Léuli intervenes in display territories to centre global Indigenous and Asian diasporic visuality, sensual and spoken languages, and ceremonial-political practices. Through performance, moving image, writing and installation, ia/they engage with Indigenous futurities as haunted by ongoing militourist and missionary violences that once erased faʻafafine-faʻatane people from kinship and knowledge structures. As a curator, speaker and educator, ia/they contribute to growing international critical practice across the Great Ocean and North America through residencies, exhibitions, publications, courses and rights advocacy.
Eshrāghi has realised commissions for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Sharjah Biennial 14, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center among other group and solo presentations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Eshrāghi has lectured at gatherings Creative Time, Hawai'i Contemporary Art Summit, Experimenter Curators’ Hub, March Meeting, Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange, Dhaka Art Summit, Pacific Arts Association, and Asia Pacific Triennial, as well as at universities in Europe, Asia and North America. Eshrāghi was inaugural Horizon/Indigenous Futures postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University. Their award-winning research includes a PhD in Curatorial Practice from Monash University, and a BA (Honours) in Francophone Literature from University of Melbourne. Eshrāghi is Curator of the 9th TarraWarra Biennial of Australian Art (2023), TarraWarra Museum of Art (Australia).
Chris introduced us all to Léuli’s work, who he met in 2020 in Mparntwe earlier in 2021, as an example of an innovative and vital artist and curator working today. Their work, writing and this discussion has been hugely inspiring, our chat has opened our minds and horizons to ideas and arts practices that embrace linguistic and cultural pluralism, that challenge prevailing hierarchical and binary modes of production, and ultimately propose a loving and inclusive worldview.During the course of our discussion, Léuli details their diverse activities and works from the past few years, and what they’re currently working on. Their prolificacy and breadth of practice are a testament to the love of and commitment to what they do.
Sharing their experience with intercultural co-creation has given us the opportunity to reflect on our own collaboration methods, especially in regards to language. Working multilingually as we are has its difficulties and obstacles, but enriches the artist's experience of the process as well as the audience's experience of the work. The translation and interpretation process, though often long and complex, offer insight not only into how others live in the world, but also into how your own language reflects the way we live in relation to others.
This discussion proved to be highly informative, but also really encouraging, as Léuli draws from their own experiences and ideas to guide and advise us within the context of our own work. Their insight, openness and warmth inspires us to emulate and recreate that attitude in our own works and lives. As emerging artists and facilitators ourselves, these kinds of guiding discussions are incredibly significant and formative. Léuli is someone we look up to, and we feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to speak with them in such detail and proximity (despite the physical distance). Thanks so much fro your time Léuli!
Sam: Thanks so much for joining us! Would you perhaps like to introduce yourself a little bit, your practice and the common themes or threads that traverse your work, both artistic and curatorial.
Léuli: Thank you for having me. My name is Léuli Eshrāghi. My dad is Persian from Najafābād, which is a village outside of Esfāhān, in Iran. My mum is Sāmoan, Cantonese and European, from four villages in the Sāmoan Archipelago; Apia, which is the capital, Leulumoega, Siʻumu and Salelologa. I grew up between there and Australia and I am now living in nipaluna (Hobart) on muwinina country.
I grew up speaking my parents languages and then went to school and kind of had it beaten out of me, in country Queensland. Languages have always been a very important part of my creative practice. I learnt French, I learnt Vanuatu Creole, Spanish and other languages, dabbling as a teenager and young adult. Really foregrounding multilingual realities and the possibility of multiple languages coexisting in a space is really important to how I see the world and how I make work. That takes form in terms of writing in different languages, performing in performance artworks in different languages, and I've edited a few publications in French and in English. Languages are very important to me and challenging the notion in the art world that English is the key to everything. I know that you're a multilingual collective, so that's preaching to the choir a bit. Whenever things are read in English translations - which of course can have equal weight to another language, original texts, artworks or speech or whatever it is - there are always all these other nuances that are lost or that aren’t fully communicated. That's one component.
I'm a queer person, I'm a non-binary person. I identify with this Indigenous Sāmoan gender Faʻafafine, which is kind of fluid femme. It's very very conservative Christian in Sāmoa, and other archipelagos, kind of similar to some remote communities in Australia as well. So another component of my work is bringing together artists of different genders and sexualities to be together in exhibitions or collaborate on performance works or video pieces with me.
What I'm working on at the moment, this year and last year, one exhibition is called Sāmoan Hxstories, Screens and Intimacies, a screen archive project from 1995 till this year, of Sāmoan artists who make work around the body or intimacy or sensuality, from all of the different diasporas of Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada in particular. A majority of Sāmoans since probably the 80s live in other people's territories. There isn't a central place that you can go and learn any of the screen history and art history of Sāmoa, it's really disparate. A lot of what I'm doing at the moment is trying to gather that together. I’ll share a link to something that's really inspired us. This project called the Sami Art Museum, which is a museum performance at the northern Norway Art Museum in 2017. It had a bunch of problems, I was told by a few Sami colleagues, like it wasn't really Indigenous people pushing it. But as a concept, I think it's interesting.
There's one university in Sāmoa and in American Sāmoa there’s a community college, which are very conservative formal universities. Neither of them teach art, and neither of them teach filmmaking nor do they teach that we were heavily colonised and we need decolonisation. They’re just like “we were in the dark ages, white people came, and now we're living in Christianity” in a very superficial way of relating all of the complexities. So, this project is not really dependent on getting the approval of the government - whose legitimacy I don't really believe in - but still working with a lot of people within Sāmoan communities to give it cultural legitimacy. This is one project.
I also contributed to two exhibitions last year and this year as part of ImagiNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto and online, which present these works physically in an art gallery setting at a space gallery in Toronto. They're precursor exhibitions towards maybe next year or the year after getting some funding and moving into a digital museum. I really particularly like using the language of museum to make people understand that our culture is worthy of being appreciated and validated and studied and all that.
I work a lot with museum collections of barkcloth in particular from Sāmoa, and another from other places as well. Particularly since the pandemic began, I’ve made a lot of digital works. So the first one was actually through Monash University. It's called TAFA (((O))) ATA. In April and May of 2020, all of my work for the year had evaporated, I lost my job, and I was like OK, what am I going to do? I was supposed to be back in Canada, but I was in Arnhem Land instead with my partner. So, between getting drunk and feeling depressed, I remembered I always wanted to look at where all these barkcloths are around the world. So I spent weeks, probably three weeks non-stop looking at all of the collections across North America and Europe. There are tens of thousands of things from everywhere, places that I didn't even realise had really comprehensive collections. So, I started to make work, which is kind of like a digital continuation of those practices. The bark from the mulberry tree and the hibiscus tree is stripped, soaked, beaten, soaked, beaten and then stretched some more, and then people either hand paint or stencil different designs. Those designs are from a repertoire of motifs, shared between Tonga, Fiji, Sāmoa and other archipelagos nearby. I think they correlate to the tattoo designs which link us all the way to Taiwan, through Indonesia, through the Austronesian peoples, with some variations, of course. It's a visual language that in part is super specific, but in part is super shared. I made an animation and a futurist poem set in 2025, imagining that things have changed. If things can change so much in a few months, surely in four years time - it was five years time then - we could be well, we could feel less intergenerational trauma and all that kind of stuff.
The other two works make up three of a series of five, which I'm calling _____________ , which is like an animated barkcloth of the archipelago. They're loosely based on the oldest barkcloth I've come across, which are dated between 1700 and 1750, so like 150 years before colonisation officially starts in 1830 in Sāmoa. They were gifted to Queen Victoria, so they're in the British Museum, they're in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the Quai Branly in Paris. They're all over Europe. I wanted to connect with them so it's not just some cold object in a museum. This is our intellectual and aesthetic history, really. And because there's like almost none of this in the islands, it's really hard in certain places where, for example, the people still make barkcloth, but never at the large scale that it used to be made, like really, really huge pieces, which now only mostly people in Fiji and Tonga make, but we don't make them very big anymore. Then, of course, most Sāmoans are living in other people's territories, so can't really grow the same trees and do that. I was thinking about moving into this space.
That also influenced the screen printing I did for a big work last year just before the pandemic for the Sydney biennale. This is the second work, AOAULI. Tafa-o-ata is dawn in Sāmoan, Aoauli is midday, and the mid-morning work only came out last week, or the week before, but it was supposed to come out in between, it's just been delayed a very long time. This was shot in the claypans south of Alice Springs. Similarly, it is also set in 2025 and has a lot of the dance movements from some traditional dances, and more images from barkcloth collections that I’ve manipulated and changed around. I also included an archive, which I think will be interesting for you guys as well. The first one is the barkcloth with the sound recording, a still of the text and the four videos. And then if you click on the archive section [top-right of the page], it's a first attempt to bring artworks, texts, performance videos, people's PhDs and master's theses and all this kind of stuff together. Because as I was saying, there's more of a social or political science emphasis in the education that happens in Sāmoa, and then because of intergenerational poverty a lot of people living in other countries don't really know a lot of our art history and screen history. So I've tried to put some of that together here. It's ideas, intellectual history and creative practice. I think the oldest item in there is from 2002, and then the most recent were from last year. This was launched in October 2020. I think I would do it differently now if I could, like have things that move around or you can type and search for things. But at least just having lots of links and PDFs is a good start.
So that's the second work and then the most recent one, if you go to Subspace, which is another Melbourne project, actually, all three of these are supported by Melbourne art institutions, very interestingly. And the whole time I was living in Alice Springs or in Arnhem Land. I'm very privileged to be a part of them. So the third one, which was supposed to be the second one, just ended up being delayed for like nine months. If you click on that website, there are a bunch of works in here. [shares screen] This is like a digital museum. These are like ebbing and flowing abstractions based on the edges of images from museum collections of barkcloths. There's one at the top and then one at the bottom. You can see some of the texture of sections that are manipulated or moved around. Then, there’s a poem that I first wrote in 2018, and then I rewrote it for this project after my grandmother passed just before I moved to Alice Springs in July last year. She's the matriarch and really important in so many cultures, and an artist. I really wanted to honour her as well. Taeao means morning, but it also means tomorrow. So there's a lot of poetry in these kinds of multiple meanings in terms.
Then to finish the cycle, there’ll be mid-afternoon, evening and maybe midnight, going into a few years from now probably. So that's the arc of what I've been working on creatively.
I was really privileged to make a really large installation for the Sydney Biennale just before the pandemic. These are some of the install shots. One of the precolonial temples near some of my clan lines up in the mountains was dedicated to the octopus deity. So I tried to emulate the tentacles with screen printed fabric. Some of the motifs are made up and some of them are based on spending time in museum collections and seeing what the ancestors would make. Then there is a gold pool underneath. We did some performances, where I worked with three islander collaborators from Sydney and Kiliati Pahulu, Tommy Misa and Stelly Gapp. We made a video work. A lot of this was conceived when I was living in Montreal. A lot of the interplay between language and thinking about when you're really far from where you've been, it can be good distance, creatively and critically.
It's funny because I originally wanted to make it work about rimming. My mom was like “are you kidding? You can't make work about sex.” But I was like “oh, no, people won’t see it's going to be in Sydney.” Anyway, I ended up making it more generally about queerness and multiple genders. There's a blue ring above this gold pool that is like a portal to who we were before colonisation and who we can be after a lot of the trauma is killed.
Foregrounding multilingual realities and the possibility of multiple languages coexisting in a space is really important to how I see the world and how I make work.
Chris: Where is this performance?
Léuli: I've been doing video and live performance a little bit since 2015 onwards. Documentation of performance is usually pretty shit. So I was like, we're going to do this for camera and then we'll do an extended version live. That's what this ended up being. We shot it with a GoPro at one of the nude beaches in Sydney, and it was cold and pissing down rain, right after the fires. We've played with it to make it look a bit warm. Yeah, so that’s kind of everything I've been working on creatively in terms of my artistic practice.
I also work as a critic, art writer, poet and editor. This book [D’horizons et d’estuaires] is the first Indigenous edited and authored collection of essays about Indigenous art in Quebec. My colleague, Camille Larivée and I edited the book, which came out in December last year. I've been working a lot on trying to place the work that my peers are making in the context of Australian art, in the context of global art practices and Canadian art. Trying to say that what happens in small community focussed projects is important and is maybe more important than if you went to VCA or any kind of big art school in Australia or elsewhere. We all have different ways of accessing training, they are all valid, but the big public ones need a big shift.
I do a lot of writing, a lot of essays about artists, queer artists, Indigenous artists from here and overseas and a lot of poetry for performance. I’m working on a manuscript of a collection as well.
Curatorially, part of it is what I started with, this museum performance. So there'll be a second project, a second exhibition that opens in Toronto next month. Then, the project which is my current zoom background, which is in Ohio, came out of participating in the Sharjah Biennial in 2019. My dad's family are a persecuted minority in Iran and my grandparents and aunt were killed by the government, so we’ve got a pretty dicey relationship, or lack of, with Iran. So, going and exhibiting in the UAE, I was quite nervous because it was so close and maybe I could’ve gone, but it didn't happen. I had conversations there with an art historian, academic from the US who used to teach European classics and then kind of had a crisis and was like “oh my God, what about POC? What about all the problems of today?” So he's shifted and he teaches a more dynamic, kind of global art history. We created this project together that's called Potu faitautusi: Faiāʻoga o gagana e, ia uluulumamau! which means “Be Courageous, Language Teachers! Reading Room”. It's a participatory reading room and syllabus made by a bunch of artists. I was the first librarian artist. It's actually based on a similar reading room in the work I had in Sharjah, alongside a performance that I then showed at Watch This Space in Alice Springs in October 2019. I had a show that had a very similar set up and performance.
It speaks of all of the practices and people from the Great Ocean, which is a term that I use instead of Pacific, which is a colonial term from Ferdinand Magellan when he saw the ocean and decided to call it placid and peaceful, but then it's related as if all the peoples from this region are pacified and placid. So, from the Great Ocean and then also from North America and from Australia in particular. Basically you can go through all of your education in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, and not learn much about any of these places. I know there's other challenges in Japan and elsewhere in Southeast and East Asia, but working in English speaking countries is kind of where I can influence some things.
This is a project that's ongoing. It started in September last year. And it's going through till April 2022, we're hopeful that by then some people will be able to physically get together in Ohio, in the city of Columbus. So that's pretty hilarious. It's a printmaking centre, if you scroll down on the project website, you'll see all of the text that we've put forward to be acquired. They buy them and put them there and then they'll go and live at the university campus afterwards. Then we're each invited to make a print. Mine’s the first one, which is based on some of the land where my parents are building a house up in the mountains in Sāmoa, and the only precolonial prayer that my mom told us when we were kids, which is to one of the bird deities for protection or if you’ve bunged your toe or something.
Then I'm working as a curator for the Tarra-Warra Biennial, which is an Australian biennial that will open in 2023 in March. I’m working with artists around Australia on that. I think that's a pretty good overview.
Sam: You're so busy! How many hours exist in your day!?
Léuli: Not enough!
Sam: You’ve addressed a lot of things that I'd love to go deeper on. Firstly, your use of language and your attention to language. I’m a French speaker, so I had a look at the French part of your website, as well as the English. I was wondering about the use of the term “autochtone” in French instead of “indigène”. I'm not familiar with what the differences are or what are the implications of the uses of each term.
Léuli: There are a few. I first learnt French in Australia, when I met people from Vanuatu and New Caledonia, when I was like 12 or 13, and then decided to learn so I could speak with other islanders. I was like “oh, my God, how come they don't speak English?” And all of this journey began. I spoke island French for a number of years, and then I went on exchange to France, to Lyon, in 2008. Very quickly it changed my accent, so I didn't sound like an islander because you have to conform. Then I was part of the Francophone community in Brisbane and in Melbourne for a long time, surrounded by lots of different accents and stuff. But when I lived in Montreal, it was a kind of reset in terms of vocabulary.
This book [D’horizons et d’estuaires] is edited in inclusive French, so it doesn't use the masculine plural and things like that. This is becoming more common in France, Belgium and Switzerland in Europe as well. But it’s been taken up a lot faster in Canada, where they pioneered the feminisation of professional titles in the 70s and 80s and became government practice.
“Autochtone” is a more formal term equivalent in English to autochthonous, in terms of UN language. But in Canada, it's the main term translated as Aboriginal or Indigenous. Then “indigène” in France, which should mean the same thing, has a particular connotation to some of the French-allied peoples of North Africa when they were French colonies. There are different groups that are using “indigène” to mean the downtrodden of the French republic. It doesn't really have the clear connotation of “autochtone”. People don't really use it in academia as well. In France, I've seen that people are using “autochtone” to refer to Indigenous peoples globally. Which is interesting because in Canada and Australia, the term Aboriginal is used, but also in Taiwan, so it just kind of depends where you are. It's context specific, we might speak the same language, but then the local meaning will be quite different. Hope that makes sense. I think they're both correct, but everyone in Canada uses “autochtone”.
What I've been trying to theorise is that the barkcloth is the first screen and a projection is just a continuation of that time based practice. Maybe the barkcloth trees cease to exist, but we need to still keep these practices going in digital ways into the future so that some of those knowledges can still exist. So we know who we are.
Sam: I've hardly ever heard the word autochtone in English.
Léuli: Yeah. It's never used in English. It’s only ever really used in international human rights law. That kind of really high level English that only people who are fluent in that kind of legal language use. But then the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says Indigenous.
Sam: Does it change the meaning for you when you use these different words?
Léuli: “Autochtone” to me just means Indigenous. I think also being an international Indigenous person and living here, obviously I'm not Indigenous to here, where I'm visiting, so I would never really refer to myself with that language in an Australian context, if that makes sense.
Afifah: I’ve been translating a lot of interviews we've been doing for this research program. I also translate a lot from Torajan to Indonesian into English. So, when you mention the changes of meaning, that's something that I always question. Perhaps you could give some advice on translating Indigenous languages, which for me is very complex linguistically, without reducing the meaning for the sake of the audience's consumability.
Léuli: That's a great question. I studied translation at university and I didn't finish a master's. It was in French-English interpreting and translation. I was doing that for a few years between the French speaking islands like Wallis and Futuna, Tahiti and New Caledonia and then other islands where people speak English. All of the theory was really about France, and I was like “but we're in the islands. This is here. What are you talking about?” Because the language is so different. They’re teaching us how to say, for instance, a different word for the bat, the animal that flies at night time, but the word that is used in the islands is a specific one. (roussette instead of chauve-souris).
I would suggest footnotes or a lot of context. A big part of what I'm doing is wanting to resist that everything can be reached in English. It's definitely a political gesture and people get frustrated with that. Maybe there's some conversation in one of the languages that you’re translating and then you could just have one line in English, and a lot of dot, dot, dot.
But, it really depends on the context. I worked on a project in 2015 named VAI NIU WAI NIU COCONUT WATER and it was the first trilingual exhibition in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, in eastern Australia. There's a really large Māori community and a really large Sāmoan community there. I wanted to make an exhibition for those communities and have work by artists from around the region looking at plantations and coconuts and how everyone loves coconut water. How in white societies it’s like a superfood, but a coconut is so normal all across Southeast Asia into the islands. In our culture, the coconut is an ancestor, there's a story between an eel and a coconut meeting and all of that stuff. I was just trying to make it a bit more complex. But the topics were getting censored in English by the city council, who were funding it, so I told the translators for the Māori and the Sāmoan versions to be even more explicit about those things, about slavery on the plantations, about all these different things that happened. So that's the other flipside. But then for Sāmoa, for example, I've yet to find a translator who's not also a priest in the church. It's very complex because you can't really talk about sexuality, you can’t really question the church and its role if they are the translator, it's hard to have that conversation.
This is a long poem that I wrote in French, Bislama, which is Creole language from Vanuatu, and then a bit in Sāmoan, as part of an experimental translation project by L’Internationale Online in Europe. It has people from all around the world. The original writer that we based our experimental translations on, is a non binary Filipinx artist living in the US writing about Hurricane Katrina and different man-made disasters and the kind of structures of racism that stop people from getting support and being cared for in disasters and particularly the anti-blackness within the US and other contexts.
I would love to keep talking or stay in dialogue in the future. What you're saying is you're going through three languages, right? That's epic, amazing. I would really suggest a translator's note. At the bottom of the page, if you go to the very bottom, there's a translator's note. I wrote a text in English explaining a little bit, but I don't really give a lot of reasons either. I feel like you can explain some things and be like “I'm choosing to translate this term into English like this, but it also means the seven other things”, so people can begin to start to have a vocabulary in that language. Maybe even a note about the logic of the language.
In Hawaiian for example, particularly in metaphorical language, they have this concept of nā kaona, which is the multiple meanings of the term. If you read a text from the 1880s, because they had a bunch of Hawaiian language newspapers and everything was happening in Hawaiian, they expect the reader to understand all of those registers at the same time. It's super sophisticated, which I'm sure is the same case for Indonesia, prior to Dutch colonisation. Even just to be like “this is my translation, but you could also say this sentence and this whole other way”. It makes it a big task, and I know you've got a lot of words to translate, but I think the point of a translator's note is putting some of you in there, talking about your process and your positionality in doing that. I think that’s very interesting for readers. But I'm a language geek, so maybe it's just interesting for me.
Sam: What about for films, like for subtitling, for example?
Léuli: Oh my God, it's so hard. I once subtitled for ACMI in Melbourne, an hour long episode of a French fashion show, and I bit far more off than I could chew. I had to learn all of the fashion labels, then all of the fashion labels dramas and then all of the words like “this is what a tunic is. This is that and that…” And then all the time codes. Oh my God, subtitling is so terrible. It's so hard. The concept that they told us in the masters programme, which was at Monash, that I didn't finish in 2010, was that subtitles are a broad idea. Because you can't really explain nuance when somebody is reading quickly and the dialogue is happening at the same rate that people speak.
Afifah: In Torajan, one word could mean five words in Indonesia and then in English that could mean even more words. So, it's a bit hard, but gladly, we have friends from Toraja, locals who help me translate to Indonesian, and then I perfect the Indonesian language and then translate to English. But it has to be discussed in communication with the locals and myself so they can respond to my questions.
Léuli: And I imagine this is happening on the computer because you guys can't really go out much right now in Indonesia. I think that's an even more interesting process because it's three ways. I would love to support you in any way.
Chris: What Afifah is talking about is from this documentary project that we've all been working on over the last four years in Toraja. It's super interesting, in this context of translation, because not only is there Torajan, but there's high Torajan and low Torajan. Most people don't speak high Torajan anymore. It's a language almost entirely used in ceremony and by people who keep ceremony. So they have been translating the high Torajan into low Torajan, and then the low Torajan into Indonesian. The word that everyone uses to talk about this is pluralism in the language.
Léuli: That's interesting. I know Javanese does it too, Sāmoan also has two registers of speech, I only speak the everyday one. When I was doing my PhD, I was working with people who know the higher register and I was asking them “what if we create a term for installation art or exhibition history, or something like that?” So we tried out a few different terms that most of us are currently happy with. It's funny because I went from the English concept of curator, so somebody who manages the space. And then everyone was like “no, no, no, no. It has to be the Sāmoan concept of display that serves the community.” So it's a completely different kind of purpose. English has that too, but it also feels like ‘the manager’. Then if you try to use the word for ‘manager’ in Sāmoan, it doesn’t really apply because the manager is only what a chief is, or somebody who has been invested with the responsibility by their community and family.
Sam: In my experience, the French are particularly resistant to evolutions in language. English seems less so, at least popular English. How about Sāmoan?
Léuli: Because most Sāmoans live outside of Sāmoa, I think there's probably 300-400,000 living elsewhere and 200-250,000 in the islands. 50-60,000 in Australia, 100,000 in New Zealand, the rest in the US, Fiji, the UK, Germany and elsewhere. The language is already changing, but the language of ceremony, similar to Torajan, is still the same language that our ancestors spoke six hundred years ago. It's really regimented oral traditions. But then in everyday speech, when you don't know the word, you just say the English word. So, it's not really changing. All of the writers write in English, there's some poetry in Sāmoan, but there's no publishing in it. So it's really tough. Because our culture is like centred on elder and ancestor veneration, you have to get permission to make up new words. I was like “I'm going to use it for my PhD and I'm not really going to ask for permission because I’ll never get permission.” And we need these words now.
I've been pestering my mum for such a long time about different words that she joined the translation group in Sāmoa, so she's part of the group of people who make up new words. It's slowly happening. But the last time a novel was translated into Sāmoan was in 1965, that was Around the World in 80 Days. It's my life goal to have some kind of literature or something that happens in Sāmoa. There have been a few exhibitions in New Zealand where all of the wall text and even maybe half a catalogue is in Sāmoan. But it's more catering to the older generation who grew up and mostly spoke Sāmoan, because English is everywhere.
That's another reason for me, we have to be on the Internet. I don't know how it happened, but Sāmoan is one of the Google Translate languages. It's pretty intense because I know that if I asked my mum for a word in English in Sāmoan, she'll give me five answers, but in Google Translate, they give you one. So it's the same problem. It's good to be on the Internet, but is it good if it's like this? How many kids were brought up far away from their heritage and then are looking online and don't really have the same resources. There are a lot of attitudes in Sāmoan communities that you should just know it. There isn't an equivalent to the French Academy. But also, English hasn't had any spelling reforms for hundreds of years and the French had one in 2008 or 2012, where you don't have to do the hat [circumflex] on words anymore, and the dash between words has been taken out.
Sam: I remember that causing such a stir.
Léuli: Then for Sāmoan, we had a spelling reform in 2012 where they brought back the same diacritical marks for long vowels and the special apostrophe. I just use the Hawai'ian keyboard because it's the only one that you can easily get on a computer, and it's the same. In that link with the poem [above], it's a special glottal stop apostrophe, common in a lot of languages. In our case, it means that 500 or 1000 years ago the apostrophe before an ‘o’ or an ‘e’ used to be a ‘k’ or a ‘t’. But then things change and you don't want to speak like an older generation.
For me, I don't think that Sāmoans are ever fully heterosexual. And definitely hundreds of years ago, I don't think we were monogamous. I think we had respectful, polyamorous relationships.
Sam: I'd love to talk to you about your work with the Sāmoan film archives and your approach to archiving in general.
Léuli: I'm writing an essay at the moment for the second exhibition in Toronto. The first feature film ever made in the Sāmoan language came out in 2011 called The Orator (O Le Tulafale), by Tusi Tamasese. Then the first video art or short film was by Sima Urale in 1996. Both of them were funded through New Zealand. Interestingly, if you're Sāmoan and you grew up in the US, you are probably unlikely to be working in film, because there's no public funding. If you're in Sāmoa, you can access the Prince Claus Fund or the Mondriaan Fund or other ways to get projects funded, if you know how to navigate the NGO art world. These two are really widely studied and understood as the foundation, the pioneers in terms of Sāmoan filmmaking. There were definitely people before, actors and other people, and since. But probably since 2010 onwards, a large number of people are going through art schools in Australia and New Zealand and a few in Hawai'i. That means that by the time I started this project of trying to assemble an archive, I just have to choose what I think is the best or most representative of general trends. Otherwise there'd be a hundred people in the show, which is great, but I don't have that kind of budget or space. That's maybe the goal in the future.
Ideally I would have a Vimeo kind of channel, that’s built into the website and you can click and watch the work. You can read in Sāmoan and in English, and maybe in French or Indonesian, and other languages, essays by people about that work or about the artist, what the work represents as well as reviews. If it is about a particular situated history, to be able to locate where that is on a map. Because film and video can travel so easily when we can't travel, it's the perfect way to start to safeguard or futureproof our culture. Sāmoa, like a lot of other places, is really threatened by climate change. They had four really bad cyclones this past cyclone season, which normally they would get like every 10 years.
That's my main focus for this project, thinking about how to create an online platform. But then, it should almost be on TikTok because everybody uses it. I’m trying to find ways for it to be relevant, but then I think also just having a permanent website that people know where to go and have a look at and every five years get a brand new web designer. Or maybe not even five years, maybe less! That's my goal with this project.
On the imagiNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival website is the listing for last year's event, the new one will come out soon. It's still pretty early days. Because I don't have an institution behind me, this is the best way as a freelancer to start it, I just think it has to be started. In New Zealand, people are very good at historicising themselves, writing books, doing art criticism or film criticism, film festivals, art institutions, collections, etc. but they don't think about everyone else. So, even though there's a lot of Sāmoans I'm close with there, their focus is on the New Zealand context. But me, I'm trying to think about Sāmoa, Australia and New Zealand, wherever Sāmoans are, for this project. And then, of course, in general, think about everybody. This past year and a half is the first time I've ever made stuff for and by Sāmoans. I usually work in a much more intercultural context.
Sam: What does working within archives mean for you?
Léuli: Both of these projects, this one that I just mentioned and the archive that I made for AOAULI last year, I'm making archives because I can't find archives. There is no way to look on YouTube and just type in “Sāmoan film” and find things that we’ve made. You'll find things from a Pathé production, you'll find things from British colonial productions. You'll find all this stuff about us, not by us, or just tourism bureau stuff. So, the quality of the archive sucks and then the archives that are the most relevant to us, the closest access we can usually get is a high resolution image on a website of the British Museum or the World Cultures Museums in Frankfurt or Berlin, and only because I know how to navigate those systems can I get access to them. And then in Australia and in North America, I've been able to physically go in to visit archives and spend time in there and find things. I don't think there's much on Sāmoa in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I've looked a lot of times and I haven't found anything. There's a bunch in New Zealand because it was directly administering Western Sāmoa for the British Empire. As for the American side, the equivalent film and sound archive in Washington is a nebulous nest and you can't really get through. So there is that kind of work, but the people who have been making our own archive in terms of screen production are all living. It's very recent, it's like 1985 onwards.
What I've been trying to theorise is that the barkcloth is the first screen and a projection is just a continuation of that time-based practice. Maybe the barkcloth trees cease to exist, but we need to still keep these practices going in digital ways into the future so that some of those knowledges can still exist. So we know who we are.
I guess the main thing is that I'm part of a generation who are doing PhDs and writing books in English. For the entire 20th century it's usually been European anthropologists making shit up about us and then writing those books, and that's what gets understood. So, Margaret Mead, for example, the grandmother of anthropology, spends all this time in Sāmoa and makes up findings based on feminine sexuality and puberty, then that informs anthropology for the rest of the 20th century. But where were we in that, because people also spoke English back then too. So it's like trying to graduate to being humans who can speak and be listened to.
Sam: Margaret Mead made it all up?
Léuli: You can find what you want to find if you're not listening to people. Like, a middle aged white lady asking about the sexuality of 14, 15 year old girls in a highly christianised society that the US and the UK Christianised, what the hell do you think you're going to find? Even if you're Sāmoan, it's hard to have those conversations. So, if you're a foreigner... I’m not sure it was all made up, but we wouldn't want that said about us now, and we didn't want it said about us then. We're not just subjects to be studied, maybe there are contributions to knowledge and humanity and other things that can be had, you know?
Sam: Do you follow contemporary anthropology movements?
Léuli: I don’t engage in contemporary anthropology at all, because I don’t think it can be saved. It's based on the study of people outside of Europe, and sometimes in Europe, as the “other”, and it's too closely aligned with salvage anthropology, which is why every thing of ours is in Europe and North America, and we're not there because we were supposed to die out. I told you the figures, it's like several hundred thousand Sāmoans on Earth. People have been breeding, we’ve been doing pretty good! Even for a pretty queer community, because there’s a lot of queers and a lot of Sāmoans without kids as well. I'm much more interested in contemporary art, screen culture and broader intersecting disciplines that are more aware of everyone's positionality. I think anthropology, like the ‘classics’ as a field of study, doesn't need to exist. It was all fake anyway.
Chris: I wanted to ask about, and forgive me if I'm pronouncing it incorrectly, Faʻafafine, and the Sāmoan approach to gender. Afifah is Bugis, who also have a particular approach to gender, the Bissu having this ungendered role in society. Could you explain a little bit about the kind of Sāmoan approach to gender?
Léuli: As you can see in my Zoom name there, ‘ia’ is the only pronoun in Sāmoan language. ‘Ia’ can be singular he/she/they/it. There's a lot of gender fluidity in your roles, every role can be gendered, but your personal gender changes all the time.
I identify as a Faʻafafine, a term that's more femme aligned in English, and then Faʻatane or Faʻatama is masculine aligned, but they're not absolutes. In Sāmoan culture and other nearby cultures, the people who aren't the Western idea of a man or Western idea of a woman in a really strict sense, in the Hollywood sense, are the people running the libraries, the bus drivers, the bank managers, all kinds of roles. An identity based on separation from exclusion, which is the model in Western societies, isn't possible in Sāmoan culture because everybody continues to live in their family structures, and in the extended family household. There's still a lot of violence from the church, then some people escape and go live with other queers. But there are trans women with children, there's a very full expression of life. I'm not saying it's easy, it's just very different to here.
Pronouns are a big thing in English and in French and other languages, but pronouns are not at all the problem in Sāmoan society. It’s the new wave of evangelical churches which don't have the syncretic approach. Sāmoan culture has been going for thousands of years, then churches from Europe rock up and they try to change a lot of things. We stop worshipping all of the divinities from before, and they were happy with that. But then we're like “OK, but you can't touch all the genders that we have.” And they were like “OK, sure.” Now they’re coming from the Bible Belt in the US, they want to burn everything. It's very harsh. My mum runs the only mental health rehab centre in Sāmoa, and she works with a lot of youth suicide. It's very intense because I think a majority of the youth who would take their lives are what we would call queer or who have a different gender spectrum other than strictly men or strictly women in a cis sense.
There’s this incredible writer, poet, theorist and artist, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, the oldest Faʻafafine person I know, in his early 60s. A lot of people also have been sex workers and have passed away from the HIV AIDS pandemic in the 80s. This is his website. I quote the texts that he’s written a lot. I've also written some texts, which haven't come out yet, about how those teachings of having multiple genders is something very rare, and we need to look after that and continue that because that's integral to our culture. There's a lot of violent thinking that comes from how European thought was brought to where we are. Then that stopped being practiced in Europe and in all the European colonies, but it still happens where we are, as if it's still 1830. There's a lot of Faʻafafine artists and poets.
For me, I don't think that Sāmoans are ever fully heterosexual. And definitely hundreds of years ago, I don't think we were monogamous. I think we had respectful, polyamorous relationships. Everybody in the village was bringing up the kids. The higher status people may have been a bit different, like organised marriages and whatever. But it's hot! It's always tropical, as if people won’t mess around and have some fun. But that’s really hard because there's so much taboo now, nobody talks about sex at all. I don't know what it's like where you are living in Indonesia, but in Sāmoa today, if it's 30 degrees, everybody goes to the beach in long pants and a lot of people will be in the water with long pants and a long sleeve shirt to cover their body. There's so much embodied shame that comes from the church, which is ridiculous because of the weather for one, and then also ridiculous because of those levels of mental health problems.
Chris: When you said embodied shame, it took me back to the performance you did at Sharjah. I didn't realise you did it in Mparntwe as well?
The main teaching of artist-run spaces or Indigenous cultures that I've grown up with, is that as long as you're switching hats and you're giving to the collective, then things are going to be OK.
Léuli: Yeah, in October 2019.
Chris: After you mention embodied shame, you talk about this idea of the potential for softening. I was struck by that sentence and wanted to hear what you meant by that and what you feel about that word softening.
Léuli: I think growing up in country Queensland, I was really struggling with who I was going to be as a teenager. All of the messaging in society was like you have to be a man, and you've got to be tough and you can't cry and all this stuff. And I was like “wait a minute. Everyone I know, all of the men and women and all the other genders in Sāmoan culture, everybody cries all the time. Emotional expression and the full range of emotions are valued and normal.” So I was like “OK, I can be emotional.” I think it really comes back to gender roles. Because men weave, women weave, trans women also look after the children and actually you'll be mostly learning from Faʻafafine how to do the dances, which are the songs from your village, and all of these kinds of practices. Then the Faʻatane, the trans men, are the ones that are doing the cooking. Again, these aren’t absolute. But I guess I was really struggling with, like, “how do I fit in the world?”. And then when I realised that I didn't have to only draw on what was available to me in Australia, but also I had this culture and that lens to look through, I was like, OK, well, we can be really tactile with your friends for example (as long as it's consensual). That's the main thing for me, the range of emotions that you can express. What does it mean for you?
Chris: I think similarly, I think I still feel very hard and hard edged. I would like to soften, but it's a difficult process.
Léuli: And it's a violent society we’re in, so it doesn't really let you soften.
Chris: My dad's Polish, escaped communist Poland, etc. They're very hard people, I have kind of inherited that as well. It's a concept that I really like.
Léuli: It's a wish for my family and my culture to be healthier. My cousins beat up their wives all the time for cheating on them and they’re the ones cheating! That's an extreme example of the normalised violence that happens all the time, I can't really do much because I live here. I'm not there every week to be like “you shouldn't be doing this kind of stuff.” The violence in the villages is very high. My cousin ran away with her kids to my parents house on the weekend. The father was really drunk and he had a machete and destroyed the eldest girl's laptop. She's in year 12, almost finished high school. So my dad's trying to find laptops around the island so that she can finish school. I think there's a certain privilege in not having children for me. I don't know if I would call it privilege, but I have the space and time to think about what's wrong in my culture and then what's wrong in Australian culture, and then what can be right. If I were in Sāmoa, I probably would have had kids at 16. Whatever my gender, people just have kids, you know, and everyone laughs at condoms and stuff like that, but that's something else. I guess softening is like another word for more love.
Sam: Can you tell us a bit about what you mean by Indigenous futurities?
Léuli: I first learnt the term ‘futurities’ in this text by Native Hawaiian academics, Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua and Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada. It’s a whole mode of understanding where you can project yourself. In English, there's the future. It's singular and it comes from the present and comes from the past, we think as if we're on one timeline and it goes in a line. But for a lot of cultures around the world time is elastic. I'm always late, for example. It’s basically thinking about where we can be. As I was saying before, the words for morning and for tomorrow are the same word in Sāmoan, so there's a lot of conceptions where it can repeat, you can start again. People are ruled by the Gregorian calendar and by Western time now. One of the most amazing Sāmoan academics, Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa, a historian, said that based on his research, we went from living under the lunar calendar by the moon and the reef and all of that to the western calendar, the solar calendar in one calendar year. The transition was that fast. At the same time, a huge amount of people were dying from European diseases and other things were happening.
There's a whole body of artwork and theory by Indigenous peoples from Australia, from Taiwan, and from North America in particular, Grace Dillon and Jason Lewis, who was my boss in Montreal, for example. Have a look at Indigenous Futures. This group of researchers, Indigenous artists, theorists, makers and designers are working on that. They've created some cultural protocols that apply to lots of different Indigenous nations around artificial intelligence. Like, how to think of AI as a member of your kin network rather than as a slave, to be used and exploited, it’s pretty out there. A lot of the assumptions in the Internet or in technology today were by monolingual English speakers, men and upper middle class or really wealthy in the US. So what kind of values are actually applicable to the rest of humanity?
Another main thing with Indigenous futurisms and futurities is that this climate apocalypse is not the first apocalypse for many Indigenous peoples around the world. It's the second or third, depending on how many massacres and how many mass death events have happened. So in 1918, for example, in the Sāmoan context, more than a fifth of the population died with the Spanish influenza virus that was introduced on purpose by the New Zealand colonial administration because there was a lot of protest against New Zealand rule. How much knowledge was lost, how many dances are gone, how many storytellers. That's the one that we most know about most recently, but there would have been others in the 1820s and 30s as well when the whalers and others were going through.
It's the point of all of these artworks that I've been working on, for there not to be violence. That's what I mean by privilege, like you can have a nice little moment of thinking about when there isn't violence, maybe not even imagining that the water is rising, but imagining that the water is going to go down a little bit and our islands will be safe. Just trying to imagine a world that isn't ruled by China and the US fighting, and Russia. What about everyone else? There are so many other people on this planet, and none of us get a say. I’ll send you more texts on the subject.
Sam: Please, that'd be awesome. I'd really love to hear about your idea of an ideal artist-curator relationship and how that's developed over your years of practising and curating and creating and exchanging. Are there any key takeaways or advice you might have for emerging artists and curators?
Léuli: I wrote this text about a year ago. I'm a product of the intercultural international Indigenous artist run space in Brunswick in Melbourne called Blak Dot Gallery, where multiple generations of artists and curators and other random people and community members have all been from 2011, and continues today. I was working in administration at a university. And then people told me “but maybe you want to make art?” And I was like “actually, I always wanted to make art.” So I got mentored into that.
I think it's healthiest when you have multiple hats like you all do. My worst nightmare is to be a full time artist. Because I think you can become so selfish and forget. I've seen it with some friends who have become full time artists. Even if you're an artist and all you do is make art, but then you also have some advocacy role. You have something where you think about other people first. That's what I think is the main teaching of artist-run spaces or Indigenous cultures that I've grown up with, that as long as you're switching hats and you're giving to the collective, then things are going to be OK. Of course, dialogue and close relationships are healthiest. Some of the artists I worked with this year and last year I've worked with for 10 years, and same for some of the curators that I work with when I'm an artist. It's not nepotism if it's a community, but that it's able to come and go.
Chris: I'd love to talk a lot about your relationship to Mparntwe specifically, what led you here, and what was your main artistic or curatorial activity here.
Léuli: I followed my partner there, who's a medical doctor. He had six months to live there, and then we were going to go live in Cairns. I was supposed to be living in Montreal, so I wasn't supposed to have a life in the Northern Territory at all. And then I lived in Darwin, lived in Arnhem Land and then lived in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). It wasn't my choice, I followed my partner's choice because I was freelancing and I didn't have much work. Then when I was in Mparntwe it was similar to here, where I work from home. I had a meeting at a cafe a few hours ago, but that's pretty rare. All of my meetings are on zoom.
I had an interesting experience in Mparntwe because I wasn't working in an Aboriginal arts centre, and I wasn't officially working in any of the town's arts infrastructure. So, I had an interesting position to look at the dynamics that are happening there. I spoke on a panel at the artist-run centre space, Watch This Space, and I was supposed to be there two weekends ago to run a bunch of sessions for the writers festival that got cancelled. This year, I felt I was coming into the kind of creative relationships that I really wanted to have. I worked with Johnny Rowden to film a performance lecture for the Hawai'i Contemporary Art Summit, which was in February. It was filmed in similar spots to where I'd filmed the AOAULI artwork.
I think I've come into being a poet since being in Mparntwe, that's the biggest impact on me creatively. And so I was talking to Kelly-Lee Hickey about maybe needing to put together a queer collection of the desert and the Top End, or something like that. I made one artwork for this art magazine based in Adelaide called Fine Print, and they invited me and a bunch of others to respond to the archives. This is the work I made. I read their whole archive from the beginning, I think it's 5 or 10 years of online criticism and letters and stuff, and it starts as really old white men, art historians, and now it's much more diverse and complex. Not that those guys' writing wasn't complex, but it's boring and what we've had in Australia for a long time. So this actually is peppered with words or concepts that I got out of the archives of that magazine, plus my reflections on these two places; Simpsons Gap (Rungutjirpa) and Ormiston Gorge (Kwartatuma), west of Mparntwe for those of you who aren't there. Places that Chris and I and friends would go to a lot. I was thinking a lot about geology and deep time, and that a lot of this landscape is like 400 million year old mountains that were once the same height as the Himalayas. I was trying to think about scale and what a privilege it is to walk in those places and also wondering what the future holds for the places that I'm from in relation to those places that have survived so long.
Of course, the learning is never done, and so I feel like I have more chapters in Mparntwe to live in my life. We shall see what the future holds. I didn't leave because I wanted to, I left because my partner's job took us here to nipaluna (Hobart). Which is also great, very different, very wet, very different history, but the same history at the same time.
Chris: This work that we're working on is situated now in this very specific cultural context and very specific legacy at CAAMA in Mparntwe. Considering the work that we're making is based on a Torajan video archive, I've been sitting with this uncomfortable feeling, but also excitement at the same time that the CAAMA archive will be situated 50 metres from the exhibition, this incredible resource of knowledge and history that's on its way out because of the format that it's kept on.
Léuli: And there's no funding to digitise, right? I lived in Nhulunbuy and I was working on Artlink. Every year, this magazine based in Adelaide called Artlink since 2010, has had a guest edited Indigenous arts edition and they of course have Indigenous art the rest of the year. But this one was the second issue that was global. The first global edition was in 2015, and I wrote an essay for that. And then this one last year, in June 2020. My best friend, Kimberley Moulton, a Yorta Yorta curator and art historian in Melbourne, and I, we edited this edition.
By the time this was coming out, I was living next door to the community where the cover artist Nonggirrnga Marawili was working, she's an elder artist in Yirrkala. The arts centre there gives the most incredible support to a lot of stellar painters and sculptors, but they also have this incredible media centre, which is unlike any infrastructure that I've ever seen anywhere in the Pacific, in the Great Ocean. All of their archives, everything that anthropologists ever made about them is also on that server, everything anyone has made in that community is also there. The film that somebody made and if they went to VCA for example would also be there. There's just so much there, and they've worked really hard to create that infrastructure. But that's what I dream we can have, where it's one place that you can go and see everything. Ideally it would be for all of the cultures in the region, but there's so many cultures in the Pacific I don't know where to start, so I'm starting at home. And I convinced mum and dad later that we build a big archive on that land and then everyone can come and use it.
Chris: There is a particular line in the CAAMA archive significance report that struck me. I have it here: “Were we to live in a world where the voices of Aboriginal people are respected equally with those of white male ethnographers, the CAAMA archive would be secure in its survival.” With that assertion in mind, how do you go about influencing government institutions to take priority in digitising and keeping alive these Indigenous made and controlled archives?
Léuli: My main question for you is, have you exhausted getting funding from Europe? Bypass the Australian government entirely. You can see that they're not interested in Aboriginal peoples and cultural practices. Everything that happens in Vanuatu is funded by France. Everything that happens in Sāmoa is funded by someone in Europe or the EU. I'm not saying that that's the answer. But it's a critical issue with this archive and maybe the Prince Claus Fund, or Mondriaan Fund or others in Europe would be more open to it. And especially this organisation, the Nia Tero Foundation, they’re co-funding this exhibition project that I'm producing for imagiNATIVE. Actually, I think you should talk to imagiNATIVE. My friend is the artistic director. I can put you in touch because that archive needs to be looked after.
I feel like it's time to call on all of the allies around the world, and there's no convincing people in Canberra to care. They can't be softened, they don't care. They don't care, they’re navel-gazing. They don't care about us and they don't care about anyone. That’s the political class around the world right now. The empathy has to come from people who care. I’ll put you in touch with some folks, because I don't think we should bother with government anymore, it's a waste of time. Which is why I'm doing a project in Canada for Sāmoans. There are like 10 Sāmoans living in Canada. One of them was my boss, but the context is open to that because it's an international Indigenous and media arts festival. Of course, they care about archives. Of course they care about the next generation of screenwriters, producers, all of that.
The other thing I didn't say is my brother, my middle brother did film school at Bond University. He's working on his first screenplay, but he works as a location manager for a bunch of US productions in Queensland. I'm coming from trying to archive and think about how we write the screen history. And then he's about the actual making. I just make videos sometimes.
Chris: Well, we don't want to keep you too much longer. You've probably got good things to do on your weekends!
Léuli: It's been really great to meet you too, and to speak with you.
Sam: Thanks so much for your time, we’re super grateful.