In the process of researching social/political cartoons from the late 19th and early 20th century that focused on racially denigration of Pacific populations, I came across a term that was not familiar to me. Blackbirding - the practice of kidnapping Pacific Islanders and using them as forced labor, in particular on sugar and cotton plantations in Australia. This followed with the discovery of vintage photos displaying the transport, the shackling, the labor of individuals/groups, and the Westernization of those forced into the existence of marginal living. These haunting images reflected the same plight mirrored with their African counterparts in the Americas.
An invitation from curators Jessica Wimbley and Chris Christion to be part of BIOMYTHOGRAPHY: MAKING VISIBLE in 2020 with other artist, gave me an opportunity to look at the relationship of the political cartoons, the treatment of Pacific populations, and the haunting outcomes that exist today.
My installation BLACKBIRDING was to create a conversation of the disparities created by mass media of the time, the process of abuse practiced, and the shadowy outcome that still exists.
BLACKBIRDING: The installation
The installation consists of four elements unified in a conversation not only with its components, but with the other works presented in the space of the exhibition.
The first of the elements is the projections of the racially politicized cartoons, each cartoon transitioning into color fields then on to the next cartoon image. The moving transition of images are rear projected onto the second element of an early image of Samoan Warriors in a grove of palms.
The Warrior construction is an assemblage of seven horizontal panels, four vertical rods cladded in aluminum, and ordered bundles of string that spill into a chaotic tangle onto the gallery floor. From a distance the image of the warriors from a is clear and distinct.
As one approaches the construction, the image becomes pixelated breaking into random dot patterns losing detail and clarity. The projection amplifies, manipulates and obliterates the figures of the warriors as the stand defiantly in a grove of palms. The string (a device the artist uses to identifying narratives) appears on both the front and back of the construction. Some bundles connect to individual figures past while other’s hint at future narratives.
The third element is a series of photos and banner that appears on two adjacent walls to the right of the Warrior construction. The photos printed on tracing paper are arranged over the surface of the blackened banner in a timeline that travels from right to left.
The banner is covered with the explanation of blackbirding repeated countless times over the surface. The surface is buffed with graphite powder obliterating the existence of text. The discovery of the text is only made possible with the shift of perspective and one’s desire to know what is hidden.
The photos, printed on tracing paper and mounted with entomology pins, float over the surface of the blackened banner. Gathered into three collections – abduction, induction, and resignation – the images hint at only three potential aspects of blackbirding. Each photo is creased with a particular grid pattern.
Abduction has creases of straight vertical lines while horizontal zig zags emulate travel over the ocean.
Induction images use a more regulated square grid of straight vertical and horizontal lines.
Resignation, like the induction grid, have regulated vertical and horizontal lines but the vertical lines are spaced farther apart implying long passages of time.
The grids disrupt the surface of each photo exhibiting the fragility of the images with rips and decomposition. The grids isolate elements effecting one to focus on individual actions, the significance of relationships, or the mood of particular figure.
With the arrangement of time going left to right, the narrative is directed towards the past. One sees the effect – what was the cause?
The wall installation is completed with a smudge drawing of sugar cane. The graphite pulled from the surface of the banner dirties the spareness of the gallery hinting at an environment that is present but not there.
The final element is a takeaway. Exotic is a postcard with the image of a blackfaced hula doll posed in saturated jungle environment of color. On the back the address notes the exhibition while the message is the following poem:
earth has worn them…..
gouges wrinkles ripples only hint at the marks
scares into the future already forgotten
language offers benign hostility
sounds sharp piercing
expectation convention resignation
INSTALLATION IMAGES OF BIOMYTHOGRAPHY: MAKING VISIBLE