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Review: 'Pearls and Blackbirds', by Dr. Kate McMillan

This article appeared in ARTISTS PROFILE magazine:

Australian artist Kelsey Ashe’s new film work is dark and provocative. Surreal. Intense. It stirs up hidden histories of post-colonial trauma endured by female indigenous pearl divers by drawing you into a dream world of deepest pain and otherworldly beauty. Awarded a prize and curated into the remake of the illustrious all-women surrealist exhibition of 1943 'Exhibition of 31 Women’ in the US for 2020, the film probes dark cultural territories yet caresses you with a velvet glove.

I grew up overlooking the Indian Ocean, listening to its rhythms and learning its moods. Its shores were the tideland of colonisation, and the sea itself, considered the playground of the British Empire – where boys became men, forging the highways of trade and exploitation. Settler Australians inherited this perspective, understanding the ocean as a resource, albeit a dangerous one. In the twenty-first century, for refugees crossing it, pursuing the falsehood of freedom, it becomes a beacon of hope as well as a cemetery for their dreams, and oftentimes their lives. It is not surprising that the giant continental prison island of colonial times, is re-enacted in the present-day prison islands that surround our coast. The unattended wounds of our past seep into the mechanisms of contemporary life.

Australia is a seething undercurrent of forgotten and overlooked violent histories, constituting what I call the ‘colonial sublime’ - a sort of terror, awash with the profound and overwhelming beauty of the landscape. Everywhere, all around us, is the detritus of dispossession and the subsequent refusal to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of slavery and genocide. Our oceans, surrounding islands, as well as the land itself, function as memory-triggers to the atrocities we are desperate to bury. Artists are the litmus test for this underbelly – working in defiance of grand narratives, and in many cases, constituting the sole betrayers of sparkling and heroic grand narratives.

The task of memory retrieval is enormous. Researchers at the University of Newcastle are working on the Frontier Massacres project and have begun the enormous task of mapping the many hundreds of massacres across Australia between 1776 and 1928. These stories are concealed deep in local histories, barely recorded in police and judicial archives and almost never remembered by anyone other than the ancestors of those killed. Language is used to mask the extent and the significance of cruel and despotic colonial practices. Instead of ‘slavery’, we use the term ‘blackbirding’ to describe the forced removal and enslaved labour practices used throughout Australia and the Torres Strait. This poetic rewriting, is a form of negation and minimisation and what Nancy Tuana and Shannon Sullivan calls an ‘epistemology of ignorance’ – the wilfully imposed mechanism of privilege that cements the untarnished founding colonial story of Australia - constituting an ongoing denial of the impact of systemic violence and dispossession.[1] Aboriginal and islander people were not ‘blackbirded’ – they were kidnapped and forced to work, just as African slaves were, oftentimes never connecting with their families or traditional land again. This practice endured across Australia well into the 20th century.

Many artists negate this forgetting, and in the face of systemic racism and the ongoing aftermath of colonialism, such as highly disproportionate incarceration rates, low educational and health attainment, I argue that all people must attend to the project of unforgetting. Yet, given the deeply troubling history of appropriation within the history of art, it has been with care and trepidation that non-Indigenous artists have begun to address these post-invasion histories in their work. Quite rightly, they refuse to be complicit in the silencing of a broader, more inclusive account of what has taken place, and how and why it has been minimised. This is surely central to reconciliation, sovereignty and justice.

The work of Kelsey Ashe is situated precisely in this place. Like the artists explored in my recent publication ‘Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes’, Giambazi ‘listens with her feet’.[2] In her work Pearls and Blackbirds she interrogates the ways in which Aboriginal and Japanese women were co-opted into extractive colonial industries such as pearling. Ashe reminds us that in Australia’s not so distant history, it was many types of non-white bodies that were marked through hierarchies of value. Co-opted as labour to undertake the dangerous work of harvesting oysters from the bottom of the ocean, we come to understand the silent but knowing shared trauma and sorrow of women indentured into the business practices of ruthless men. The giant ropes form an umbilical cord between two worlds rendering the ocean a giant womb – they provide sustenance for local communities, but ultimately remain invisible, like the labour of women around the world.

Ashe troubles the way oceans and landscapes were seen simply as resources, rather than places of deep and enduring memory and culture. In this context, the oceanscapes in ‘Pearls and Blackbirds’ are sites of both opportunity and danger; death and beauty. The ocean becomes personified, simultaneously concealing and revealing difficult narratives; offering treasure but threatening death. Like the ocean, the work lures us in with its beauty, but ultimately, we are troubled by what it reveals – it is emblematic of the colonial sublime. These are indeed troubled waters.

As such, Ashe’s work intersects across many shared histories. This is of course the power of the artist, to not be bound by disciplines and research fields, but to see the wonderful connectedness of all things – of injustice, of struggle, of the voices that are overlooked. It is through this intersection that truths are revealed, but most importantly, it enables these stories to be embodied with empathy. Artists such as Ashe know it will take much more than text to rewrite our past – that images stick to us; after which we can no longer forget.

Dr Kate McMillan

King’s College, London

October 2019

[1] Sullivan, S & Tuana, N (2007) Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany, NY: Suny Press

[2] McMillan, K (2019) Contemporary Art & Unforgetting in Colonial landscapes: Empire of Islands. London/NY: Palgrave Macmillan

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