ABOUT LÉULI ESHRĀGHI ///
Léuli Eshrāghi, Sāmoan is an artist, a curator and a researcher, who intervenes in display territories to centre Indigenous presence and power, sensual and spoken languages, and ceremonial-political practices. Through performance, moving image, writing and installation, ia engages with Indigenous possibility as haunted by ongoing militourist and missionary violences that erase faʻafafine-faʻatama from kinship structures. Ia contributes to growing international critical practice across the Great Ocean and North America through residencies, exhibitions, publications, teaching and rights advocacy. See a few photos of ia’s installation described in this podcast by following this link and access the Biennale of Sydney’s website by following this link. Learn more on ia website.
ABOUT THIS DAILY PODCAST SERIES ///
As many of us are currently confined at home in many places of the world, and while we keep in our minds and in our hearts those who have no choice but to be at risk from the ongoing worldwide pandemic, because they’re doctors, nurses, cashiers, workers, homeless, incarcerated, or in any other precarious situation, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast to use this time to reflect and organizing without talking about the pandemic itself — there might be already enough about it.
The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.
We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.
(music by hooksounds originals)
NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ///
Léopold Lambert: Hello, everyone. Today is our eighth episode of the daily podcast, A Moment of True Decolonization. And our guest is Léuli Eshrāghi, who is a Sāmoan artist, a creator and a researcher who intervenes in display territories to center indigenous presence and power, central and spoken languages and ceremonial political practices. Léuli is also a bridge maker. And I’m very grateful for so many people he introduced me to in the Pacific and elsewhere. Hello, Léuli.
Léuli Eshrāghi: Hi, thank you for having me.
LL: And thank you for taking the time to do this. And without further ado, please tell us what is this moment you wanted to tell us about?
LE: Thank you. So my name is Léuli Eshrāghi, I come from Sāmoan archipelago. I’m also of ancestry in the Guangdong delta in southern China, European ancestry and Persian from the Fars plateau in Iran. And so I wanted to talk about a project and that I’ve worked on in the last six to 12 months, and also the greater kind of exhibition context that it was created for. So I’ve created the largest work I’ve ever worked on 150 meters of screen printed fabric arranged in like billowing lengths of octopus goddess from the precolonial what I like to call before Gregorian shame-time time in the Samoan archipelago in the middle of the great ocean. And also three neon works, a circle that’s suspended in the middle of this fabric above a rock pool. And then a phrase in French in neon on the far wall, which says “les langues poussent jusqu’au notre plaiser dépassera aujourd’hui”: languages or tongues push beyond where our pleasure will go today. And another one on an entry into this space calledʻupu o gafa o le vavau ʻo atumotu or, “utterances and words of the genealogical histories from the olden days in the archipelagos.” So the whole project is called “re(cul)naissance.”
And I was living in Montreal at the time when I was first kind of conceptualizing this work. And for a number of years, I’ve been looking at colonial archives, for the kind of histories and omissions particularly around gender diverse and spiritual and political systems from my home archipelago, the Samoan islands, both sides of the colonial divide, of course, and also wider contexts, working as I do across contexts and with indigenous folks from around Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii, North America, Taiwan, etc. So that’s it’s been a really interesting process because I had a lot of kind of tension with my family discussing what does wellbeing, what does pleasure mean for Fa’afafine, Fa’afatama, queer, trans non binary peoples who have been, in my opinion violently removed from our earlier roles in intellectual and ceremonial life across indigenous kinship systems in the middle of the great ocean and beyond.
So that yeah, I just wanted to speak a bit about this work. So it’s and there’s also a four person performance that happened on the opening weekend and a video work that was like a precursor to that where we shot at one of the nude beaches in Sydney. Really, and after like multiple—it was a really beautiful process multiple days of workshopping and discussing what pleasure means, and that in multiple indigenous cultures in the great ocean, particularly the four of us who were performing, so Samoan, Tongan Fijian and Maori thinking about how to arrive at pleasure, often we have to work through pain, collectively, grief, collectively, different kinds of traumas, and also that people hold each other with care with humor with tenderness.
Yeah, so this work re(cul)naissance, which means stepping back, and rebirth through the end in French takes the form of an eight limbed deity that’s represented in ancestral and new motifs on these iridescent fabric lengths. They converge over a neon circle, as I was saying, and the low water below, and to me, it’s a ceremonial framework within which to honor precolonial, human animal kinship, and cycles of life, pleasure, connection, survival, and thriving before death, and the afterlife. And for me, it’s also like a hopeful kind of gesture, to bring audiences to think about what life might be like after Gregorian shame-time, which I think is completely connected to, you know, capitalism, colonization, etc. So, very topical in today’s context. And I had wanted to have audiences enter the space without any devices and to come in states of undress. But that wasn’t really possible in the day, because it was too cold a few weekends ago. So we had, we had really wanted to, I really wanted to have audiences consider a pleasure, desire, softness, hardness, what kind of knowledge is are embodied within us that predate militarist and missionary colonization in the region, and also how to think outside of the architectures that hold them.
So really wanting people to come into a particular space, and, you know, drawing on the aesthetic histories of barkcloth, across the region, but particularly from Samoan islands that I’ve researched in museum collections, to then have some of those motifs and other ones that I created imprinted on the fabric. And kind of one of my mentors, Brian Martin taught me about the kind of shimmering and dance the shimmering of the sun on the on the waves of water in the forest, as that action where indigenous knowledge comes into being through the shimmering that brings existence it into into kind of more perspective. So yeah, and then mainly, that that whole work for me is like a way of reversing or really resisting the “coming of the light” narratives that like really mask the violent evangelization by Euro-American missionaries around the world.
So those and then you know, of course, will within that space thinking through kinships that include multiple genders and sexualities, that includes ceremonial practices and visual expressions that are completely distinct to Western perceptions of savagery, deviancy, darkness, a lot of the things that we kind of see juxtaposed in colonial paintings, particularly by like Paul Gauguin, and others like him, and then thinking particularly influenced by the community that I’ve been involved with in Montreal, thinking about what pink practices have to do with non-colonial indigenous actions in the world. How does giving and receiving pleasure—What does that have to do with consent, respect, care in queer kinships and how to move beyond taboos and kind of attitudes that are an anchored in militarist and settler colonial kind of frameworks.
So that so that is obviously my one kind of really deep presentation and like the kind of fruit of multiple years of research as an artist as a curator and as a community member. Within the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, this 22nd one entitled “Nirin” which in the Wiradjuri nation language, which is about five, six hours west of Sydney, means edge. So there’s a lot of thinking about by the artistic director Brook Andrew, a lot of thinking about how the edge is a very fertile, specific kind of space and not just like thinking about who is on the margins rather or like outsider art, but rather thinking through what is peripheral to one culture, of course, signaling center of other cultures. So that’s been a really interesting context and there was an you know, it’s a One of the first biennales to need to be closed currently due to the Coronavirus epidemic or pandemic on Earth. But with Google, they’re doing a lot of work to bring a lot of the exhibition viewing experience online.
So there’ll be, you know, kind of really interesting possibilities to engage with the works in that way. And I have a video work so, you know, that can be accessed online on my Vimeo channel. And this is also one of the really kind of first times this is the first time that a major Australian biennial with an international art remit has had an Aboriginal artistic director. And not only that, it’s an artist led one. So Brook Andrew, who’s a Wiradjuri artist and researcher, and an academic between Monash University and Melbourne University in Melbourne, really brought, it’s kind of like a constellation of all of his really incredible kind of connections in Brazil, in, you know, really aligned with the indigenous art projects that they’re doing at MASP over there, and then also in North America, in the UK, and the rest of Europe, and of course, in Australia and the wider region over here. So it’s been a really interesting experience as well to be part of a biennale that was majority First Nations artists from all around the world. A lot of queer trans nonbinary artists, and indigenous gendered artists, from all around where Haitian mourning and ceremonial practices were centered alongside other cultures’ ones, so it’s been really, it’s quite an interesting and quite a different experience. You know, of course, with all of the artworld fanfare, and things like that. So I really think that kind of taking away the centrality of Euro Australian art history, which, of course, begins in 1788 and repositioning this major art kind of presentation context, within the trajectory of indigenous art histories within this country, but also within the region, and bringing a lot of these really incredible connections that are created in conferences, and residencies, and research projects across universities and across communities, activist struggles that connect all of these places.
LL: And I, if I understood correctly, I think your installation is on Cockatoo Island, which is in Sydney but on an island that has a particular impact on how you perceive sort of territorialization of the biennale?
LE: Yeah, it’s actually one of the main venues for quite a number of years of the Biennial. And Wareamah or Cockatoo Island at various times was a sacred place for nation women to birth children, also was a prison for convicts and also an industrial place. So a lot of Aboriginal people were enslaved and in prison there, a lot of white people were in prison there, it was also an industrial precinct for a lot of the shipbuilding going on in Sydney Harbour and servicing the Empire across the Pacific region. So it’s got a quite a loaded history and very heavy kind of resonance. And particularly for Eric Bridgman, who’s a Highlands, Papua New Guinea and Australian artist and Laure Prouvost, of course, many people in France would know a really amazing artist living in Brussels. There was a lot of like discussion amongst the artists of like the heaviness of the place. But as a… I really liked that the architecture was quite dominating, so quite dominant. So we had to kind of shift my artwork multiple times to make it fit within the space, create its own infrastructure, to support all of the work to be displayed within that space. And also that, as an experience, you have to catch a ferry to arrive at this island.
So once you get there, and there’s like, maybe 60 artworks to see by different artists or 50 artworks to see by different artists and on sea level and up on the higher part of the island in different kinds of architectures. There’s a bar, there’s a cafe, there’s things to see. So I think it creates a very specific kind of viewing experience, which is very different to, you know, going into an art gallery or museum in the middle of the downtown. So I was I was really appreciative of the opportunity to exhibit in that context, because it’s very different to what’s usually, you know, kind of the attention span that is provided for by arriving at a place by sea, which is what New Caledonian writer Catherine Regent wrote about a long time ago, that every island should be, is supposed to be arrived at by sea. So I really liked that kind of meaning that every visitor has to be, you know, it has to literally come by boat. So you can’t just like helicopter in, although I’m sure there would be some Uber helicopter people somewhere. But yeah, it really created a very specific context that I really enjoyed, too. And it was really challenging, of course to present the work in that context. And it’s really rich. I wanted to also share that I wrote an essay for this artists book called Nirin Ngaay, which was produced by two printmakers Stuart Geddes and Trent Walter. And it’s a limited edition that they created for the biennale. And it’s, so I wrote an essay first in French and then translated it into English, when I was still in Montreal last summer in the Northern Hemisphere summer called “Privilégier le plaisir autochtone,” priority to indigenous pleasures. And, like kind of thinking through language through touch and visual languages as forms of pleasure. And then, of course, speaking more about sensuality and sexuality in the body, and moving beyond Gregorian shame as well.