Gender and sexuality fluidity is no new thing. Western societies are only just catching up with an expressive freedom that many Indigenous cultures have practised for centuries, one that the patriarchal processes of colonisation tried their hardest to negate.
These proud histories will be celebrated by Pōuliuli, a multi-disciplinary Indigenous arts space hosted at artist-run initiative West Space, as part of the Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival. Curated by queer artist, curator and writer Léuli Eshraghi, of Sāmoan and Persian heritage, Pōuliuli brings together the work of nine incredible Indigenous artists from around the world whose work addresses the idea that there are more ways of knowing and being than strict binaries would suggest. “In the Sāmoan context that I come from, our practices and understanding of sexual and gender fluidity are like where the West is catching up to now,” Eshraghi says.
In the Sāmoan language, the term ‘pōuliuli’ means a dark or deep night of potentiality, he adds. “There’s a link to a lot of the night time ceremonial practices that we used to have before colonisation and the missionaries arrived, which could be interpreted as celebrations of life in times of war with a nearby nation, for example.”
Pōuliuli will be a safe space for creative minds to meet and learn more about Indigenous cultures from around the world, with Eshraghi making available his extensive collection of books on global Indigenous art, covering everything from gender and sexuality to spirituality and their confluence. It explores concepts like Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary identities.
Opening on Saturday, May 6, with a Welcome to Country by Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Diane Kerr, there will also be a lecture on soundscapes by Los Angeles-based composer, visual and performance artist Suzanne Kite, an Oglala Lakota person. She will also share her performance art work dubbed ‘Everything I Say is True’.
“Suzanne was adopted into a Jewish family and constructs a narrative using her family’s belongings and historical documents, so she’s looking at her adoption papers and the kinds of texts she’s had to find to connect with Lakota culture, some of which are erroneous and written by white anthropologists,” Eshraghi says.
Using an impressive combination of mediums, Kite converts information drawn from those texts into numerical data, which is then projected onto her, and landscapes behind her, while she wears a body suit with circuitry stitched into it. “As she moves around in the performance, the visuals are changing, as is the sound,” Eshraghi adds. “It’s quite incredible. She’s looking at the idea of truth in relation to the Oglala Lakota knowledge system.”
A dramatic wallpaper installation called ‘The Liberators’ by Sāmoan artist Angela Tiatia creates a stunning backdrop for Pōuliuli. It depicts a glittering chandelier ablaze in a tropical jungle, with a machete glinting on the ground below it. Tiatia’s artist statement elucidates that, “The chandelier is a symbol of Western dominance, status and colonisation with its ‘light’ shining above the machete… the most agile tool to handle the lush and fertile lands of the Pacific… is also a symbol of the underclass or oppressed. In Sāmoa, it has been used in ceremonial practices in the past such as when a chief in the village died… but many of us have lost the memory of this due to colonisation by ‘the light’.”
Eshraghi describes the work as an anchor piece for the exhibition, both physically and symbolically. “Angela is talking about an impending shift where those beneath the chandelier, or marginalised and Indigenous peoples, are rising to fight back and to do what’s right for our own practices and de-colonisation. We’re claiming space, histories and futures.”
Pōuliuli will also feature several video installations, including works by two non-binary identifying artists, Aata (Tahitian) and Ripley Kavara (Toaripi). Kavara’s ‘coconut, erupt, tears’ is a response to toxic masculinity and violence against women and LGBTIQ+ people in Papua New Guinea.
"They both have video works looking at non-binary gender existence and how to either balance between masculine and feminine imagery and energy, or do away with that framework entirely,” Eshraghi says.
It’s an idea he can identify with, having learned on a recent trip home that the Sāmoan language has no gendered pronouns. “There’s fluidity around gender and sexuality even with the heavy missionary influence,” he says. “For me it’s not so much about the language defining how people talk to me, it’s the context of what they’re talking about. At the same time I have a lot of trans, non-binary, queer, femme and masc friends and however anyone identifies, it’s really important to me to respect that.”
Yirramboi is all about respecting First Nations peoples and their cultures, Eshraghi says. “It’s pretty exciting that we are able to do this and that the Yirramboi festival has lots of space for queer, Indigenous artists looking at gender and sexuality.”
Pōuliuli is at West Space between May 6-13 during Yirramboi. The opening event is on May 6, 7pm-9pm.