Bittersweet art explores blackbirding history in ASSI gallery takeover

Published: 27 Jan 2022

A haunting installation, comprising hundreds of skulls cast in brown sugar, is a focal point of an ASSI (Australian South Sea Islander) takeover coming this week to Artspace Mackay.

In fact, the takeover, combining exhibitions by Jasmine Togo-Brisby and Dylan Mooney, makes considerable use of sugar as an evocative material that speaks directly to ASSI identity and the legacy of blackbirding in our region.

Mayor Greg Williamson said the work featuring the sugar-cast skulls, “Bitter sweet”, was one of the most evocative works to ever feature in the gallery.

Bitter sweet was created by Jasmine Togo-Brisby in 2013, after the uncovering of a mass grave of South Sea Islanders on an old sugar cane plantation in Bundaberg.

“The skulls are presented in a mound on the floor in the darkened Foundation Gallery, and the combination of the darkness, the glistening sugar crystals and the aroma of unrefined sugar when you enter the room has a huge impact,” Mayor Williamson said.

“It’s a work that speaks of trauma but, through its acknowledgement of past injustices, it is also a tremendous means of healing,” he said.

Mayor Williamson said the exhibitions were linked by more than the heritage of the artists.

“Jasmine and Dylan are actually family – they’re cousins – and they’ve created works in response to each other’s exhibitions.

“For example, Dylan’s latest series of works for his exhibition “Boundless” uses sugar to create portraits lovingly titled “The builder”, “The fastest” and “The wisest”.

“Dylan created these works, which use sugar crystals to fill the negative space and highlight his subjects, after speaking with Jasmine about her own use of sugar as a medium.

“The technique provides an interesting texture that makes the work stand out from the canvas –it’s really effective, especially upon close inspection.

“These portraits remind us that there is a resilient ASSI community thriving here in Mackay and those ASSI families are inherently connected to the narratives of these two exhibitions.”

Artspace Mackay director Tracey Heathwood said the title of Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s exhibition “Hom Swit Hom” was a Bislama language version of “home sweet home”.  Bislama being the national language of Vanuatu.

“It’s an expression that speaks to the artist’s ancestral connections to Vanuatu, blackbirding and indentured labour in the late-nineteenth century sugar industry in Australia,” Ms Heathwood said.

“This is the artist’s first major solo exhibition and Jasmine has made the journey from her home in New Zealand to Mackay to be here for it,” she said.

“She and her daughter Eden even spent two weeks in home quarantine, where Jasmine made new works for the show.”

Togo-Brisby, who is fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander, is a direct descendant of South Sea Islanders brought to Australia.

“My great-great grandparents were taken from Vanuatu to Sydney in 1899,” she said.

“An estimated 62,000 Melanesian people were abducted and coerced from their island homes between 1847 and 1901 to establish the cotton plantations, the sugar plantations and to also be servants in wealthy homes.

“Mackay has the largest population of Australian South Sea Islanders, so this is a monumental exhibition for me and something that has been a long time coming.”

Hom Swit Hom will feature large-scale sculpture, photography and cinematic installations.

Dylan Mooney’s Boundless features The builder, The fastest, The wisest along with his 2020-21 poster series “Queer, Blak and Here”.

This series seamlessly fuses ancient storytelling, queer culture and contemporary illustration in defiant slogans and vibrantly coloured portraits.

Due to COVID-19, these exhibitions will be launched via a livestream event on Artspace Mackay’s Facebook page at 3.30pm on Friday, January 28.

The gallery will, however, be open late, until 7.30pm, on that day for those who wish to be amongst the first to see these ground-breaking exhibitions.

Dylan Mooney: Boundless will run until March 20 and Jasmine Togo-Brisby: Hom Swit Hom will run until March 27.