Issue 33: Power
Indigenous female bodies have long been fetishised. Colonisers constructed the sexualised, savage indigenous woman—specifically referred to as ‘Black velvet’ in Australia. In the 1930s, Anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry described Aboriginal women as, ‘no more than domesticated cows’. The combination of these types of representations and false assertions of women as being sexually promiscuous devalued Indigenous women, justifying a sense of domination and protection over indigenous communities. Or, in plain language, an approved era of rape, abuse and slavery. This intergenerational abuse began in the late 1800s when farmers routinely abused their employees and missionaries abused the children they were meant to protect.
This constructed identity of the passive, sexual indigenous woman still floods popular culture normalising objectifying stereotypes. An Aboriginal woman is six times more likely to be sexually abused and an Aboriginal child seven times more likely than a non-Aboriginal woman or child.
There is an inherent trauma in seeing yourself and your culture through colonised perceptions, made worse by a lack of control. It is abhorrent that young indigenous women are forced to see themselves repeatedly as sexual victims. This can lead to wider issues with confidence and negative body image. Internalised issues around self-perception were first explored by African-American psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark. Their 1939 and 1940 doll experiments[i] involved asking black and white children to choose between a doll with brown skin and black hair or one with white skin and blonde hair. The study revealed a clear preference for the white doll among all children, exposing internalised racism and self-hatred, a thesis which has been reinforced by similar studies conducted since then, as seen in the 2005 short film A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis.
It is clear that this narrow lens of representation is no longer sufficient. However, rather than waiting for the slow burn of popular culture and mass media to catch up with real indigenous representation, we see a growing trend in indigenous communities who are re-orienting this derogatory image culture, and creating imagery of their own. If history, in the words of Bell Hooks, has ‘rendered Black women invisible’, the newly accessible digital technologies and the internet are encouraging an undeniable reclamation of power.
One artist that confronts stereotypes around indigenous representation head on is Samoan, Sydney-based artist Angela Tiatia. In the single-channel moving image work, Reflexivity (2013), the artist stands motionless exposing her malu[ii] in Circular Quay, downtown Sydney, holding her gaze with the camera. Tiatia as an indigenous woman living in diaspora, acknowledges the rightful owners of the land she performs on in her artist statement as “home of the Cadigal people, traditional owners of inner-city Sydney”. Pedestrians and tourists pass by, walking in and out of the frame. Some people stop and look even taking photos, while others avoid making eye contact, one person even saying, “Go back home you dirty cunt!”
It appears as though Tiatia is the subject, presenting herself—the Indigenous woman, the exotic other—as an object. However, with multiple levels of gaze at play—the passers-by, the art audience and the artist herself—Tiatia subverts who is actually being observed, using herself as a tool to expose gender and racial tensions, highlighted by the stares and the photo taking. Placing herself in Circular Quay or the ‘Gateway to Sydney’[iii] she is confronting what it means to in Australia or to be Australian, reinserting herself and her autonomy, regaining control of the gaze.
In a more recent single-channel moving image work Woman’s Movement (2016), Tiatia hides her identity while attempting to perform dance moves and gestures borrowed from female singers in current music videos. During the 5-minute performance, the artist fails in her attempts to replicate the moves to the point of exhaustion. Removed from the glossy sense of perfection we see in high-production videos, we are reminded of the realities and unrealistic standards that go into constructing such an image.
In both of Tiatia’s works it could be argued that she is simply mimicking normative depictions of the indigenous women as sexual being, known as the dusky maiden in the Pacific. However, it is in this mimicry that we see a sense of power over her body and how she chooses to present that to audiences. Her sexuality isn’t determined by a white gaze, but instead determined by her on her own terms.
The use of the music video as a form is reminiscent of Still I Rise, (2016) by Aboriginal, Queensland based artist Hannah Brontë. The single-channel moving image work uses rap and the music video format to imagine an all-female, indigenous government of Australia. All the women are dressed in matching outfits made of bright multi-coloured fabric, the design of which is comprised of scientific images of oestrogen and scans of the artist’s ovaries combined with camouflage. Turning away from normative depictions, Brontë is constructing a narrative of indigenous women, presenting them as smart, powerful and strong and re-centring their position within society. Brontë uses rap, identity construction and intersectional feminism as a tool of empowerment.
As a millennial, the most influential forms of representation that I accessed were the music videos that circulated through TV programs such as Top of the Pops, these were the images I grew up to. For young adults growing up in the time of television, the power of the music video was second to none. Today, however the television takes a back seat to the smartphone and to social media. We no longer have to wait for a music video to come out for us to see how our favourite celebrities are choosing the represent themselves; we can simply open their Snapchat or Instagram accounts.
“The digital” as a universal means of communication is an equalising space that is able to cross race, class, gender and distance. We are amidst the selfie generation, where cameras are at arm’s reach with smartphones, laptops and webcams. These images can also be shared instantly, giving others immediate access. For isolated and disparate Indigenous and diaspora communities, the internet and social media creates alternate forms of community, providing strength in numbers. Reunification through the internet is allowing for a redefinition of identity with digital mass.
The internet has become a tool to form a voice and an image. Across social media platforms there is a visibly noticeable digital construction of female identity in the forms of gifs, memes and other shareable still and moving image formats with indigenous women, artists and cultural producers at the helm. This self-caricaturing replaces normative stereotypes with multiple complex representations based on both lived experiences and reality. Most importantly, these images shift the power to indigenous women themselves. While prominent examples of this type of active self-representation are seen through meme and gif culture in the African-American community, artists on this side of the moana[iv], such as Janet Lilo and Faith Wilson are also exploring how others (and themselves) construct identities on the internet.
Ngāpuhi, Samoan and Niuean artist Janet Lilo’s installation Top16 was first exhibited in 2007. At the time the most common social media platform was Bebo, which launched in 2005 and eventually shut down in 2013 due to its failure to compete with rival sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Lilo borrows the title from one of the most popular features of Bebo, the ‘top 16’, a grid on your profile page where you could select and order your 16 favourite friends. In Top 16 Lilo appropriates Bebo profile images displaying them within the gallery space. As one of the early artists to look at social media and its wider socio-political context, Lilo is examining public and private space. She asks questions around what it means to present yourself on the internet and what that looks like.
In a more recent work, Untitled (2016), Lilo turns her attention to current social media trends, in particular the smartphone selfie. Lilo presents a collection of 100 ‘dog filter’ Snapchat selfies. Snapchat is an instant messaging app, where messages, images and videos are only available for a limited time before becoming inaccessible. Apps such as Snapchat encourage an increased production of images. While all social media platforms are built for communication, each platform is unique, these differences determine how users communicate and therefore present themselves online, in this instance self-representation is temporary. This temporary form of image making gives indigenous women a power to present themselves in a multitude of different ways daily without having to worry about an accumulative archive.
One of the more provocative explorations of the internet, social media and identity construction was a recent project by Samoan artist Faith Wilson. The project consisted of three works, Open Letter to Simon Denny (2016) that can be accessed online here; a moving image work, all that was left was hope (2016), and this Instagram account. The first art work in the project audiences were exposed too was the Instagram account which went live, before the exhibition New Perspectives opened at Artspace, Auckland. Her followers, were slowly fed hints of Wilson’s obsession with the Berlin based, New Zealand art darling and recent Venice Biennale representative, Simon Denny, who was also responsible for selecting the artists for the exhibition. The Instagram posts were strange yet completely engrossing. Wilson constructed herself as vulnerable, brave and sexual, lusting over a white man with power. The outcome was both critical of Denny’s success and the way the art world idolises him and yet sympathetic of him as a product of his environment.
In the exhibition proper, Wilson ensured her voice wasn’t being watered down or re-imagined through her constructed identity so reliant on Denny. The moving image work all that was left was hope, showed Wilson in a white shirt walking out of the ocean toward the camera, holding a gaze that is reminiscent of Tiatia’s in Reflexivity. Above and below the screen, was the hand written Open Letter to Simon Denny, where she continues to reclaim the authority we first saw through the Instagram. In her open letter she writes:
My voice though, does not want to be used in your narrative for plurality’s sake. Nor does it want to suffer decontextualisation at the hands of bureaucratic diversity.
I may insist on my sovereignty by resisting your reading, withholding my narrative.
Wilson’s construction and presentation of herself in this series of work simultaneously acknowledges historical fetishisation of indigenous women as well as institutional token inclusion (and subsequent profit) of ‘diverse’[v] artists. Trying her best to fall in love with him, Denny—the successful white male ‘art star’—was a metaphor for the white walled institution and Wilson’s obsession was a quest for indigenous belonging within violent, colonial spaces.
In a recent article, Kimberly Drew, Social Media Manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes social platforms as echo chambers, writing: ‘our vocabularies are constantly evolving as they are transmitted around the internet.’ [vi] Wilson provides a pertinent example of how identity construction can be seen as a visual language or vocabulary. She is reminding us of the power that Indigenous women now have to construct their own images and narratives while subverting historical notions of the gaze, the subject and the object.
Social media has both destroyed and recreated how we talk to each other. Currently, it is proving to be empowering, giving a public voice to groups who may have never accessed an audience in previous generations. Ironically, the greatest tool of globalisation—the internet—is finally helping marginalised communities to reinforce culture and reclaim power. In the populist discourse of digital fear mongering, researchers have expressed concerns that the internet will act as a tool to further the process of Western acculturation for indigenous people. Yet in reality oppressive processes of acculturation have been taking place across the globe for centuries, pre-internet and pre-smartphone. This has, ironically, made indigenous people resilient and adaptable, to technological advances, the internet included, appropriating the medium for their own purposes. Indigenous women are reclaiming what it means and what it looks like to be them, powerful matriarchs, increasing in visibility one GIF at a time.
[ii] Malu is the womens Samoan traditional tattoo, that spans from the upper thighs to below the knees.
[iii]“History: The changing face of Customs House,” accessed March 31, 2017, https://www.sydneycustomshouse.com.au/discover/history.
[iv] Moana translates to ocean in Samoan.
[v] Tania Cañas, “Diversity is a white word,” ArtsHub, January 9, 2017. http://www.artshub.com.au/education/news-article/opinions-and-analysis/professional-development/tania-canas/diversity-is-a-white-word-252910
[vi] Kimberly Drew, “To All Women Around the World: Thank You,” W Magazine, March 8, 2017. http://www.wmagazine.com/story/international-womens-day-first-person-salute-to-women
Lana is a writer and designer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Specialising in arts criticism Lana’s writing often focuses on Pacific art practices and it’s surrounding issues.
Her writing is published on forums such as EyeContact and Circuit as well as in print for various publications including essays for exhibitions; Pacific Materiality, Studio One Toi Tu and Emory Douglas, Mangere Arts Centre. Lana is currently editor for New Zealand based art criticality website #500words www.hashtag500words.com
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