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Roundtable: Indigenous Artists at the Venice Biennale | Featuring Jeffrey Gibson

Dare Turner: I wanted to start by reflecting on the theme of this year’s biennial, Foreigners Everywhere. In his official statement, curator Adriano Pedrosa described the title as having ‘a dual meaning. First of all, that wherever you go and wherever you are, you will always encounter foreigners […] Secondly, that no matter where you find yourself, you are always truly, and deep down inside, a foreigner’. Is this something that resonates with you?

Archie Moore: I can relate to the theme. Many Indigenous people feel they are foreigners in their own country under colonialism. Even my own country, Bigambul and Kamilaroi nations, is foreign to me because it’s been drastically altered through land clearing and the introduction of invasive species, plants and animals. Australia had no hard-hooved animals – horses, cows, sheep, goats – before the arrival of Europeans, so they have had a big impact on the environment. Indigenous names have been Westernized, too. 

What I’m proposing at the Biennale speaks to those colonizers who bring with them foreign religions, laws and ideas which limit the free movement of my family and prohibit First Nations languages and culture. In Australia, we had a Christian mission system that saw children taken from their families and put into ‘re-education’ camps. You weren’t allowed to speak your language: you had to speak English, adopt Christianity. Recently, I flipped through the archives and found letters about my grandparents who were being chased by the police. We had an official called the Protector of Aborigines who enacted certain rules and restrictions for us. We had to seek permission from that person to marry. When Aboriginal people did work on sheep stations or cattle properties, some may have been given a wage but a large portion of it would have been withheld and put into a trust account; they probably never saw that money again. It was a violent foreign system coming in and disrupting everything that had developed over 65,000 years. More than 250 Aboriginal nations were on the continent and had their own system of governance that seemed to have been working fine. Then the foreigners arrived.

DT: Jeffrey, I see resonances between the experience of Archie’s community and that of Native people in the United States.

Jeffrey Gibson: As a person of colour, I realize, over time, that I have become traumatised by such questions; I’ve existed in multiple narratives, which, from a mental-health perspective, can be really unhealthy. Luckily, I was raised by strong parents and supportive families. My parents went to Indian boarding schools. My grandparents grew up in Mississippi and Oklahoma, places known for their extreme racism, were not US citizens until 1924. So, that’s where I see the parallel between the Indigenous and immigrant experiences in this country, but they are different. That’s what occupies my mind – how we can collectively pull apart those umbrella terms and narratives to find space not only for communities to talk about their experiences, but for individuals too.

Of course, there are hundreds of tribal nations in the US, but our histories and our experiences during the 19th and 20th centuries are so different. There are tribes who were forcibly removed and almost destroyed. And then there are other tribes that were able to hold onto more tradition, more ceremonial practice, more community, more language. So, I do see parallels and I understand why the theme makes sense, but I want to push people to go far beyond it. The idea of the immigrant still indicates the Other, and that’s also problematic – when you’re defined or identify as the Other. When you’re among your own people, like when I was a teenager with the Choctaw people who looked like me – with the same nose, the same kind of chest cavity, who stood at the same height – I felt centralized. That feeling of centrality, of not being identified on the periphery, you can’t replace it.

Inuuteq Storch: There are a lot of similarities between what Archie and Jeffrey said and my own experience, especially this idea of being a foreigner in your own country and comparing one Indigenous experience to another. I feel closer to Inuit people than to Danes. I think about housing in Greenland, where everything is imported. We don’t have trees, but our houses are made of trees. And our clothes and food are also imported. Not only are people foreigners here, but a lot of the material they use and consume is foreign, too. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I learned about the Greenlandic religion. I thought: why was I afraid of shamans when I was younger? Why did I think they were scary? These are important questions I return to now.

DT: Could you reflect on what it means to be the first Greenlandic artist representing Denmark? Does your nationality influence your role as an artist?

IS: My whole work is about being from Greenland. So, yes, definitely: my nationality plays a huge role in my life and work. My passport says that I’m Danish, but every time I’m with Danish people, I don’t see myself. The first time I was hanging out with Inuit, though, I thought: ‘Oh my goodness, finally some people who are like me!’ We laugh about the same things; we laugh in the same way. Laughing is a big part of Inuit culture. Our food is the same, too – quite raw. We do not cook a lot of our food, except in a very basic way. I had walrus right before I came here: you just boil it, then eat it. Being from a colony means you grow up in a system that asks you to forget who you are. Then, when you are grown-up, you think: ‘Damn, there are some things I need to learn about myself!’

DT: Archie, this seems to relate to what you were talking about, and it certainly connects to other Native experiences of being forced to stop exercising your culture and practising your religion or language. I’m wondering what it means to represent a settler-colonial nation like Australia?

AM: The Pavilion team and I discussed the term ‘representing’ Australia and, instead, we made a point of saying that I’m ‘presenting’ for Australia.

DT: Why is that distinction important?

AM: I can’t represent Australia: it’s not a homogenous group. So, I’m representing my First Nation history and experience. I’m a product of the culture and society in which I was raised, influenced by the customs and norms of that society, while also being aware of and connected to, but divorced from, a more ancient, traditional culture. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the idea of ‘double consciousness’ in The Souls of Black Folk [1903]. That’s what I’ve been feeling because I didn’t grow up in a traditional sense at all. I grew up feeling very ashamed and embarrassed about being Aboriginal. I tried to be invisible. I preferred to stay home and read, draw and listen to music. Once I got a bit older, when I went to university and left my small town – where there were only two Aboriginal families – for a larger city, I met people with different viewpoints.

In thinking about how we represent colonial nations, I did a work called United Neytions (2017), where I looked at the anthropologist Robert Hamilton Mathews. He divided Australia up into 28 Aboriginal nations, which was very inaccurate – there are 250 or so – but what appealed to me was that this white man from the early 20th century had called them nations; he saw that there were people who had ownership to the land. I looked at the boundaries of each nation he described and created a flag for it. I looked up the physical, geological and environmental features within those boundaries, as well as at some of the people who lived there and their body-art designs. Some produced dendroglyphs or tree carvings, others petroglyphs or rock carvings. I represented them all in a stylized way, intending to show the Aboriginal nations of Australia according to this white guy. I also wanted to underscore that Aboriginal people are not one single group. We have an Aboriginal flag, but I wanted to question the symbolic power of flags and whether that could truly represent all 250 nations.

DT: This makes me think about Native experiences in the US, where there are over 500 federally recognized tribes, and hundreds more state-recognized tribes. With that in mind, what do you think it means to be an Indigenous person presenting for the US, Jeffrey? I don’t know how you feel about the word ‘representing’.

JG: Well, I am an American. I have lived in many other countries where that identity supersedes my identity as a Native American in local perceptions. As a child, I lived in different parts of Germany; I lived in South Korea as a teenager, and I went to school in the UK. I know what it’s like being an Indigenous person in the US, but then I also know what it’s like being a foreigner in other countries, as an American. Lots of Americans can relate to that. The experience of being a foreigner has been good for me. There’s a humility that comes with being in an environment where I can’t move forward with absolute confidence, where I must listen and pay close attention, where I’m not in charge and can’t lead the conversations. It’s a moment of stepping back, which is healthy for me, and I would even say it’s healthy for most people. In terms of representing the US, my goal has been to create a very layered presentation. The best thing I can be clear on is my experience, but my hope, and this is one of the challenges, is that the pavilion is open enough that people can project themselves onto my experience and discover that our differences are probably fewer than our similarities. No one in this process has told me what I must say or show. I haven’t felt any of that pressure.

I’m also working on this project with several collaborators because I can’t tell a Lakota story or a Cheyenne story. That’s where it makes sense for me to bring in additional voices or additional people to represent the layers of Indigeneity in the US. I see Venice as an opportunity. But there are so many things that I can’t control. You push it as far as you can and then, at some point, you hand it off and you hope it lands in positive ways for people, in ways that are helpful.

IS: I don’t have a studio; I lead a very nomadic life. I travel a lot, so I carry my computer with me. I don’t directly think about colonialism when I work. Rather, I think about telling our story from our perspective. For me, it’s more interesting to think about how we live our everyday lives than about how colonialism affects those lives. We are at a point where we are learning about ourselves. Of course, since we are a colony, there are a lot of elements of my work where I do touch on colonialism, but it isn’t my main topic.

DT: Maybe it would be better to think about it as history or memory, so that colonialism might touch on it, or be adjacent to it. Does that feel like it resonates more with you?

IS: Depends on the day. It’s such a complex thing to live in a colony. Sometimes it weighs on me the whole day; sometimes I don’t think about it at all. Today, it’s only a very small part of my thinking compared with other days.

DT: Archie, do you want to give us a window into your studio practice?

AM: I only had a physical studio space when I was studying at university. Now, I just come up with an idea, submit a file and someone else makes it. Although I have made some really small things, like paper sculptures out of miniature Bibles, I don’t make huge volumes of work all the time. One thing I’m trying to do is understand how I came to be here, how my ancestors ducked and weaved their way through the hostile impacts of settler colonialism: what they had to fight for; what they had to give up; what they retained to survive.

I watched the astrophysicist Brian Cox speak the other day. He talked about how miraculous it is that humans came into being after a series of chance events billions of years ago. But it’s even more miraculous that some Indigenous people are here, given the massacres they suffered in Australia, when lot of groups were almost entirely wiped out. My Bigambul people, for instance, were reduced to just 100.

For the 2016 Biennale of Sydney/Warrang, I built a brick structure next to the Opera House which recalled a hut constructed in the late 18th century by Governor Arthur Phillip for an Aboriginal intermediary and diplomat called Bennelong [A Home Away from Home (Bennelong/Vera’s Hut), 2016]. Although they were regarded as friends, Phillip had, in fact, kidnapped Bennelong to learn the local language and customs: not a very friendly move. Last year, I had a show in Cairns/Gimuy, which I called Pillors of Democracy, in reference to both the wooden stocks used to restrain people’s arms and head for punishment, and to the four pillars of democracy: the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the media. I wanted my work to underscore who these pillars truly protect: the colonizer and the colonialist project. Alongside videos screening Black Lives Matter movement protests around the world, there were four columns inside the gallery – which is an old courthouse – on which I wrote the names of the four pillars. I made it appear as if these columns were pressing down upon sheets of corrugated iron – a scrap material commonly used by poor Aboriginal people to build their homes. In the videos, you often see a line of police or the National Guard between the protesters and buildings, so the police were there to protect these buildings and statues of colonialists.

It’s hard not to think about colonialism because I grew up in it. I’m a product of it. I wouldn’t be here without white people coming to Australia: my paternal forefather arrived as a British convict. Every piece of art made by an Aboriginal person is a political statement. Just talking about your own experience and your own history is political.

DT: Jeffrey, I hear an echo of what Archie is talking about in your work. I’m wondering if you might be able to speak to your creative practice and to the ways you’re incorporating different voices and different artists within your presentation. Is that also a reflection on colonialism?

JG: I began to consider countering colonization I when I was a teenager with the idea of decolonizing the mind. A lot of it was coming through hip hop and house music and different subcultures in the US.

At this point, when the terms ‘colonization’ and ‘decolonization’ are being used, often I find myself wanting to not get too engaged, partially because they’re such layered and complex terms and I’m more interested in what happens underneath. That’s not to say that I wish to invalidate or deny them, because they are true, and we could talk about that for sure. But, when I think about what I needed when I was younger, I asked myself: ‘How do I get out of it? How do I think differently? How do I move differently? How do I release myself from these things?’ That’s been my lifetime pursuit. The people who’ve inspired me the most have been the people who have created spaces that offer freedom and that don’t define someone’s body or someone’s person based on their race and their heritage. I have found those people in many cultures, in many spaces. A lot of time, they are Indigenous people. And, for me, looking at the history of making within Indigenous culture, I think about someone finding the time and the focus in dire circumstances to make something beautiful: that, to me, is freedom. There is speaking to ancestors and future ancestors, there is ceremony, there is prayer, there is time and, although it might seem counterintuitive, there is love. It’s like: when you’re being crushed, why would you choose to love?

In many ways, colonization is an inflection point; it’s an outside force that comes in and radically shifts the direction of something. How do we leverage what happens next? Events can do that. Images can do that. Objects can do that. As an artist, I think intently about what I can put out into the world that can influence the possibilities of what happens next. And that has become a driving force in my practice. For me, craft allows us, allows me, to step outside of mass consumer production and consumption – to understand that you can make something, a piece of clothing, even a home.

Today, we don’t always know where things originate from. We don’t know the path they take to get to us. I think that’s unhealthy. When I used to make all my work myself, it was very healing. But when I realized what kind of impact I wanted to have on the art world – because I didn’t see my own culture, or other Native cultures, being represented – I knew that I couldn’t just send one or two works per year out into the world. So, I built a studio team. For a while, I wasn’t sure that was the direction that I wanted to go in but, after about 12 years of working in this format, I trust my team so much and they are embedded in my life. My studio is my favourite place to be.

DT: What do you all hope to show the world?

IS: I don’t have a clear answer for that.

AM: I’m hoping to show that all foreigners everywhere – here, now, long ago – are connected to the human condition. We’re all one and the same. If people venture far back enough, we all have a common ancestor. I also want to show how Western ideas of time and family differ from the Indigenous, between linear or circular time. Anthropologist William Stanner succinctly described it as the ‘everywhen’ in his 1979 book White Man Got No Dreaming, when the future and the past and the now sit on the same plane. Indigenous people had a large kinship system that included the land and all living things. The land itself could be a parent or a mentor or a teacher. That’s a clue as to what I’m doing.

JG: We’re at crisis point with the climate and what’s coming next requires all of us to act. There’s a lot of Indigenous knowledge that will help us; it’s more relevant now than ever. I hope people will see that the way forward is for us to work together. It sounds corny, but it’s so crucial right now. I always remind people that the planet doesn’t need us; the planet will be fine if we’re gone. But I love living here, and I would like us to do more to ensure future generations can love living here, too.


Image: Jeffrey Gibson, Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Brian Barlow.