Transits and Returns: Edith Amituanai, Christopher Ando, Natalie Ball, BC Collective with Louisa Afoa, Drew Kahuʻāina Broderick with Nāpali Aluli Souza, Hannah Brontë, Elisa Jane Carmichael, Bracken Hanuse Corlett, Mariquita Davis, Chantal Fraser, Maureen
by Julia Lum
Post-it notes left by gallery-goers blanket a corner of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s third floor, enclosed by a modular office cubicle. One of them reads in a hesitant pencil scrawl: “I want to be the .” It’s part of an interactive component of an installation by Lisa Hilli called Sisterhood Lifeline (2018) that makes visible the subtle acts of protest and resistance by First Nations vahine (“women” in Tinata Tuna, the language of the Gunantuna) who have found themselves hemmed in by stultifying Eurocentric corporate work cultures. A series of voice-recorded testimonies and large-scale photographs of vahine in poses of protection and solidarity exceed the boundaries of the cubicle, which by contrast stands as a homogenous container of bodies, identities and ways of being. But what would it mean to be the in a white cube?
Just as thousands of Pacific Islands have disappeared into the colour-field blue of Western Mercator projection maps, artists who trace their heritage to Indigenous Oceania and the Pacific Islands have remained largely outside the focal range of Canadian art institutions. This geographic myopia is the result of economic agendas that have historically favoured art of the Pacific Rim rather than the Pacific as a vast and diverse region, for one. The Canadian art system’s politesse of “recognition”—a kind of asymmetrical misrecognition borne of settler colonial state structures, as scholar Glen Coulthard argues—has resulted in numerous exhibitions featuring Indigenous artists, but within a liberal exhibitionary model that often tethers Indigeneity to certain fixed and preconceived territorial and culture-area categories. Art institutions—even ones so close to the water’s edge—have often lost sight of the ocean’s reach. And, with it, have neglected to bring into vision the movements, voyages and migrations that have long carried Indigenous peoples and their belongings across waters.
For these reasons, Transits and Returns marks an important intervention. Spanning an entire floor, the exhibition features the work of 21 Indigenous artists from local First Nations and from communities throughout (and beyond) the Great Ocean, which is one of the terms for the Pacific referenced in the exhibition. Transits and Returns is the third in a series of exhibitions co-curated by Tarah Hogue, Sarah Biscarra Dilley, Freja Carmichael, Léuli Eshrāghi and Lana Lopesi (the previous iterations were hosted at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane and Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland, respectively). The voices of participating artists and curators, as well as their families and community elders, guide the viewer via an accompanying audio program. This dialogic, rather than closed, interpretive model manifested by the project’s sizeable curatorial team suggests a number of ongoing and evolving conversations. Emblematic of this approach is a 12-seat dining table installation by members of BC Collective (Cora-Allan Wickliffe and Daniel Twiss) titled Hākari as guests (2019)—_hākari_ meaning “to feast” in the Māori language—which features Niuean hiapo (bark cloth) placemats, Lakota ceramics and a wallpaper by contributing artist Louisa Afoa that serves up images of Samoan foods. Think of this dining room as a stage—in 19th-century Aotearoa (New Zealand), hākari feasting was quite literally staged on gigantic platforms as a type of competitive hospitality—for the kinds of reciprocal trans-Pacific conversations the artists and curators invite us to absorb. Many of these conversations seem to stem from the question: how can global Indigenous art networks highlight contexts of movement and migration while also taking care not to elide ancestral connections to place and the local?
Such a question has prompted the arrangement of works into porous themes like “Roots and Routes,” “(Re)turning” and “Representation.” The implicit themes of material memory and material intelligence equally wend their way through each gallery. The rotunda, which connects two halves of the exhibition, also unites the ancestral Sḵwxwú7mesh and Kānaka Maoli heritage of artist T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss; among the many lines Wyss follows are paths back to Hawai‘i and to Kanaka Ranch (Coal Harbour) where her maternal ancestors made a home. Included in the display there is a ceremonial cape created for the artist’s daughter that carries the name Shkwen̓ Wew̓shkem Nexw7iy̓ay̓ulh (To Explore, To Travel by Canoe) (2018). Its warp of red cedar bark and its weft of twined coconut hull fibre, wool and pandanus leaf gather together plants from across the ocean.
In fact, some of the most powerful moments in the exhibition overlay multiple experiences of place. Carol McGregor’s masterful Skin Country (2018) revitalizes the possum-skin cloak technology used by her Wathaurung ancestors in what is now Victoria, Australia. Bound together with kangaroo sinew, historic possum pelts traced the stories of their owner’s clan and territory in ochre. Made in consultation with local elders, McGregor’s Skin Country maps the collective knowledge of plants native to the Maiwar (Brisbane) River area in Queensland with a visual and mnemonic inventory. The monumental painted cloak faces Inuvialuit artist Maureen Gruben’s quietly devastating We all have to go someday. Do the best you can. Love one another. (2019). With ancestral territory bordering the Arctic Ocean, Gruben—like Wyss—follows intergenerational pathways using material metaphors. Against a canvas of stretched deer hide are tracks of paint, steel grommets and precisely cut holes charting both caribou migrations and the angiogram blood vessel patterns of her late father, the hunter, trapper and transport entrepreneur Eddie Gruben. The work is mounted to cast a shadow on the wall behind it, piercing a doubled pathway with negative trails of light.
Several of the artists chart a course into ancestral futures: Magellan Doesn’t Live Here (2012–17), a film by Mariquita “Micki” Davis, for example, seeks to dislodge narratives of Western maritime “discovery,” following the passage of a replica of an 18th-century-style Chamoru outrigger canoe (called by its makers the Sakman Chamorro) on its journey to Guåhan (Guam) from San Diego. Davis follows the Chamoru diasporic communities in California who crafted and dispatched the vessel to Guåhan as a gesture of return: to language, to ceremony and to ancient systems of star navigation. The canoe makes its trans-Pacific voyage via freighter due to seasonal storms, and Davis’s final scene is a double-exposed footage of a plane’s arrival into Guam’s airport and the Sakman’s welcome into harbourage. This scene parallels the disjuncture of travel itself, which produces in the traveller a longing to align temporal and positional coordinates that are simultaneous yet out of joint. Lingering over this moment of the film is the question carver and historian Mario Borja asks of his Chamoru relations in Guåhan: “I brought this for you and can you accept me?”
Transits and Returns asks us to look beyond certain institutional frameworks that fix Indigenous art, toward the moving points on the ocean’s horizon. The exhibition’s collaborative incubation in Brisbane (notably also the home of the Asia Pacific Triennial) and its subsequent iteration in Vancouver point the way toward multiple hemispheric reorientations.