Georgina Beyer, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Porou, takatāpui, wahine irawhiti, trans woman, sex worker, actress, politician.
Star of Jewel’s Darl way back in ’86. The first trans MP in the world. Responsible for getting the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act passed, decriminalising sex work in Aotearoa, and for the 2004 Civil Union Act which led to legalising same-sex marriage.
I’ve never celebrated str8 wyt valentine’s day but I always forget it was the day colonialist invader Captain Cook got himself murked for trying to kidnap Kalaniʻōpuʻu on Hawaiʻi. This ten-year-old reminder comes from somos lobos, no ovejas. Fucked around, found out, bro.
And some I gave their own posts to ’cos they were utter bangers, and some I might even give their own posts, ’cos also bangers. So many books. I can only take one fiction and one non-fiction with me? Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Rehearsals for Living, and Tamsyn Muir’s Nona the Ninth. And one book of poetry? Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us.
Another in the small pile of books out of Aotearoa I’m getting all up in my memories about reading. I haven’t thought about Witi Ihimaera for decades. Same with Peter Wells. Old names in an anthology of mostly young Millennial and Gen Y poets and writers. Some of the other old names I can’t read past knowing they were rad-fem-les-sep transphobes back in the day. Cool if they’ve grown from that, but irrelevant to me; they did the damage then and I don’t need to read them now.
Dasniya said, on Thursday when their nohinohi little one was all big eyes and focus as I sung old Māori songs I seem to have remembered for them, she was seeing a show as Sophinesaele by Pelenakeke Brown and I said that name sounds familiar, reckon I’ve just been reading them. And I had. Her writing, A Travelling Practice, one of the couple of non-fiction pieces, and one of the couple that really stuck with me out of all the writers. The other was Jessica Niurangi Mary Maclean’s Kāore e wehi tōku kiri ki te taraongaonga; my skin does not fear the nettle, not the least for reminding me te Reo Māori is grammared but gender neutral, ia, tāna, tōna … like all the best languages. I photographed Pelenakeke’s piece and sent it to Dasniya before she saw her performance.
I should have marked all the writers I really liked. Forgot to do that with my usual oh I’ll remember of course I won’t and now I spose I could go back through. Almost finished my most recent stack of books and the upcoming pile is heavy on Māori Pasifika and I’m very fucking happy about that.
I joked I reckon I’ll know some people in this book. Turns out wasn’t a joke. Turns out it was much more personal than I expected, even when under that joke I knew I bought this book to remember history. My history. History around me. History I should know.
Long time ago, young me worked end-of-week nights in the needle exchange in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, binning returns and handing out fresh packs. Which led to me being nights at the NZ Prostitutes Collective drop-in centre, because being a young transsexual, the only work available was sex work. Or selling drugs or doing robbery, more or less in that order. I never did proper street sex work on Karangahape Road, but did occasionally crack it opportunistically, sometimes just so I’d have a bed for the night. All the transsexual women who worked the street passed through the drop-in centre of an evening, Māori, Pasifika, and the one of two Pākehā. Later, they’d be up the Ponsonby Road end, and when I lived in the old brothel, above the sex shop looking down Howe St, I’d see them on the corner.
My Body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change reminded me of a lot of history I’d forgotten, and connected things, filling in blanks, explaining details. Like the probable identity of the old Greek man who owned the house in Pirie St I lived in when I was (once again) homeless, the upstairs apartment home since the ’70s to various Māori trans sex workers. Or the doctor at Three Lamps in Ponsonby who used to prescribe hormones to all the transsexuals, also known since the ’70s. I don’t think I ever saw him, but pretty sure it was a woman Doctor in the same practice.
And just the general truth of it all, how it was in the ’80s and ’90s — even though most of the oral histories were slightly before my time. It was all so familiar, reminding me how deep I was in that life, how they were the ones who guided and saved me. And how it was so easy to have that all taken away.
I wonder how my life would look, would have looked, if I hadn’t been through conversion therapy. Would I have started dancing (probably, I was incredibly naïve about what trans girls and women could and couldn’t do)? Would I have moved to Melbourne? Maybe, though staying in Sydney is perhaps more likely. Gone to VCA? Realistically I wouldn’t have made it through the auditions, because being trans and a dancer has only been a possibility for the last decade or so. Even my — in current language — non-binary self bashed up hard against the rigid and strict cisheteronormativity of dance back then.
This is a reminder. Where I came from, what I lived through, who were my contemporaries, family, whānau, who I owe an obligation to.
Mixing the NGV’s Triennial and its own collection together as I was decidedly zombie on the day (Paea saw me and laughed), and sometimes not sure where one or the other began or stopped, and saving all the old cruft for a separate post.
Richard Mosse I confused with Trevor Paglen, whose Limit Telephotography and The Black Sites work has been turning up in my reading for over a decade. Mosse is kind of a successor, or working similarly, pushing photographic technology and making deeply political art. Louisa Bufardeci also, though using manual labour to again create something on first view beautiful and aesthetic, which is contextualised into a evidence of and memorial for refugees whose boats sunk at sea off the coast of Australia. Both these works sit uneasily inside Fortress Australia and within the NGV, as Mosse’s second work (which you have to pass through to reach Incoming) describes: the NGV’s former use of Wilson’s security, to whom the government outsourced illegal detention centre policing. (The NGV ended its contract with Wilson’s after artists’ protests, organised by Gabrielle de Vietri and others, though the relationship between arts institutions like the NGV, policing and generations of human rights violations remains largely untouched.)
Onto something slightly more cheerful, or at least I could not wipe the smile off my face watching Adel Abidin’sCover Up! where Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway scene in The Seven Year Itch is replaced by an Arab man wearing a Kandura (Dishdasha, Thawb) giving me the cheekiest eye as he tries (not very hard) to prevent a flash of leg.
Next to that is Faig Ahmed, with a 21st century Azerbaijani carpet, digitally bleeding and glitching. Hal reminds me of the Afghan War Rugs, cultural memory lossy compression like a jpg, copied and recopied with no line of context to an original, regional signifiers and techniques that say authentic and traditional unfolded as repeating geometric shapes of aircraft carriers, World Trade Centre towers, text like USA and Pepsi, blocks of iconography decoupled from meaning, becoming pattern again.
Timo Nasseri, Epistrophy, op-art cut into the wall like the mid-20th century works of Adolf Luther I saw in Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal. Possibly a new profile photo coming out of that, but not thinking much of it until I looked at more of his work and saw the thread of Islamic / Islamicate architecture and mathematics in it. Good choice for a profile photo, then.
Jumping to the last artist, Nusra Latif Qureshi. She used to come into the VCA Student Union when we were both students. I always loved her art, miniatures in the South Asian tradition (which has connections to mediæval European illuminations, art flowing along the lines of trade as much as trade and commerce), and I was really happy to see her work in the NGV. Again, political, the colonial history of Europe in the unbroken history of Asia-Pacific.
I had thoughts, weaving through the Triennial and the NGV’s permanent collection in my spent, post-festival state. Thoughts. Many. I had. Like, the art that can touch me is always political, because art is inseparable from political, unless the artist has the luxury to be insulated from having political’s gaze turn onto them, so they get to play with ideas and technology and pretend there are no consequences, no urgency, no struggle; they get to live without the violence of history. I see myself in art that is political, even though it is seldom specifically ‘about’ me. I see also a difference between the superficially political, diversity as aesthetic, and art by artists whose lives, by their very existence, is political. I saw the strength of the NGV when it celebrates, represents, amplifies Asia-Pacific and Indigenous artists. This is when it makes sense, not when it assembles an incoherent, contextless junk box of ‘European’ art, manufacturing a phantasmic history of Australia, like Australia was ever located just off the coast of England, or when it divides that into Art and anything pre-Invasion Asia-Pacific into Ethnography. I didn’t see the entirety of the Triennial or the NGV, it’s an awkwardly designed interior space, easy to miss cul-de-sac turn-offs that open to entire wings, more time walking to and from and between than through art. It struggles between competing imperatives, like that of its European fantasy, or oddly misplaced exhibitions that owe more to consular trade and advertising than art and artists. But, see the Triennial? Yes, if you’re in Naarm. There’s good stuff there (heaps I didn’t see, let alone photograph).
I did not spend much time on 19th century art. I was running out of time, my camera battery was looking shaky, and I’d already gorged myself on mediæval art. But I have a soft spot for Cézanne and Gauguin. And lately one for Toulouse-Lautrec, cos he made a habit of painting queer women.
So we have the beautiful Faa Iheihe by Paul Gauguin, from his time in Tahiti. And paraphrasing The National Gallery here (cos all their works are online, so why I spent so much time photographing and editing, I’ll never know), the title is his translation of the Tahitian “‘fa`ai`ei`e’ which means “to beautify, adorn, embellish”, in the sense of making oneself beautiful for a special occasion” and uses “a horizontal format inspired by Javanese sculptured friezes.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Two Friends is one of his paintings from his Paris brothel visits. The National Gallery says it “belongs to a series of paintings focusing on the friendships between the women which often, as here, portrayed intimate moments or gestures of companionship or sympathy”, but having seen some other of his paintings and drawings, I think it’s quite explicit this work and many others are of queer women, and he identified with this milieu. There’s a tendency, or rather a compulsion, in art history to refuse to see what’s there, or — being charitable here — to be ignorant of signifiers. The rest of us know when we’re being spoken to. There are works of his with two women that are clearly not queer, that are, as the Gallery says, friendships between women. And there are others, some which are so similar as raise the challenge, “How can you claim this and not that?” which are obviously more. We read the signifiers, we know what we’re seeing, even while art history erases them — and there’s at least one photograph of Henri dressed in the same clothes the women he drew wore, so there’s that to read too.
Lastly, there’s a Degas. He’s the opposite of everything Toulouse-Lautrec lived for, and today would vote to the right of Le Pen, as well as being well suss around all those young, female ballet dancers. I can be a bit of an apologist for Wagner, who I think gets a harsher rap than he earned (largely though not entirely because of his family), but Degas gets far, far less of a thrashing than he deserves. He’s well dodgy. But his art can be sublime. Plus it’s ballett, and I’m a sucker for seeing what I’ve lived for in art.
I didn’t mention the Cézanne. As with Gauguin, I just like Cézanne. I think it’s because they’re all Post-Impressionists, and whereas Impressionism leaves me cold (there were walls of Monet and Manet, plus rooms of 19th century stuff I did not touch) Expressionism reliably does it for me, and I see plenty of what moves me in that in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cézanne, so enjoy Bathers, cos it’s beautiful. (There were stacks of van Gogh too, including Sunflowers. The crowd though, like getting the Metro at rush hour.)
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.