always lived adjacent to water; in Huichin and Yelamu, also known as Oakland and San Francisco, on the unceded territories of the Chochenyo and Ramaytush Ohlone peoples, who have lived on their ancestral lands since time immemorial. Then, I lived in Banff along the glacial melt river, the Makhabn/Bow. All our waters and oceans are connected.
Peta & Léuli: Standing along the Maiwar river near its prized bend named Meanjin/Brisbane, we recognise the indelible Turrbal and Jagera political, cultural, intellectual, performed and aesthetic practices, and sovereign governance of this special river territory that flows into many waters before combining with the wider oceans. The continuing impacts of past and current settler colonial violences cannot be silenced or erased, but we sincerely wish that they be healed.
Peta: We write this after the devastating flooding through South East Queensland and Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales, where many friends and families have been uprooted by this utterly immediate climate emergency. These events irrevocably altered our coastlines and riverbanks, with debris washing as far north as K'gari/Fraser Island.
Before colonisation floods were natural riparian forces that germinated, repaired and cultivated environments. However these floods and weather patterns—referred to as a "river in the sky"—were metastasized by the large-scale clearing of forest spaces, the labyrinthine damming of catchment systems and the fossil-fueled death drive of our successive governments and multinational corporations. While the flooding occurred inland, coastal river mouths are now the flash point of two bodies of water meeting; brackish saltwater collides with muddy effluent. I am reminded that all our waters are connected, and while the restorative movement of the ocean dilutes this event, the sediment remains, affecting the health of shorelines and coastal communities in the wider Great Ocean.
PART II: ANCIENT SEAFLOORS,
Léuli: I am particularly moved by your revelation about the sublime temporality of creativity and connection at the foot of Iniskim, Sleeping Buffalo Mountain, in the town of so-called Banff. Two of the most transformative times of my life have been during global Indigenous visual and media arts and global Indigenous art criticism residencies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Which is located on sacred territory shared for millenia by the Stoney Nakoda, Tsuut’ina, Blackfoot, Secwépemc, Ktunaxa First Nations and Métis Nation, prior to the Banff National Park being imposed on these landscapes by the settler nation of Canada.
This deep-time consciousness permeates your curatorial writing, exhibition-making, and focus on matriarchal artists’ practices. I reflect equally on the expansive discussions we had together as we travelled across another ancient seafloor, now raised elevation region, that of so-called Central Australia. I was nearing the end of a year living and working from the storied settler militarized town of Alice Springs, itself an imposition on the continuing Indigenous storied places still named Tyuretye, Mparntwe, Antulye and Irlpme. Our travels enabled me to recognise the sacred beauty and power of the territories we were travelling through, always centring our role as people of solidarity, with First Nations' struggles for land back, lifeways, and the ending of genocide. In this spirit, I’d like to share the poetic text of a textile artwork, Expanses (2021), which I made just before our sojourn. I seek to speak humbly to two sites in particular, Rungutjirpa and Kwartatuma, both to the east of so-called Alice Springs.
Peta: As a migrant-settler on Treaty Seven Territory for almost a decade—ancestral lands of the Stoney Nakoda, Tsuut'ina, and Blackfoot—I spent most of my time between so-called Banff and Moh'kins'tsis/Calgary. The temporary and enduring communities made possible at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity rendered me lucky enough to work and learn from established thinkers and peers whom I admire and am indebted to in my practice: Marjorie Beaucage, Lisa Myers, Nicole Kelly Westman, Caroline Monnet, Katarina Veljovic, Candice Hopkins, Tiziana La Melia, Safia Siad, and Jacqueline Bell among others. I retain many of these connections across oceans. I count your practice, Léuli—grounded in constant generosity and global kinship—as one I am also beholden to and feel affinity with.
The mention of our journeys across ancient seafloors, at both ends of the earth, trigger two simultaneous memories of place and deep time for me, and two indelible poems. At an elevation of 2,286 metres, the 508-million-year-old Burgess Shale contains visible remnants of the ancient sea in the form of sea shells and other fossilised life. And in the stratum of the 144-million-year-old inland sea, under what is presently called the Central Desert: we laid eyes on wave patterns in rock, compacted layers of former ocean floors at Watarrka, and melaleuca trees being grafted and healed with hessian and herbal poultices by Luritja rangers.
In these moments, bodies stand as witness on Country—this uniquely First Nations "Australian" conception of territory as place of belonging and responsibility—as gnomons of time, memory and futurity. I, we, like others have been altered by this phenomenon, and I am reminded of an excerpt from "Full Moon Hawk Application" by CAConrad, the gender non-conforming poet and activist which was written on residency around the same time I first met you there at Banff;
On one of my first nights, a young man drove me to the top of the mountains above the art colony to show me the hot springs and lake. There were fish in the lake. There were fish swimming above Banff Art Centre, swimming above my head each night, and this became part of my writing ritual. I would go to sleep with a piece of celestite crystal, meditating on the swimming above me, the swimming above me. The notes for the poems were often informed by nightmares. Every night sleeping was difficult, the magnetic iron dumping toxins into my blood. A few nights it seemed I didn’t sleep at all, but was instead dreaming about not sleeping. Once I dreamed I had a vagina for a nose and this dream was fantastic! ¹
I also am reminded of a section of the poem "Learning Bundjalung on Tharawal" by Bundjalung poet Evelyn Araluen, from the 2022 Stella Prize-winning collection DROPBEAR (2021), which you shared with me while we drove through the desert:
We are relearning this place through poetry:
I open my book and say wayan,
here is a word which means road, but also root
and in it I am rooted, earthed,
singing between two lands
I learn that balun is both river and milky way,
and that he is baray-gir, the youngest child
and the top of the tree
where the gahr will come and rest —
to call its own name
across the canopy,
long after his word for it
Léuli: These poets render complexities in this unending form of orature through soundwaves, as on paper or screen. This complex intersectional understanding of humanity’s varied places and histories that we have both embraced for so long, and in which we are yet leaning deeper into learning, is in stark opposition to the anthropocentric literature about, but not responsible to, the Great Ocean.
By this I mean the falsified texts of Margaret Mead (and all before and after her) written during her visit to Tāʻū, in the Manuʻa group in the east of the Sāmoan archipelago, while she was a very naive graduate student. I don’t believe that the extraction of fanciful conclusions on Indigenous pubescence and sexuality that Mead took from the tamaʻitaʻi ma teine Sāmoa [Sāmoan girls and women] has ever been reciprocated in material and intellectual opportunities for our people in the ivory towers currently occupied by anthropology and museology. I hold this understanding only from precisely reading beyond Euro-America, from delving into Lana Lopesi’s significant 2021 essay collection Bloody Woman: a welcome salve and affirmation of Indigenous femininity that deserves to be much more known than the fabulations of Mead, Malinowski, and Guiart.
I am surprised when I enter the National Gallery of Australia to see Great Ocean artists’ works framed by European fantasies projected onto our Ancestors, such as through the infamously simplistic Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique (1805) by Joseph Dufour and Jean-Gabriel Charvet, itself based on impressions from newspaper accounts rather than anyone who actually traveled to our region. Of course the saturation of sexual abuser colonist Paul Gauguin’s œuvre in place of genuine Māʻohi art practices continues to inform, almost exclusively, the romanticized notions of oceanic placehood, visuality, and knowledges that Euro-American museums and universities lazily perpetuate. Lauded literary works are equally based in racist interpretation such as the work by Robert Louis Stevenson, an abuser colonist on my own clan lands in central Sāmoa, and James A. Michener, a military colonist in northern Vanuatu, among too many others.
There is scant mention in their works, or in their umpteenth reprise in theatres or art museums, of the transoceanic slave trade, nuclear testing regimes, and persisting militourist occupations. Myriad atrocities remain unaddressed in the lazy white supremacist gloss of complex oceanic continental worlds, which still defy essentialist categorization or cloisonnement. These outwardly cis-heteropatriarchal Western authors, as the sole "translated" voices in European languages speak over and about Great Oceans peoples and places, reiterating the oft-deployed misnomer that they were universally loved in their time, despite being harbingers of mass death, evangelization, capitalism, plantations, gender binarism, and sociopolitical westernization. But why am I still shocked to find James Cook, Paul Gauguin, and Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s travel accounts in the Oceanian literature section of an international bookstore in Paris?
Productively for us, it is equally important to consider the responsibility to histories and the right to speak of specific Indigenous and racialized peoples, as opposed to the continuing postmodern impulse to appropriate and incorporate any and all narratives—as if to say that any impression of our storied places and histories will suffice. I want to cite Vehia Wheeler and Mareikura Whakataka-Brightwell’s searing writing on the epistemic and economic violences of pan-Pacific artistry, written from the French oceanic colony of French Polynesia:
As Tahitian people who trace our genealogy to the islands and people directly related to Gauguin’s work, we have a lot to say that is pertinent as a response to Gauguin’s works, and also adds so much richness to the larger conversation of Gauguin and his impact. What are the ways that we in Tahiti (a French colony) are still celebrating Gauguin? What does tourism look like in Tahiti? What are the ways that Europeans celebrate and expect stereotypes of our population as initiated by Gauguin? Tahitian people know the answers to these questions as first-hand experiences that other people in the Pacific cannot know. While we are all affected by the dusky-maiden images, the South Sea islander images, the Gauguin stereotypes, Tahitians are specifically and directly affected by Gauguin, and his impact continues today, almost 130 years later.³
In a sense, you and I never leave the shore, and on this planet that means not really ever leaving the embrace or possibility of aqueous expanse, as it is not as much earth as it is rich in saltwater and freshwater.
Peta: I take heed of your comment to upend the lazy reliance on anthropocentric texts and poets in the Western literary canon, where accounts of riverine and oceanic spaces are highly saturated as sites of romantic and militaristic conquest, yet blaringly omit perspectives and authorship of Indigenous and racialized peoples. This has led to a surface-based approach to watery writing that does not, and cannot, fathom or plunge the depths of the intricacy and interconnectedness of these spaces for both human and non-human kin. Western literature has often done a great disservice to the description of ocean spaces, often espousing and defining them as empty, dark, impenetrable, terrifying, and there to be crossed and pillaged in the name of empire.
I particularly implore settler readers and writers to seek out texts and passages from Indigenous and racialized perspectives, and from gender-nonconforming writers that shed misconceptions of sites that the Western humanities may understand as already fixed, across the smaller and larger spaces we may term climates. Among those I would like to share are Anita Heiss's indelible novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray [River of Dreams] about the Murrumbidgee, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside my Mother, Ellen van Neervan’s Heat and Light, and writings by Kimberley Moulton, Clothilde Bullen, Freja Carmichael, Neika Lehman, and Hannah Donnelly, among many others.
PART III: MANGROVE DAUGHTERS AND SUPRATIDAL FUTURITY
Peta & Léuli: In a sense, our work currently and prior to now is anchored in the possibilities of rematriation, to use the eponymous collective’s term, itself denied by dominant Western software. We understand rematriation as a restoration of matriarchal knowledges that leads us to futures not defined by the terms of pessimistic Western death drive practices and failed theories. Through the multi-year initiative Blue Assembly we are joined by many incredible actors in a new theater of creativity, hope-mongering, and restoration of what we might call interdisciplinarity, but would just be called ways of knowing, being, and relating in many Indigenous worlds.
Peta: We were recently knee-deep in the relational space of the inter- and supra-tidal zone on Minjerribah/North Stradbroke Island, Quandamooka Country. We spent several hours between saltwater and freshwater, between the mangroves and the melaleucas with blue carbon scientist Catherine Lovelock, PhD student Vicki Bennion, Ngugi weaver and artist Sonja Carmichael, and local Glynn Carmichael.
Here, many systems and worlds intersect. We waded through the tea-tree-inflected tannin waters that flow past the salt marshes, and sank into the mud of the mangrove forest, dotted with old growth trees that were seeded well before colonization in the nineteenth century. Here, the mangroves grow daughter limbs that drop propagules, in turn distributed by the bay tides and ocean currents. We traversed vast mudflats with small saltwater pools, made by the indentation of stingrays feeding, which serve as support for toadfish survival between the tides, revealing bright blue soldier crabs in their thousands. The visual multiplicity is at once achingly beautiful, deliberate and precarious.
The mass clearing of these spaces, to make way for voracious development, an all-consuming tropical malady in these parts, has left these sites vulnerable. This is deftly highlighted by the ancient sand island aquifer of Minjerribah, providing megalitres of water daily to the mainland water grids of Redland Bay Council, which operates unbeknownst to most through the gateway that is the contested site of Toondah Harbour. The embrace and nurturing of blue carbon spaces, that extend to include seagrass forests, serves multiple purposes: the sequestering of carbon in coastal areas, storm mitigation, and the slowing of sea level rise, among many. These constitute a networked infrastructure for submerged futures.
We moved through these spaces, slowly, ankle-deep in huey mangrove mud. The tide began to rise, returning this zone to function as a nursery; small lemon sharks brushed past, and juvenile stingrays zoomed on the sand floor below the bobbing mangrove seedlings headed oceanward, off to propagate futures "elsewhere".
Léuli: The first time I learnt the Latin jurisprudence term mare nullius—the oceanic cousin to terra nullius doctrine used to wage genocide against Indigenous peoples across the continents beyond Europe with writing systems not recognised by then-pious Europeans in service of egos, thrones, and bulging empires—was another shock. The manifest destiny of ever-hungry empires extended, of course (and was activated especially), through these very same aqueous territories. Like our thousands upon thousands of Ancestral Belongings robbed from home archipelagos, ceremonies, and burial sites, our many oceanic land and water bases as peoples of this Great Ocean are usually "spoken for" and "in the custody" of would-be protector empires.
With Blue Assembly and The Clam's Kiss | Soga a le faisua Peta and I wish to shift the rules of engagement entirely to return attention, lastingly, to our very real responsibilities to kin beings and places. This planet’s oceans are not an intellectual curiosity alone; they are the Majority World, so feared and sliced by Enlightenment ideals and practices. The Majority can speak and move in plural ways and times, right now, right then, right here.
¹ CAConrad, “Full Moon Hawk Application”, Soma(tic) Poetry Rituals; online at: somaticpoetryexercises.blogspot.com/2013/10/91-full-moon-hawk-application.html.
² Evelyn Araluen, Dropbear (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2021).
³ Vehia Wheeler and Mareikura Whakataka-Brightwell, “Ha‘avarevare: Fiu with Gauguin’s Legacy and Those who Profit From It,” The Pantograph Punch (June 2021); online at: pantograph-punch.com/posts/gaugins-legacy
©2022 Peta Rake and Léuli Eshrāghi. Text and images may not be used without permission of UQ Art Museum or the authors. All images Minjerribah, 2022, Peta Rake. A version of this text also appears in the forthcoming L'Internationale Online and K-Verlag publication CLIMATE.
Peta Rake (she/her: b. 1987, Meanjin/Brisbane, Australia) is a curator, cook and community interlocutor presently based in Meanjin/Brisbane. Her practice as a curator is currently attentive to transdisciplinary conversations focussed on blue research, working closely with artists and scientists to understand the psycho-social, political and gendered dimensions of coastal wetlands, sea country, intertidal zones, aquaculture and the regeneration and articulation of these sites. Her work has always involved a large network of long-term collaborators, thinkers and friends, with a keen interest in distributed curatorial work towards activism. Presently, she is the Senior Curator at University of Queensland Art Museum (Meanjin/Brisbane).
Dr. Léuli Eshrāghi (they/them: b. 1986, Yuwi Country, Australia) is a Sāmoan/Persian/Cantonese artist, writer, curator and researcher. They intervene in display territories to center global Indigenous and Asian diasporic visuality, sensual and spoken languages, and ceremonial-political practices. Eshrāghi is Curator of the 9th TarraWarra Biennial of Australian Art (forthcoming 2023), Curatorial Researcher in Residence (Blue Assembly) at the University of Queensland Art Museum, and Scientific Advisor (Reclaim the Earth) at the Palais de Tokyo. Eshrāghi was editor with Camille Larivée of the landmark Indigenous art history publication D’horizons et d’estuaires : entre mémoires et créations autochtones (Éditions Somme toute, Montréal, 2020).
Together they are collaborating on Blue Assembly and The Clam’s Kiss / Sogi a le faisua at University of Queensland Art Museum.