Ahead of her exhibition Namesake with Salome Tanuvasa, Quishile Charan talked with artist and writer Dilohana Lekamge about her textile practice, her family, and what the response to her work has been like so far. As an emerging artist of Indo-Fijian heritage living and working in Aotearoa New Zealand, Charan uses traditional modes of textile making to reflect upon the landscape of indentured labour and its ongoing post-colonial effects on the Indo-Fijian community.
Dilohana Lekamge: How does the use of embroidery in Namesake relate to your wider practice? As I understand, in previous works you have predominantly created your imagery through hand dyeing and woodcuts?
Quishile Charan: It has been very natural for me to come to embroidery, as it was with every other element of my textile making, as these are the processes I was raised with. Using the thread and the needle was something I’ve been doing from a very young age—it was one of the first things I could do with my hands. As I enter into new discussions with my family members, I’m picking up different techniques of textile making.
I started using embroidery because of the dialogue I had with my aaji [paternal grandmother] when she showed me how to fix saris, so if I was to rip my sari I could fix it with an embroidery stitch. A lot of the skill sets I gain and use in my practice are a reflection on the skills my aaji has developed in her own life. She can weave, make jewellery, she makes ghee, she makes yoghurt, she’s a gardener and farmer—she’s lived in a farming community in Nawaicoba most of her life. I hate to admit this, but because of the labour she has undertaken over the years she’s physically stronger than me! Through talking to my elders, my knowledge and skill sets are continuously developing.
DL: So the processes and materials that inform your work and the practices you share with your family and your aaji are one and the same?
QC: Yes, textiles and the textile industry have always been a part of my life—I’ve been a part of its growth as it’s been a part of mine. My family members have been in and out of craft-based work spaces for many generations and I learn a lot through the textile market in the islands (we call them the handicraft markets).
Fiji is renowned for both its traditional and contemporary craft, the screenprinting and bula fabric alone is amazing and only one small element to this world of craft. When I go back to Fiji I take over all of the images of everything that I’ve produced in New Zealand and my aaji asks, ‘What have you been doing—do you have the images?’ She’ll sit at the iPad or the computer and look at all these images of me and my work and ask, ‘How did you make that?’ or, ‘How did you carve that?’, so when we talk we exchange a lot of information.
When I first started studying at Elam [School of Fine Arts] I was making a lot of conceptual work that would fit into any white art space because that’s what I was being taught. At the time we weren’t thinking about what we wanted to be making as individual artists. I really hated making that work and I found it difficult to communicate with my peers about the kind of art we were all making. I questioned why I was at art school and I found that I had stopped making, but that I wanted to read and write a lot. That was the beginning of diving into a very heavy research and theoretically based practice. I had to think about what has given me knowledge, which is when I turned to textiles.
There was a feeling of not wanting to be ‘that Islander who is making textiles’ because of the stereotypes of craft being tacky, which is enhanced when you are an Indo-Fijian woman. Despite that, it created an opportunity for my family to be involved in my art practice and I had to start making decisions based on how my community would read and look at my work. That’s why textiles are important because it is a type of language and framework that is accessible—there’s nothing sadder than seeing the people you love and care about not being able to understand a part of who you are. As my practice starts to evolve, it’s nice knowing that I’m grounded in a type of knowledge system that can communicate with my community.
DL: There aren’t many examples of artists who are both conventionally 'successful' in the art world and represent and serve their community positively. I feel like there is a predetermined outline of what a successful artist should be, but those are goals specific to the art community and based on commercial success.
QC: As an emerging artist I don’t have many artists to look to who are trying to achieve a similar goal, but I think Lisa Reihana has done amazing work. As a video work that doesn't rely on spoken word, The Pursuit of Venus is really important. It is direct site of reference to Māori and Pasifika colonisation that you don’t get from academic and written histories. When my extended family members ask about career pathways in the industry I bring up The Pursuit of Venus video on YouTube. I’ve shown that video to people of different ages and backgrounds within Fiji and everyone got it. That work transcends language—it is a visual history, an oral history. We can’t rely on academia to tell our stories because it is a Western structure, it came out of colonisation, so we must employ grassroots methodologies to understand and share our histories.
DL: It’s also important to surpass written language because the English language is not universal. People of the same ethnicity do not all speak the same language, let alone all speak English, yet this is the language we have to consume when we look at academic texts about our histories.
How does response to your work from your community in Fiji compare with response from the art community in New Zealand?
QC: The most support I get is from the matriarchs in family—my fua [aunt] and my aaji. My fua and I had a long conversation where she asked what I wanted to do with my life, and I told her that a long term goal of mine is to tell the history of indentured labour—not through an academic output, but through textile making and personal narrative. My fua responded by saying, ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do and let me know how you need me to support you’. My family are the cornerstone of my practice and the last trip I took to Fiji gave me something I needed that I wasn’t getting from the New Zealand art scene.
Earlier this year, I installed my work at the Girmit Centre in Fiji to coincide with a conference I was presenting at, which was held in commemoration of the abolishment of indentured labour. I received so much support from the community there and was able to share and talk with people who knew and understood the context and history I make within. The most rewarding thing about sharing my work in Fiji was being able to speak to a group of people who have a shared set of histories. The conversation changes from, ‘What is indentured labour?’ to ‘What are the contemporary effects of indentured labour?’ and, ‘How has our colonial displacement changed with mass migration?’
I found myself with people I could talk with, rather than having to talk to. Within the conference, there was a mixture of generations. I was sitting in a room with other Indo-Fijians who were the first to write of our histories, when previously all they had been afforded was academia from elsewhere. The support offered by that generation was essential to the understanding of indenture through an Indo-Fijian perspective when most academic text relied on an outsider perspective. At the Girmit Centre, my work hung every night during the conference and many elders offered their advice and support. It’s hard waiting to go back to Fiji to be with my community, receive that mentoring and have those conversations.
In galleries I have a mixture of conversations. For example, my friend’s mum, who has a Samoan background, said that my work reminds her of home. She has some of my work in her living room and it’s really special that people can connect to the work in that way. I’ve had other people say that my work reminds them of growing up around similar objects from their own cultures. I’m also very fortunate to be able to exchange oral histories with friends from different cultural backgrounds who have their own memories of the women in their families working with textiles. Sometimes there are viewers who see the work and say that it’s beautiful or pretty and that’s the end of the interaction. It depends on where the work is shown and what type of audiences walk through.
When I had my artist talk at Objectspace, which is a craft-based gallery, the people who came to the event were other textile makers or people interested in that area.1 It was an insightful talk because during the discussion and even afterwards, I was able to bounce ideas off people and we talked about the other directions the work can be pushed in, where else it can go, what else can be incorporated, etc. I appreciate shows and audiences like that because it gives me the things I need that I get in Fiji.
DL: The response from the people in Fiji sounds so rich and beneficial to your practice. That kind of response is something that I feel we often lack as POC in the art industry because we don’t have that initial commonality of being culturally connected with many of our peers. What benefits, if any, do you get from the art industry here in comparison to showing in a Fijian context?
QC: I’m going to admit that I don’t like the word ‘art’ or ‘artist’ because I haven’t grown up with those terms. We don’t have a word for art in Fijian-Hindi and in the islands there isn’t a Western perception of what art is. Art as a concept intrigues me because I come from a creative background, but I don’t think the Western idea of art completely encapsulates what I’m doing. The best way to describe the way I work in the art industry is to acknowledge that it’s a platform that I can use and that can support me. That might change in the future, but gaining a Fine Arts degree and working with public art institutions, like Enjoy, gives me more freedom to explore the research I’m interested in. What I’m making also merges into other fields—for instance I write a lot away from my art to try and contribute to the narrative about indentured labour, and through making and researching I am able to support my writing.
DL: In my experience, cultural support has been difficult to find because the art industry is so Western and predominantly white. To find the cultural support that I need I have to look outside of the art community and often I look to my family. Our conversations aren't specifically centred on art because my family aren’t engaged with art or aesthetic discourse, but I can ask questions to make sure I’m not being insensitive by showing in specific ways or places and I can check things as simple as using the correct words. It’s a support system I use to figure out how I can improve, to ensure that my culture is being appropriately and positively represented.
QC: That kind of support is one of the most important things that colonised and indigenous people need and it is hard to find in the art world. When you realise it’s hard to find a community of individuals who will support you in that way, it reiterates past traumas of loneliness and displacement. Even though Salome [Tanuvasa] and I have different cultural contexts and opinions, we share similar colonial traumas and certain experiences. It’s been rewarding to work with someone I’m close with and who encompasses the support that I need. But it’s going to take us a while to get to a point where we have young practitioners coming in from different backgrounds who are given the support that we’re striving for. Curators often come together to discuss how to support different practices, such as the practices of colonised and indigenous artists, and those discussions are important. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the state the art world is in at the moment because art itself is a Western framework and a Western concept.
DL: When you are conceptualising your work how do you find the balance between making for the purposes of educating your audience, and using your practice as a way of relearning historical information about your heritage?
QC: I wouldn’t say I’m relearning because these practices have been around me my entire life—it’s more that I’ve taken them up. An important realisation for me was when I understood what textile making has done for my life, how at the backdrop to all of my hardships I have always found strength in textiles. Creativity is integral to the Indo-Fijian population, especially for the women. I talk about this in my essay Temporary Vanua, how I wrap my sari across my body to weaponise myself.2 This is something I’ve been doing for a long time, but I only recently came to the realisation that my textiles were serving a similar purpose, in that they were my way of communicating and that these materials are my form of strength. At uni I used to get asked by my peers, ‘How can I, as a white person, engage with your work?’, which seemed ridiculous when all art is exclusive. If I’m making something for my people and others can relate to it, then the work is doing what it needs to do. If it’s not understood, then that’s fine too. Everyone comes from different contexts and I do not expect someone to understand everything my work is about since it’s so specific to my community.
DL: How does the writing you create and publish alongside some of your shows work with your textile making?
QC: Being able to write is a form of freedom that I wasn’t previously afforded. It took me a while to build up the courage to express myself in that way, because I've been told from various directions to be quiet. I’ve been told that colonisation is in the past and my history is dormant, I’ve been told to move on from those occurrences and be thankful for the situation I’m in now. I reflect on the past because I still feel the emotions of what happened because it still directly affects me. Colonisation isn’t something you can snap your fingers and unravel. It created systems have been in place for several hundred years. The level of dehumanisation it caused for so many POC and indigenous people will take a very long time to resolve and make amends for. I want to be a part of that process. By being vocal and working through what happened to my ancestors, trying to support their stories, it all contributes to my healing.
DL: In some of your writing you outline the lineage of your name and its connection to your heritage that was spawned from what you describe as brokenness. Similarly you state that you ‘live between gaps of space’ and that you ‘see strength in being landless’. How have these juxtaposing elements of separation and connection affected the way you create your work?
QC: When I use the word broken I do not use it with a negative connotation—being landless is part of my strength. There has always been a notion of disconnection in my life. My wider community has felt it in different ways because there is the thought that we don’t belong to India, and we don’t belong to Fiji either. It’s more about understanding the relationships we have to those lands; India is my ancestral land, Fiji is my emotional homeland and New Zealand is my host country. We fought for space to finally talk about our pasts. What I am able to do now is because of what my ancestors and wider family have done. When I was presenting at the conference in Fiji, a lot of people explained in their papers how we learned to be silent and live with the oppression that we experience from our colonised history. My aaji is a big part of that recovery, helping to start up domestic violence awareness and supporting rural women in business development, which are things that were very uncommon to do for a woman in her time. When explained to my aaji how I wanted to show the history of indentured labour through my work, she told me to ‘tell the world about us’, as our people have always been told to be quiet through our suffering.
Before I was born, my father spent a lot of time naming me and he thought it was important that I was the namesake of my aaji. The ‘shile’ at the end of my name is representative of my aaji and a few years ago she told me that ‘someone will always remember me because I am within your name’. Immediately I understood my responsibility to her and I take that very seriously, because I want to represent her and continue her work. My practice is one small thing I can do for her for everything she has done, not just for me, but my wider family.
I really cherish the family bonds I have—as people who are landless one of the strongest things that Indo-Fijians have are the connections that we form with each other. It’s nice to be able to reflect on what my ancestors have given me and part of that is the connection I have with my aaji—she is pivotal to my art practice and how I understand myself.
Quishile Charan, Samundar and Haldi, 9 July – 10 August 2016
Quishile Charan, "Temporary Vanua: Decolonisation and Textile Making", presented at the Commemoration of Centennial of Abolition of Indian Indentureship (CCAII), An International Conference, March 2017, Girmit Centre, Lautoka, Fiji, March 2017.
A revised version of this paper is included in the publication The sea brought you here, published by Enjoy Public Art Gallery.