OUTCAST by Jasmine Togo-Brisby and John Vea
Gus Fisher Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. October 2023

I went to a talanoa at the Gus Fisher Gallery soon after arriving in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland. The exhibition ‘Outcast’ was a collaboration between artists Jasmine Togo-Brisby and John Vea, and took in histories of labour spanning the Pacific slave trade in the nineteenth century up to the present with the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) Scheme that brings Moana workers to Aotearoa/New Zealand.

One of the main materials was plaster. On entering the gallery you saw a large circular floor installation made of plaster casts that mirrored the stained glass dome in the ceiling above. This was Togo-Brisby’s work Hold. The centrepiece was modelled on the rosettes we see on moulded ceilings in old buildings across Australasia from the turn of last century. Branching out from that were two circles of plaster casts of tam-tam drums – the colloquial name for the large vertical wooden slit drums from Vanuatu – the outer ones slightly larger.

Tam tams are immediately recognisable as common tourist souvenirs and almost all Oceanic cultures have some version of this long, slim, horizontal type of slit drum. But Ni-Vanuatu drums have carved representations of figures at the top which could be ancestors, or describe a particular hut’s lineage, or chief. Togo-Brisby’s casts also look a bit like dolls, the faces clearly visible; in a previous work, the casts were laid out tightly side by side, ‘in the mode of a slave ship’.

In the late nineteenth century, Togo-Brisby’s great-great-grandmother was taken to work as a housemaid in Sydney for the Wunderlichs, the Australian family who pioneered these moulded ceilings. Wunderlich pressed ceilings are now prized heritage items. Born in Murwillumbah and raised in Queensland, of South Sea Islander heritage, Togo-Brisby’s ancestral enquiries inevitably led to the sugar industry, powered by the unpaid or exploitatively cheap labour of South Sea Islanders. CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery) is still Australia’s largest sugar producer.

What I didn’t know was that CSR also produces plaster. The Wunderlich company took over CSR in 1969.

In the long gallery to the left, four crates were stacked with casts of taro. The taro, slightly larger than life, were also laid out individually across the floor. Vea’s Cargo has had other iterations: he spoke in the talanoa of originally making the taro casts with paper then one day by chance, some traffic cones were outside the place he was working, and he took one into the workshop, cut it down, and found an ideal mould, a seam in the cone imparting a line that resembles the place where the taro’s husk is peeled. I don’t think Vea knew about CSR’s manufacturing of plaster, and the artists seemed to develop their use of plaster independently. Vea was born in Aotearoa of Tongan heritage. In the talanoa, Jasmine talked excitedly about how she’d nominated Vea as her most ideal collaborator, and this room showed them in beautiful tune with one another.

Vea’s crates were first made in 2008, and these four have written on them FIJI, TONGA, SAMOA, SOLOMON ISLANDS. The suggestion of cargo is clear but the trade of taro goes way back before European colonisation, and the vegetable retains precious associations. Laid out on their bases in a grid, at different angles, all these meanings were effortlessly pointed to. Behind was a sort of tapa by Togo-Brisby called Monopoly that hung high on the back wall, training down across the floor to meet Vea’s installation. The Gus Fisher is an old art deco building whose dome is maintained to shining perfection as are the parquet floors, and within the long gleaming elegance of the galleries, these refined, trenchant, plaster installations created arresting contrasts.

Vea also made t-shirts with palm trees and South Sea printed in red beneath, and another with the words Ngāue Faingata’a which means ‘brutal labour’ in Tongan. But perhaps the most powerful of his works was an installation in the right-hand gallery called Section 69ZD Employment Relations Act which replicated the recreational spaces allotted to Moana workers. Cheap plastic tables and chairs, posters on the walls showing touristy Pacific beach scenes. Tinned foods like Tai-yo, instant coffee and a small TV that I managed to accidentally switch off. Banal, dreary, confined, a space in which you could imagine the weary workers sweating in the tropical heat. Chinks of reality appeared in the form of racist newspaper clippings. On the idyllic posters, quotes from the region’s great philosophers such as Epeli Hau’ofa and Teresia Teaiwa temper the ugly desperation. I think I broke into the installation because you weren’t supposed to access it except for 15 minute intervals at 10.30am, 12pm and 3pm, mimicking the time workers have for breaks. Vea has actually worked in a factory in similar conditions. The talanoa migrated in here for its second part, and I felt less guilty about breaching the installation and breaking the TV.

Togo-Brisby’s Monopoly was a Nemasiste, a form of tapa made in Vanuatu. The scent of sugar – cloying, intoxicating – hung around it. The artist talked about how she’d been given loads of sugar bags in 2016 by a friend who worked at the Sanitarium factory, and for years didn’t know what to do with them. Contemporary sugar bags contain thin layers of plastic, so when Togo-Brisby and her team flattened, beat and adhered the bags in the manner of making a tapa, the result was this long sheeny expanse with the dark blue CSR logos in blurred print along the edge. Truly my mind was blown by that nexus between plaster and sugar. The sort of happenstance where meaning, history and fabrication are in uncanny sync, as with Vea’s traffic cone moulds to create taro cargo.

How wonderful to see two artists in deep conversation with one another, their works truly integrated, not just placed adjacent in the gallery. I walked out of the exhibition on a high, then ran into a huge pro-Palestine rally on Queen Street, which maintained me. Then I tested positive for Covid. About two weeks later, Gus Fisher posted that there’d ‘been an incident’ in the gallery, and the exhibition had to close early.

(Later, I heard that the exhibition has been re-opened, so this show will be up til January 27, 2024.) Go!




Late October 2023

Over the next week, confined with Covid, I reflected a lot on Outcast. Togo-Brisby’s rosette contained the Fleur de Lys and an acanthus motif. The Fleur de Lys goes back to the Ancient Greeks, whose motifs were adopted by Ancient Rome, and is based on the iris and/or lily. Acanthus leaves were the inspirational source for Corinthian architecture which went on to be adopted throughout the whole western world. What we call colonial architecture in Australia naturally contains these motifs. You can see the acanthus on the columns of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Native to parts of Africa and the Mediterranean, the acanthus is now a successful weed across Australia and Aotearoa. Lilies and irises are also feral throughout our region. All along the South Coast trainline from Bulli to Sydney, you see canna lilies growing on the edge of the bush. They are not as prolific as lantana, another African native introduced by another stupid Englishman.

I lived in Rome for seven months in 2021-2022, and all over the Palatine Hill in the crumbling ruins grow huge clumps of acanthus. It’s a striking plant, with large rugged dark green leaves, slightly bristled, and stalks of tumescent purple and white flowers. It has medicinal properties, but perhaps because of over-familiarity, we walk past it oblivious. The winter I was there, also on a writer’s residency, was very warm. There were beautiful green parrakeets flitting about the trees. My Roman friends told me these birds had only been there for a few years. The stories of the parrakeets’ arrival in Rome from their native African or South American countries vary: some say there was a fad for them as pets, then tiring of them, people released them. Others say a shipment of them – perhaps for this market – was seized at Fiumicino Airport in the 1990s and then not knowing what to do with the thousand odd birds, the police let them go. Others say simply that the parrakeets migrated north from Africa in search of food.

Now, in Covid-land, looking out the windows of Michael King Writers’ House where I was in residence, I would often see crimson rosellas, native to my part of so-called Australia. Brought in as pets in the early twentieth century much further south in colder Dunedin, a small band who escaped their cages migrated north and are now well established around Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, and in Pōneke/Wellington.

My generation in the Anglosphere was educated in the glories of Rome, notwithstanding the bloody gladiatorial combats in the Colosseo. But the figures that confront you when you are physically in ‘the Eternal City’, surely bely glory. The African Elephant was made extinct by its use in Roman warfare. Thousands of people could be killed in a day in the Colosseo, most of them slaves trafficked from Africa and any neighbouring countries in Europe or the Near and Middle East that the Romans conquered. At its height, the amphitheatre heaved daily with murder as entertainment. Contemplating the numbers, one grows dizzy with horror.

Or it could be that I am naïve, and Glory, this great Glory of Western Civilisation is predicated precisely on this: the traffic and butchery of humans; the ‘domestication of animals and plants’. When the Ancient Romans arrived back from war and paraded their booty through the city, their conquests included exotic plants. As Pliny the Elder wrote in the First Century: “It is a remarkable fact that ever since the time of Pompey the Great, even trees have figured among the captives in our triumphal processions.”

In Rome I was confronted with a lot of racism against Africans, and Chinese. Italy was far less white than it had been when I lived there in the late 1980s. Sicily is one of the first places migrants land when fleeing war, poverty and persecution in Africa. My eldest sister suggested to me, when on holiday there at the same time I was doing my residency in the BR Whiting Studio, that it was because people aren’t familiar with them. But Europe is so close to Africa; relations between the continents go back millennia. I don’t think it’s a lack of familiarity. It’s due to the relationship being one of exploitation, in one direction. A good old case of White Guilt.

Outcast also brought to my mind Fijian-Australian artist Shivanjani Lal’s installation Aise Aise Hai (how we remember) at Campbelltown Arts Centre for The National 4 earlier in 2023. In one of CAC’s largest galleries, Lal created a field of sugarcane stalks, the two metre high stalks cast from plaster and inserted into brass bases. The bases varied in size, some accommodating just one cane, others up to five. Spread throughout the gallery in a way that invited us to walk between each cluster, the effect was at once suggestive of proliferation and denudement. What Lal was asking us to remember was the transportation of over 60,000 people from India to Fiji, including members of her family, to work as indentured labourers from 1879-1916. The common perception of the Indian diaspora in Fiji is that of a merchant class, a people more privileged than native Fijians. But it is not that simple, by a long shot.

I would love to see that installation again, with a patina on the brass bases, whose highly polished reflective surfaces in CAC created wonderful shimmering effects around the gallery but also looked a bit new, a bit garish. Reflecting back, this seems to me apposite. But a patina, a temporal change in the aesthetic, could equally well articulate the work’s message. I thought how great it would be to have a huge survey show themed around slavery and human trafficking in Oceania. Togo-Brisby, Vea, Lal and more. Put it in Sydney’s MCA, the starting point for many tourists. Show the Glory of the slave trade in the Southern Hemisphere to the world. Sydney is so expensive now that the only tourists we get are wealthy ones, mostly from the Global North. And I’d hazard a guess that none of them know we had slavery here too; why would they when we Australians know next to nothing about it?

I kept trying to work on my novel while down with Covid. I ran aground. And meanwhile, the drums of war were growing louder in Gaza, technically the Northern Hemisphere but classified as the Global South. Because everything, still, seems to be defined in relation to Europe and the USA.