Setting Sail with Jasmine Togo-Brisby

Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.

In the space of only a few years, Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby has created a rich body of work that challenges the place of ‘tall ships’ in Pacific memory. Togo-Brisby, who moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington in 2015, is the great-granddaughter of at least two of the 62,000 Pacific Islanders ‘recruited’ to Australia between 1863 and 1904, mainly to work on colonial Queensland’s sugar plantations. The Pacific slave trade was smaller than the Atlantic one, which saw some 12.5 million people embark on slave ships (and only 10.7 million disembark). And yet—as scholar-activists American W.E.B. Du Bois and Trinidadian Eric Williams saw in the 1930s—forced labour, what they would call racial capitalism, underpinned all European colonialism. Though their geographical and historical contexts differed, the Atlantic and Pacific trades had similar features, including the ships used to transport people and the development of racist ideologies to justify that trade. In both cases, enslavers have written histories and created archives to erase from the record the extent of the trauma suffered by those enslaved. Indeed, in Australia, it was not until the year 2000 that the federal government recognised ASSIs as a distinct group.

Togo-Brisby’s purpose is twofold: to redress ignorance about the Pacific slave trade and to amplify ASSI stories and voices. One way she does this is by refracting the history through the better-known legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. Antipodeans know about the African American experience from popular culture, such as the television miniseries Roots (1977) and the Academy Award–winning movie 12 Years a Slave (2013). Togo-Brisby takes an image bound up in South Pacific history—the tall ships that brought Captain Cook to the region and set in train the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand and the violent dispossession of their First Nations people—and shows it to be historically inextricable from the tall ships that transported enslaved African people to the New World.

The tall ship is given a new significance for Antipodean viewers. In a striking early work, the collodion photograph Recruits: Unknown (2017), Togo-Brisby’s daughter Eden is superimposed on a nineteenth-century archival photograph of South Sea Islander men and women chained on a ship’s deck. Eden wears replica nineteenth-century clothing, but is in the foreground of the image, separated from the enslaved people. Togo-Brisby conveys both connection and displacement across these five or six generations.

In a 2015 video, eight-year-old Eden appears at a kitchen bench, talking with her mother about a recipe for Christmas boiled pudding, handed down the generations from the ancestor stolen from a Vanuatu beach, also at eight years old. ‘Granny’, who raised Togo-Brisby’s mother, Christina, learned how to cook this British delicacy while serving in the house of her white owners in Sydney. ‘Why did it have to be our people who got stolen? Why couldn’t it be someone else?’, asks Eden. Her distress is reflected in the title, White Pirates. By emphasising the immorality and even criminality of the Pacific trade—the British outlawed slave trading in 1808—Togo-Brisby calls into question longstanding public histories that valorise the tall ship as a mode of exploration, discovery, and heroism.

Several photographic series created in 2018 and 2019 feature Togo-Brisby, her mother Christina, and daughter Eden alone or together, in nineteenth-century garb, sometimes holding a model sailing ship, other times with an intricate ship headdress. The repetition of their figures and of the iconography of the slave trade convey the traumatic legacy of displacement for Australian South Sea Islanders. This community has a history both shared with and set apart from African diasporic and other Pacific diasporic peoples.

The artist uses ‘the colonial ship’ in pointed contrast with Pacific art works that celebrate the waka, the double- hulled canoe, central to island life. Her titles such as Adrift Amidst the Middle Passage and Trapped at Sea speak to the occlusion of Pacific histories, whether due to the dominance of Atlantic legacies or because submerged in more-visible narratives of Pacific seafarers and voyagers, so resonantly expressed by Māori and Pacific writers and artists, and recently in Disney’s Moana (2016).

Alongside the theme of displacement, however, works like Inheritance, South Sea Heiress, Post-Plantation Heir, Tidal Transitions, and The Sea Is History convey a legacy of familial and communal ties. In some photographs, all three generations of women appear, sometimes staring evenly at the camera. Even when they appear separately, they are linked through other images in the series. Family and communal ties are as central to Togo-Brisby’s work as inherited trauma.

These mixed legacies come together beautifully in a recent work, created after Togo-Brisby was startled to learn that the wreck of the slave ship Don Juan lay in Deborah Bay, near Ōtepoti. As the first ship to transport unfree South Sea labourers to the Queensland colony, it was a ‘household name’ in the community in which Togo- Brisby grew up. (As with Du Bois and Williams, stories of forced labour were passed down the generations.) And here was the ship, so close to the Ōtepoti shoreline—where Togo-Brisby was artist in residence at Otago Polytechnic Dunedin School of Art—that she could wade out to it.

In Mother Tongue (2020), Togo-Brisby makes her most forceful statement about the attempt to rupture familial genealogies among Pacific Island labourers in Australia. In this ten-minute film, shot from overhead, the three generations of women encounter the ragged wooden remnants of the Don Juan at low tide. ‘My daughter Eden’, writes Togo-Brisby, ‘launches the rowboat into the water and then returns to the safety of the shore. I row the small boat with my mother as passenger, she holds a small bottle of oil and blesses the bones of the ship as we navigate our way around what remains.’ There is no grand resolution here or even a clear narrative about the women’s relative experience of this short but powerfully rendered journey. Rather, there is Togo-Brisby’s continuing determination to make visible the region’s history of forced labour. When the work was shown in Aotearoa New Zealand, it brought much-needed context to the display of manacles and other instruments of torture that had been salvaged from the Don Juan.

The soundtrack for Mother Tongue is provided by the ubiquitous seagulls. Togo-Brisby has also been working with crow feathers as a medium, one with a rich historical resonance due to the colloquial term ‘blackbirding’ by which the South Sea coerced-labour trade was known. She imports these lush items from the UK, where crows are a pest and thus legal to cull. The crow, Togo-Brisby tells us, is a common symbol of both loss and connection among ASSI. Crow feathers featured, for example, in a recent ceremony to raise headstones for unmarked graves of indentured South Sea Islander labourers found near Mackay, Queensland.

The mixed-media installation Into Something Else (2021) finds thousands of feathers swirling in a circular disc 2.5 metres across. This maelstrom speaks to confusion and loss, but also, through the medium of feathers, to continuity. Crows were a constant companion on the plantations. Their calls were ‘part of the landscape, part of the soundscape, part of the journey of our ancestors’. In the sculptures Absented Presence and Absented Presence II (both 2022), Togo-Brisby replicates the colonial ship in crow feathers. Standing on ornate, lacquered tables, they evoke the ‘ship in a bottle’ display case. But here, broken free, they testify to the resilience of the descendants of those ‘blackbirded’ from their homes. These crow feathers, salvaged from ‘pests’, suggest a new kind of nuisance. In their irruption into the story of British colonialism in Oceania, they become stunning memento mori, signifying not only the loss of those ancestors snatched from their homes, but, more trenchantly, the death of the idea that antipodean colonies were founded on ideals of freedom from slavery.

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Andrew Paul Wood reviews the exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, 2 April–7 August 2022.
Nigel Borrell reviews the exhibition at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, 18 June–18 September 2022.
Caroline McQuarrie reviews the exhibition at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, 9 April–26 June 2022.
Arihia Latham reviews the exhibition at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, 28 May–21 August 2022.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.

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