Body, remember: Wrap me in a sister cloak

Culture, Tradition, you take away from me, I said that man, he was playing a game, it was his own creativity … and I never wanted to be like you, I never wanted to do as you do 

Lily Sansbury and Carroll Karpany, “For I Aboriginal” song lyric from The Fostering[1]

Tracey Moffatt, Touch, 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney. © Tracey Moffatt
Tracey Moffatt, Touch, 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney. © Tracey Moffatt

Body, remember not only how much you were loved

 Constantine P. Cavafy, “Body Remember”[2]

Tracey Moffatt’s series Body Remembers (2017) draws its title and responds to the poem by Constantine P. Cavafy (1918). In each of the series of large photographs we see a woman alone, in the ruins of colonial buildings, on the shadows of eroded stones. We see her looking out of windows, looking out into the distance. As the viewer, we see the back of the woman’s head, or the shadow of the woman, or her face that is covered by her hands as the Aboriginal woman maidservant looking out. The body in this title could be read as both our country and our flesh. The sovereign woman mourns. What do we mourn?

Do we mourn our lives and what we have been forced to respond to, the violence we have endured at the hands of the colonial–settler–state? This is a violence so profound and so ongoing we can never forget. We continue to be reminded of everyone’s role in this, and we insist that there is awareness of the benefits some have received from this violence. We insist that it stops with us. This must end. In this, our stories are interwoven. Over and over, it is our story that you need to hear. The intimacy of this relationship, this forced intimacy, is embodied within our families.

Body Remembers (2017) is on a national tour along with Moffatt’s video and sound work Vigil (2017), a powerfully edited juxtaposition of various still photographs: boats full to the brim with people seeking asylum, people fleeing, broken boats crashing into rocks on Christmas Island. These horrific images are intercut with images of Hollywood movie stars looking through windows, while appearing shocked and distressed. The work says so much about the performance of compassion as well as something about the detachment of individualism as a continuation of the colonial construction of separability.

Canal-side exterior of the Australian Pavilion, Giardini, Venice, showing Vigil, from Tracey Moffatt’s My Horizon, Biennale Arte 2017. Photo: John Gollings Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney

We are separated from each other and we are separated from the earth. But this reality has been ongoing for those who are dispossessed, we have not just arrived at this moment. The expression of shock can be read as though this was not seen or understood before now. The innocent white/subject/onlooker is suddenly aware, even horrified at the tragedy that is unfolding on the screen, in the distance: black and brown people in boats, running from war, violence, extreme poverty, climate disaster. They are running from the ongoing impact of the ideas of colonialism: race, individualism, greed, corruption, violence, rape, heteropatriarchy.

Denise Ferreira da Silva describes the racialised tragedy witnessed by the ongoing colonising whiteness as “the single most important ethico‑juridical concept in the global present.” She argues that it is the “ethico‑juridical assemblage that facilitates global capital’s access to the productive resources [black and brown]—bodies and lands—it needs in order to thrive and reproduce.”[3]

It is vital that we think our way through this ongoing disaster, that we draw the connections between racialised ideas of colonialism and the momentum of unethical and unsustainable globalisation and consider what might be required to shift our present racially polarised cultural trajectory. Vernon Ah Kee also challenges us to think through these ethical conflicts in his powerful video work tall man (2010) about police violence on Palm Island and subsequent community riots in response to the absence of justice in settler–state law.

Vernon Ah Kee, tall man, 2010, four‐channel video installation. Installation view, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane © the artist
Vernon Ah Kee, tall man, 2010, four‐channel video installation. Installation view, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane © the artist

Ah Kee reminds us that Aboriginal people are always in a precarious hold with the coloniser:

It is about the lives of Aboriginal people and the way we see ourselves in times of this kind of trouble. As a people, the Aborigine in Australia exists in a world where our place is always prescribed for us and we are always in jeopardy. It is a context that we are continually having to survive. It is a context upon which we are continually having to build and re‑build. How then do we make sense of the contradictions that present themselves in conflicts such as this when “conflict” for a group of people has differing resonance in two communities when only one of those communities is Aboriginal?

When Aboriginal Communities can be ascribed notions of autonomy and freewill but are prevented from demonstrating such rights, how do we exercise our distinctiveness? When Aboriginal people are described as innovative and valued but are continually hampered by paternalist policies how do we say who we are to voice our desires? We design a language and an articulation that serves us. And we ask hard questions. We ask questions that make us difficult to dismiss.[4]

In the Dead House (2020) by Yhonnie Scarce is an example of a language of articulation that serves us. Commissioned for the 2020 Adelaide Biennial, Monster Theatres, this work comprises a selection of delicately sliced and dissected hand‑blown glass yams, placed within a small one‑room colonial building which was once a tiny morgue. The yams are placed along the wall and on a cold metal medical gurney, inside what is the only remnant of the nineteenth-century Adelaide Lunatic Asylum remaining on the grounds of the current Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Tarndanyangga Kaurna Yarta.

Yhonnie Scarce, In the Dead House, 2020, glass. Installation view (detail), Adelaide Botanic Garden, Monster Theatres, 2020 Adelaide Biennial. Courtesy THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne. © Yhonnie Scarce
Yhonnie Scarce, In the Dead House, 2020, glass. Installation view (detail), Adelaide Botanic Garden, Monster Theatres, 2020 Adelaide Biennial. Courtesy THIS IS NO FANTASY, Melbourne. © Yhonnie Scarce

Scarce’s work reminds us of the horrors of eugenics and the role these ideas played in the attempted genocide perpetrated upon Aboriginal peoples’ bodies, a genocide that occurred so publicly in this country. This work requires us to ask questions of our memories of the past. We look through the small glass windows at this site of desecration and physical dissection of human intersection determined by race, gender, disability. The bodies of the other – the “insane” and “Aboriginal fullblood” – were cut up and traded at the hands of the social Darwinists and eugenicists.

Respected pseudo scientists, in this case William Ramsey Smith, were responsible for the trade of thousands of Aboriginal old peoples’ bodies out of Adelaide to museums and universities across Europe and the Americas. These colonists – like William Ramsey Smith, John Burton Cleland and Edward Charles Stirling, who were responsible for promoting and legitimating the theft of our old people’s bodies – are memorialised throughout our cities and towns. Their names are all around us in the streets, wildlife sanctuaries, suburbs, statues, buildings and universities. Yes, it is time to question this violence upon our people and air the secrets of the “civilised coloniser” who constructed our savage present.

Now that it’s all finally in the past, it seems as if you gave yourself to those desires too.

Constantine P. Cavafy, “Body Remember”[5]

My mother’s mother, grandmother May, was a beautiful woman. She carried herself like a glamorous Nunga Mirning film star, both in how she held her body and her movement throughout the world. Aged 80, she liked to wear slim black pants and sheer white shirts with pearl buttons, wearing long strands of shiny glass beads with her hair falling in waves. Nan’s generation lived through the systematic and brutal implementation of “assimilation” and “protection” policies upon the lives of Aboriginal people in this country. Nan and her sisters were forced into unpaid domestic servitude, and intergenerational poverty, laying the foundations for the contemporary landscape of legislated racism in the form of the “Intervention”: current child-removal policies and incarceration laws, supported by the absence of any consistent teaching about our own histories.

This systemic institutionalised racism is all around us. Nan had beautiful thin brown graceful hands with naturally long, strong nails that were carefully filed and often painted with pearly pink varnish. She could tell stories in the dirt and wave her hands to show you the directions of her life and country. Nan always smelled like scented talc, so soft and clean. She liked to drink beer and listen to music, sometimes she would play her “squeezebox” button accordion.

That someone whistles this, you know that is also the way music is used for people who are captive. That summoning, that sending out a signal, that sends out a signal, whether it’s a distress signal, or a signal to come, like let’s celebrate together.

Jason Moran, Sending Out a Signal[6]

Nan was a survivor of the chaos that descended upon her old people’s country. The killing that swept so quickly over the land. Although her life was at times full of suffering and oppression, she knew that living with worry was life‑shortening. I have been taking time to think about the work she did as a domestic servant from the age of six for a white family in Fowlers Bay. I think about the sheer brutality of this time for Mirning people, and how she survived as a child; how she learned to clean and work and remain silent and good, scared of the stock whip that would descend on her body if she made “Daddy Dignam” angry.

When she was a little older she worked in the Fowlers Bay Hotel, another eroded colonial ruin being subsumed by the sand dunes, which the land has again reclaimed. My Nan reminds me of one of the sovereign Aboriginal maidservant figures in the Body Remembers series. This enforced domestic servitude, this unpaid labour has other cultural impacts, the present‑day nostalgia of the coloniser, the love of nationalistic memorials, the wish to continue to memorialise a distortion of the events, how good they were, how unworthy we were/are.

Tracey Moffatt, Weep, 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney. © the artist
Tracey Moffatt, Weep, 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney. © Tracey Moffatt

that kind of wistfulness that, some white Southerners would regard slavery, would regard those days, those bygone days, there’s a wistfulness not just for the control or the power, but for the intimacy of, the intimacy of what those enslaved people’s bodies meant to theirs, you know mind, body, soul and that it’s something like that, it’s so unsavoury you can’t even quite speak it … that’s what those songs do for me.

Kara Walker, Sending Out a Signal.[7]

On the occasion that I first visited Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition Body Remembers at the Art Gallery of South Australia, I had planned to be at a funeral of a community member but had gone to the wrong Memorial Park. When I realised that I would not be able to get to the funeral on time I decided to take the opportunity to view Tracey’s beautiful photographs. I had hoped to be at a service honouring the life of an Aboriginal woman, mother, daughter, sister who had taken her own life. Instead I sat in the room, alone with these photographs of Aboriginal women, and cried.

This photographic work reminds us to honour those who die of heartbreak and sadness. How do we honour such sadness? I am haunted by all of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and family, those loved ones who have died by suicide or overdose. I feel this love–sadness accumulate around me, and the only remedy for these feelings is creative expression, to again make work that sheds light on our herstories.

she dreams of possibility from within impossible strictures of enclosure and confinement her escape is immanent, as her imagination is boundless her enclosure is an incubator for a practice of refusal and a roadmap to freedom.

Tina M. Campt, “The loophole of retreat—An invitation”[8]

People speak about the suicide rates in our communities as being some of the highest of any population in the world, so high that there are national inquiries. We know that these numbers are not just numbers but in fact our beautiful people, these numbers are our loved family members and dear friends and these numbers speak to something else. These statistics speak to the unfinished business, the failure of policy and administration, and the continuing landscape of oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

These suicide rates speak to our voices and our sadness; deep underground caves of sadness, cries and screams, they speak to our accumulated and sustained grief. These numbers speak to the intense intergenerational institutionalised racism, poverty and crisis; our deaths at the hands of the settler–colonial state, our deaths in police custody, the almost complete absence of care, and the lack of any real loving reparation for the stolen lives and lands and legalised crimes of the settler–colonial state. These statistics speak to the “problem” narrative that the settler state has constructed about our lives. These numbers speak to the inability and unwillingness of Institutions of the state to know what justice wants, to understand and create freedom rather than oppression.

We are not the problem.

Rosalie Kunoth Monks.[9]

For these crimes committed upon our bodies and lands, our communities will hold the settler‑state accountable. There continues to be a lack of holistic justice and an absence of appropriate memorials. We don’t need more statues, we want our old birthing trees and rivers and oceans and skies to be protected.[10] In times of crisis we look to our ancestors and we look to our leaders we look to our children. We don’t want our children to suffer. We take solace in our visionary leaders; the artists, poets, writers, musicians, storytellers.

I am moved by the collaborative work of Kara Walker and Jason Moran, Katastwóf Karavan (2018) a steam calliope, a moving, changing, mobile monument, speaking to the institution of slavery and developed for the Prospect.4 triennial in New Orleans. Kara Walker speaks to the memorials of whiteness: “When you have monuments or commemorative things that just sort of exist, they sit there and they disappear … those monuments that have been around for a 100 years.”[11]

 What artists remind us is that everywhere is a memorial to what has come before. Our bodies are memorials to what has come before. We can look out at the world, we can look out at the body of our beautiful country, and as Aboriginal people with these intense histories of resistance and refusal, survival and oppression, we remember. With our ancestors within us, we remember everything that has gotten us to this point.

We all watched the pictures of the group of 20 police stand guard, encircling the statue of captain cook, protecting the undead stone and bronze statue from the hands of the Black Lives Matter protesters on Eora country in Sydney. The group of police standing there throughout the night, protecting this cold memorial of violent colonisation, while still we die in police custody. We watch the memorial be what we have always known it to be – a memorial to the brutality of this cold law of death that has descended on our country.

I am monster hear me roar.
For you won’t just let me live.
You won’t just let me sleep.
[12]

Claire G. Coleman, “I Monster” 2020, Adelaide Biennial, Monster Theatres

How do we transform our sadness, honour our grief and seek collective justice for our futures? We continue to look to the transformative answers and questions asked by the artists in our communities, like those beautifully inscribed in Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti, Boon Wurrung artist Lee Darroch’s etching, Possum Skin Cloak for my Sisters (2000).

Lee Darroch, Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung peoples, Possum Skin Cloak for my Sisters, 2000, etching, ink on paper. Collection: Flinders University Museum of Art. © the artist

Wrap us up in a sister cloak, sewn over a lifetime, covered in our past, present, future stories, protect us, let the sister cloak unfold, protect the country, the animals, trees, rivers and sky. Shield us, warm our weary bones, sing us songs of resistance, laugh with us. Wrap us up in transformation, wrap us up in compassion, wrap us in life. Let us rise up and ask the questions that make us impossible to dismiss, let us continue to speak the languages of our old people. My dear sisters, know how you are loved.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Lily Sansbury and Carroll Karpany, ‘For I Aboriginal’, (1993) song lyric, in The Fostering, Magpie Theatre Company.
  2. ^ Constantine P. Cavafy (1918), Body Remember, poem (extract). Trans. George Barbanis. 
  3. ^ Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Fractal Thinking,” aCCeSsions, no. 2, 2016.
  4. ^ Vernon Ah Kee, tall man, video installation, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, floorsheet text (extract), 2011.
  5. ^ Cavafy, 1918, op cit.
  6. ^ Kara Walker and Jason Moran interview, Sending Out a Signal, Art21, YouTube, 31 October 2018.
  7. ^ Sending Out a Signal, Ibid.
  8. ^ Tina M. Campt, “The loophole of retreat
  9. ^ Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, “I am not the problem,” speech on Q&A, ABC TV, 9 June 2014.
  10. ^ See, for example, Lisa Martin, “Protesters defend sacred 800-year-old Djap Wurrung trees as police deadline looms,” The Guardian, 22 August 2019; “Protect sacred trees. Save 80,000 years of culture,” dwembassy.com.
  11. ^ Walker, op. cit.
  12. ^ Claire G. Coleman,

Ali Gumillya Baker is a Mirning person who has grown up on Kaurna country. Ali’s maternal family are from the Nullarbor and the West Coast of South Australia. Ali is senior lecturer in the College of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University and an artist, writer and member of the Unbound Collective.

Card image: Tracey Moffatt, Touch (detail), 2017, from the series Body Remembers, digital pigment print on rag paper. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney. © the artist