“We can’t move into the future without knowing the past for ourselves and our families”

Jasmine Togo-Brisby shares with us how through artistic expression 
she uses tools of oppression to empower and heal and the importance of acknowledging the South Sea Islander community and their 
contributions to Australia’s history.

Tell us about yourself – who are you and how you define your practice?

I am a fourth generation Australian South Sea Islander with ancestral lineage to the islands of Ambae and Santo of Vanuatu. South Sea Islanders are the Australian born descendants of Pacific islanders who came to Australia as a result of slave labour policies employed by the Australia government between 1847 and 1903.

I am a multi-disciplinary artist from Queensland, Australia, living and practicing out of Wellington, New Zealand.  

I create from a place of loss, through the process of searching, remembering and forgetting, I seek to reconcile the past while also coming to terms with the culture and inheritance that we Australian South Sea Islanders have today.  l use tools of oppression and slavery to create hybrid forms of empowerment for my community. I see it as a representation of what we have, what we have lost and it’s what we are trying to reconcile.  

It is our heritage, it is our inheritance.

I’m (Emele) so intrigued by how you often insert yourself into your work exploring cultural memory and shared histories through painting, early photographic techniques and processes and sculpture. How is this informed by your cultural understanding of past, present and future?

When I create I want to share with you what it is to be an Australian South Sea Islander, I want to show you what this feels like, to give you a glimpse of us, while also creating space for us to exist in. For me that glimpse is drawn from many places.  

My life and my practice are like a whirlwind of past, present and future, objects, photographs and scenes flying pasts me continuously at a frantic rate, I reach out my hand into the whirlwind and what comes out is the work, a frozen moment of that fusion.

We can’t move into the future without knowing the past for ourselves and our families, but our past also needs to be unveiled to others, that’s part of the healing process, that acceptance and acknowledgement.  

As South Sea Islanders we are constantly trying to negotiate the past and the future in the present, we are looking back to the experience of our ancestors, retracing their steps piecing it together like a puzzle so that the future generations will be firm in their identity and ancestry.

My recent body of work is a photographic series The past is ahead, don’t look back is a play on this ideology of walking backwards into the future yet also considering a common stance within the elders of our community.  In an effort to shelter the future generations from the pain of our past, they were reluctant to discuss the pain of the past…

“We are in Australia now, that’s all we need to know” were my grandmother’s words to me to me in an effort to diffuse my questions as a child.

Within the themes you explore, there is much unresolved trauma. How do you find ways to ensure you do not re-traumatize yourself, but heal within your process?

The impetus of my practice is healing, I believe that healing can come in many forms.  Sometimes directly through the work, at times it is just for me and the work may not ever see a gallery, at times it is purely by being present and holding space for South Sea Islanders, carving out places and spaces for us and having us included within collections, institutions and dialogue.  

Sometimes existing in these spaces and having a place to belong to and be part of even if only temporarily, can be incredibly empowering for the identity of our community.

There is not many places that exist for us as South Sea Islanders, and I started to consider the gallery as space that could own, to use as ours even if only for that moment.  It was when I was creating my installation Bitter Sweet that I really started to the gallery in this way.

Bitter Sweet, 2015 features a crypt-like mass of sugar skulls piled in the centre of a darkened room. The work exists as a memorial to those who did not survive the journey, to those who endured the toil and burden of hard labour, and to those survivors who remain with us today.  Bitter-Sweet exists as a reminder of a past that has yet to be reconciled and put to rest.

In December of 2012, a mass grave was uncovered on an old sugar cane plantation in Bundaberg.  The city council found the remains of 28 adults and one child. It was confirmed that they were bodies of the South Sea Islanders who had worked on that plantation. This news was heart wrenching for our people and a deep sadness came over the South Sea community.

To say that I wanted to respond is extremely detached…what I wanted to do was scream, to cry out for us.

 Bitter Sweet is for us, I wanted to create a memorial of types outside of the plantations, in the space which I have access to, the gallery.  I used sugar, the substance which used us…to create something for us…to heal…to exist…to hold as our own and to make it ours and to do whatever it is that we need to do in that space for us living and for those past and for those in the future.   

Len McGann the son of a Maryborough sailor, in an interview conducted 1978 recalls his mother’s accounts of plantation life for South Sea Islanders… “The whites treated them something shocking – they died of dysentery, poor food and all sorts of things. They died of a broken heart, a lot of them did. Truly they did truly. And when they died, they just buried them in the cane field – they were just fertiliser. That’s what they were- that’s how it was”

…We were just fertiliser…

Can I make my work and escape trauma? No…I don’t think so, not yet, I feel it…I feel all of it, but I see this as a strength…strength in that maybe if I feel it then my daughter won’t have to.

Bitter-sweet by Jasmine Togo-Brisby

Where did the term South Sea Islander originate from? 

When I was growing up I never questioned the term, it was just ours, it was who we are, we were/are South Sea, and we have so much pride in owning it.  Its origins didn’t matter to me then.

I did find it odd when I would come across tea towels and post cards etc with images of ‘exotic islands’ and women in bikinis, and I would be so excited to see our name on something ‘South Sea’ but would think that the imagery was really odd, and where were the images of my people…the sugar cane plantations, the cane knives, it’s actually quite funny to look back on now.

When I first read Epeli Hauʻofa’s ‘The ocean is us’, as a South Sea islander, one chapter in particular stood out.  When discussing the regional terms of the Pacific, he said:

“The earliest general name for the region was the South Seas, which became virtually synonymous with Paradise…‘“South Pacific” has replaced South Seas, which today is confined almost totally to history books and old records’

This is when the penny dropped for me and I realised this is where our name came from…paradise? Something we were far from, a culture formed on slave ships and years of enslavement on the sugarcane fields of Queensland, quite the polar opposite.  It was confronting and rather painful to read, because even though I know Epeli wasn’t directly discussing South Sea Islanders…he was right. To most people outside of our immediate community we are confined to history books and old records, they don’t realise we are a living culture today who descend from the Pacific Slave Trade.

Do you see a divide between the South Sea Islander community and the Pacific community in Australia?

I think there can be, but again I believe that just comes back to knowledge.  Outside of the sugarcane producing towns of North Queensland, most people in Australia don’t know that we exist or its very limited knowledge.

What would you like people to know about South Sea Islanders?

That we exist…that we are a uniquely Australian Pacific Island community…a Pacific Slave Diaspora.

The 25th August is the Australian South Sea Islanders National Recognition Day. In 1994, the Commonwealth Government officially recognised the Australian South Sea Islanders as a distinct cultural group. This was followed by a formal Recognition Statement by the Queensland Government in September 2000, which also acknowledged the past injustices suffered by the Australian South Sea Islanders, and the significant contributions they had made to the economic, cultural and social development of QLD.

While we have been recognised as a distinct cultural group, our story is still not known.  This is reflected in our complex identity as South Sea Islanders, this denial or lack of acknowledgement of our existence and how we came to be creates an ignorance of our presence.  

Being responsible of the education of your people can be quite a heavy weight to carry, the more people who are aware of our community will release that weight off our future generations.

How has moving from Australia to Aotearoa affected your journey as a South Sea Islander artist?

I was really apprehensive to move my daughter and I to NZ, I just couldn’t see how we would have a place here.  We are constantly denied in the land where our culture was born out of, so how could any other land possibly accept us?  

When I was a child I remember the Census forms being delivered to our house, the person delivering them gave instructions on how to fill out the form.  As soon as they left my mother closed the door and her and my Auntie excitedly riffled through the pages of the Census book, my mother pointing at the ‘identity section’ and scrolling down through all the ethnicities she came to a box that said ‘Australian South Sea Islander’…“there we are!!! There we are!!!!” she shouted, and a celebration broke out in our living room, the whole family was jumping and cheering.

 I remember that feeling…that feeling of belonging, of being acknowledged and recognised and how and why we are here. That was 1992, the first time Australian South Sea Islanders were included on Census. I get a similar here in New Zealand, that we strangely belong here or are at least accepted, that we belong to a community here.

People are still trying to deny that slavery existed in Australia, so for them to completely accept and acknowledge who we are is confronting, my existence conflicts with their truths of their identity or their knowledge of ‘their’ country.  So the oppression is thick in Australia, really thick…but I didn’t realise until I was out, I didn’t know any better. That type of oppression and denial of my people doesn’t exist for me here in New Zealand, I have a freedom to be myself and to be part of something bigger, to be part of the Pacific, not solely just part of Australia’s narrative, but to be part of both simultaneously, there is a strength that comes from that.

My art is part of that legacy-building, creating identity for myself, my family and our people…finding and making a place.  The place exists within our Pacific community, it’s a safe space to create it is overwhelmingly supportive.

We will be travelling north to catch Plantation Voices: Conversations with contemporary South Sea Islanders at the QLD Library and are looking forward to see your contribution to the exhibit. What are you exploring in this work?

I was commissioned by QLD State Library to produce 3 new works for their permanent collection and to be exhibited as part of Plantation Voices.  As part of my practice I use 19th century wet plate collodion (ambrotype) photography as a way of interrogating colonial history and complicating the past, as an Australian South Sea Islander I believe we are persistently mediating between past, present and future.  

I’m looking at notions of power and appropriation through the method of re-photographing the photograph – re-appropriating.  Confronting the colonial gaze and enacting complicated scenarios of identity, loss and creation. Through the process of projections, digital photography and wet plate photography I insert myself and her daughter into the archive, lifting the image from the historical to communicate the contemporary.

The archives play a significant role in our community, they inform our identity and post memory…we look to institutional collections in search of our family, using photographs and documentation to retrace vital missing links in our ancestors’ journeys to Australia.  

What energises you as an artist?

My people.  I see the large gap in Australian and Pasifika discourse were we should be present, where our narrative should be present.

As an artist I’m driven by materials, they motivate me, forcing unconventional materials to do something that they aren’t supposed to do is an exciting part of my process.   I use materials from the sugar industry and objects and symbols of wealth. It’s a layered approach, I see it as a way of subverting the power, I can take ownership of these materials as our own Australian South Sea Islander material culture.

For Re:finery I reacquainted myself with customary tapa making practices that have been lost to my community through the slave and indentured labour diaspora. However, rather than constructing a fictional depiction of Australian South Sea Islander material culture, I intentionally used the sugar sacks as materials of my culture.

For ASSI communities, these companies are part of our history, and the tools used in the sugar industry are familiar to us as part of our material culture. The work speaks to a desire to regain and relearn lost knowledge and artistic practices, but is earnestly presented as a true representation of ASSI material culture. For me the sugar-tapa conveys the complexities of the SS identity, confronting our lack of ‘traditional’ island culture and customs.  

Refinery by Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Image taken by Sam Hartnett

How do you balance motherhood and artist life?

It’s a lifestyle which I don’t think is too different to most other mothers who balance their careers and family.  My daughter and I try to make decisions daily which try to benefit both of us, I try not to work while she is awake but that’s often unavoidable (as I write this she is waiting for me so we can go to the trampoline park).  

I’m fortunate to have a career where my daughter can come along with me to almost everything, artist talks, curator meetings, lectures, she is there holding my hand the whole time. A lot of parents aren’t able to do that.

I actually think it’s quite a privileged position to be an artist, not to say that it’s easy, because it’s not, but it is somewhat indulgent career path.  My mother is the oldest child in her family, when my grandmother gave birth to her she handed my mother to her grandmother and my mother was raised by her until she passed when my mum was 12.  

My grandmother didn’t have the choice to stay with her first born child, she had to go back to the plantations and work to provide for our family, to put food on the table.

Any projects coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

I have some really exciting projects coming up but I unfortunately cannot discuss until the media release, but I can mention these ones:

April – M/other, Whakatane

May – Solo exhibition – Page Blackie, Wellington

Aug – Solo public exhibition – Courtney Place Light Box project, Wellington

Oct – Tuia Encounters, New Zealand Maritime Museum

You can follow Jasmine’s work on instagram – @jasmine.togo_brisby and on Facebook at @jasminetogobrisbyart

Plantation Voices is open from February 16 at State Library of Queensland until September 8th.

Emele Ugavule

Emele is a Tokelauan (Te Kaiga Ona Lomatutua, Nukunonu) Fijian (Kaideuba, Navua) woman, born in Aotearoa (Takapuna, New Zealand) and living on Gadigal lands of the Eora Nation (Sydney, Australia). She is currently an Associate Producer of Q Theatre’s New Works + Development at The Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Co-Artistic Director of Black Birds and the Creative Director of Talanoa.