Torika Bolatagici was born in Tasmania and spent the early years of her life living between Hobart, Sydney and her father’s village – Suvavou, Fiji.
Torika works across a range of media, including photography, video and mixed media site-specific installation. Her interdisciplinary practice investigates the relationship between visual culture, human ecology, postcolonial counter narrative and visual historiography of the Black Pacific. She is interested in exploring the tensions and intersections between gender, embodied knowledge, commodification, migration and globalization.
Torika’s work has been exhibited in New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Yogyakarta and throughout Aotearoa, New Zealand and Australia. She has published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at local and international conferences and symposia about the representation of mixed-race identity; Pacific arts practice in Australia and Fiji; representations of teachers and teaching in cinema; and gender and militarism in the Pacific.
In her role as Symposium coordinator for the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival in 2013 and 2014, Torika curated multiple panels to extend the discourse around contemporary Pacific arts practice in Australia and invited speakers to reflect on themes such as art and activism, museums, collecting and curating, cultural appropriation and contemporary practice. She also produced the symposium publication Mana Motu.
As well as 11 years experience teaching at tertiary level, Torika also has experience facilitating youth arts workshops for the local Pacific community, most recently the Pacific Photobook Project in Melbourne and Sydney.
Torika also presents the Community Reading Room – a pop-up destination for research, community discussion and engagement around international visual arts and culture, with a particular focus on contemporary art and theory from Oceania, Africa and the Americas. The Community Reading Room has appeared at Colour Box Studio (2013) and the Footscray Community Arts Centre (2014).
Torika is a photography lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne where she teaches contemporary theory and practice. She is currently undertaking a PhD at the School of Art and Design, University of New South Wales.
I am still processing my first week in Barbados. The past 7 days have been a chaotic and exciting mix of books, sweat, introductions, discoveries and breastfeeds in air-conditioned hire cars. Like previous resident Halcyon Macleod, the journey from Australia was a long series of delays and missed connections, and we also lost our portacot. But 7-days in and we’re starting to find our flow here. This week I swam in the Caribbean Sea and dipped my toes in the Atlantic Ocean. I have explored the east coast to Bath Beach and the west coast as far as St. Peter, and I learned a new word – plantocracy.
So, I arrived at Fresh Milk with three main goals; to understand the arts ecology here; meet contemporary Barbadian artists and make new work.
On my first day in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room, Annalee gave me a tour of the collection. It was so wonderful to finally be able to read publications I have only seen from afar including the early issues of ARC Magazine, Pictures from Paradise and See Me Here. ARC magazine was the main influence when I initiated the publication Mana Motu for the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival in Australia. I have admired the work of Fresh Milk from a distance for some time and am eager to know more about how the space has developed and to find out more about arts education here.
I have a thing for Reading Rooms and art libraries. In 2011 I spent a couple of weeks at the Stuart Hall library at the Institute of International Visual Arts. As a result of that experience, I created the pop-up Community Reading Room in Melbourne, using my own collection. When I found out (via ARC) about the Colleen Lewis Reading Room Residency, I knew immediately that it was a space I wanted to engage with.
I have spent my first week getting acquainted with the collection in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room, in an effort to understand the development of the local arts ecology. The collection is incredible, and during my 4 week residency, I will just be able to scratch the surface.
Some of the main texts I have been looking at this week are:
- Art in Barbados: What Kind of Mirror Image?
- Caribbean Distpatches: Beyond the Tourist Dream
- Caribbean: Crossroads of the World
- Curating in the Caribbean
- Developing Blackness: Studio Photographs of “Over the Hill”: Nassau in the Independence Era
- How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness
- Paulo Nazareth
- Pictures from Paradise
- See Me Here
I came to Barbados with a desire to identify points of connection, overlap and departure between the island cultures of Barbados and Fiji. There was an instant feeling of familiarity stepping into the thick humidity of Grantley Adams International airport last Saturday, and although I travel frequently to Fiji, I think it has taken me a week to acclimatize to Barbadian heat. Annalee and Katherine, have made me (and my family) feel so welcome at Fresh Milk and I look forward to chatting with them about their respective practices. Another highlight has been meeting local artist Anisah Wood, whose work I find compelling.
Anisah and I spent Day 2 getting to know each other and our conversation covered matters of indigeneity and belonging; deculturation, transculturation and assimilation; migration; climate change; national identity; local politics; Indonesia and West Papua ; The Dominican Republic and Haiti; foreign investment and student loans. I’m learning so much from Anisah, including how to play the game warri as a part of her Quid Pro Quo residency outreach and I’m looking forward to seeing how the next 3 sessions unfold. I’ll be leading a session in the final week of my residency.
And so I am discovering that there are some obvious similarities between Fiji and Barbados. Colonial history. Indentured labour. A sugar industry. Tourism. Rum. Protex. Mahogany. Coconut water. Expats. Poverty. At the moment I am reading more about the military history of Barbados. One thing that frames my experience of Fiji, is the overt presence of militarism. My practice-based PhD explored the spaces in which the dialectics of race, embodiment, masculinity, globalisation, militarism, colonialism and agency meet, diverge and collide in a Fijian context. So I am intrigued by the size and invisibility of the Barbados Defence Force… this is an area I want to explore further in the coming weeks…
One of the highlights of my 2nd week was attending Dr. Matthew C. Reilly’s lecture at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society titled “Contesting the ‘White Slavery’ Narrative: Repositioning the “Redlegs” in Barbadian History and Society.” While I was aware of the history of African slavery in Barbados, I was not aware of the simultaneous history of white indentured servants, and the legacy that this has left for their descendants. I get the impression that the evidence-based research that Matthew presents is not convenient for those who cling to the Barbadian ‘white slave’ mythology that has become a reference point for many right-wing movements outside of Barbados.
Matthew’s subjectivity as an Irish-American is important and I found his work to be incredibly complex and nuanced, but presented in a clear and fascinating format. His lecture really opened my eyes to seeing the Barbadian landscape in a different way, and is helping me to understand this idea of ‘territoriality’ that Anisah Wood addresses in her work. I was particularly intrigued by the research he has been conducting in the area referred to as “Below Cliff” in the parish of St John on the rugged east coast of the island and I was humbled by the way Matthew’s work has reconnected communities that had been estranged for many years. I look forward to reading Matthew’s forthcoming publication and following his research as it unfolds.
The other highlight of Week 2 was sitting down with the Founder and Director of Fresh Milk, Annalee Davis and finding out more about the origins of the arts ecology here in Barbados, from tertiary arts education, to artist spaces, the positioning of contemporary Barbadian art within the Caribbean, to the reason she set up Fresh Milk and the Colleen Lewis Reading Room. Most importantly we were able to chat about her practice, which with all her competing responsibilities, I’m amazed she has time to nurture.
Unlike Jamaica, the Bahamas and Bermuda – Barbados does not have a National Gallery. So it’s clear that spaces like Fresh Milk are crucial for providing the physical space and intellectual context for critical thinking about contemporary art and building the capacity for local art writers. Fresh Milk is a space where socially engaged practice and connection to the community is welcomed and the role of art in society is valued. But it’s also very outward looking, and a lot of work has gone in to connecting with institutions like Videobrasil and the Pérez Art Museum Miami for their Tilting Axis conference. I look at a space like Fresh Milk and I wish that someone would be able to set up a space like this in Fiji (I’m looking at you Ema Tavola).
During my weekend downtime, I continue to explore the island, and after a week of thinking about race, plantations, slavery and identity – the politics of space, visibility and invisibility are becoming more evident. The contrast between the chattels and fenced resorts remind me of the village/resort dichotomy of the Pacific. And as I look at the imported flora of the island, I’m thinking about what it means to explant botanical matter and what it means for a space to ex-plantation.
As I sat on the boardwalk in Bridgetown one evening and watched planes pass overhead, I was reminded of the proximity of Barbados to the other Islands in the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the United States – and I really felt the geographic isolation of Australia. Next week I’m looking forward to meeting with some local artist and curators!
The pace really started to intensify last week and I started to feel the pressure of being half way through the residency as I juggled writing, presentation preparation meetings with artists and other appointments around the island.. I am really feeling like I will be leaving with unfinished business…
Monday was a full day that started with a press launch for the ‘Emerging Directors Programme’ which is an initiative between the National Cultural Foundation Barbados and Fresh Milk. It was wonderful to see all Barbadian print and TV media covering the launch and to hear the inaugural recipients, Matthew Murrell and Renelde Headley discussing their projects. I also loved meeting Andrea Wells (Chief Cultural Officer, NCF) and Amanda Cumberbatch (Cultural Officer, Theatre Arts, NCF). I have loved getting to know Renelde this week and look forward to seeing her project unfold.
Following the NCF launch, I met with Barbadian curator and scholar Natalie McGuire to discuss a forthcoming collaborative project and to visit the Barbados Museum. At the museum I was interested to discover more about Barbados history and botany and was surprised to see that Fiji was mentioned in the section about Sea Island cotton. This visit sparked my interest in visiting the last remaining sugar factory here, but I hear that visiting hours can be a bit haphazard, so we’ll see how we go.
Monday afternoon was perhaps one of the most surreal experiences I have had so far, as we were lucky enough to visit Frank Rickwood’s collection of Papua New Guinean artifacts at his Colleton Estate. I am still processing the breadth and significance of his collection and what it means to find such culturally important items so hidden away and so far from Papua New Guinea. The impact of visiting the Colleton Great House has not yet left me, especially having learned of John Colleton’s role in the movement of African slaves from Barbados to Carolina in the 17th Century.
The remainder of week 3 was filled with inspiring meetings with Barbadian artists and scholars Versia Harris, Katherine Kennedy, Llanor Alleyne, Mark King and Therese Hadchity – each of them giving me an insight into their research, practice and artistic journey and the broader creative culture of Barbados. An enriching way to finish my third week here.
Week 4 began with mine and Anisah’s public presentation on the evening of Monday 27 June. I prepared a presentation to introduce the Barbadian audience to the arts practices of Australian-based artists of the Fijian, Papua New Guinean and Autonomous Region of Bougainville diaspora. My presentation was titled ‘Seeing the Black Pacific’ and focused on drawing out particular themes that emerge from Australian-based artists of Melanesian and Indian-Fijian ancestry. Specifically, Cultural Heritage, Revival and Redress; Julia Mage’au Gray (Papua New Guinea); Lisa Hilli (Papua New Guinea); Dulcie Stewart (Fiji). Performing Contemporary Oceanic Identities: Salote Tawale (Fiji); Eric Bridgeman (Papua New Guinea). Positioning the (Geo)political Pacific: Taloi Havini (Autonomous Region of Bougainville); Mohini Chandra (Fiji); Torika Bolatagici (Fiji). It’s a huge task to condense the work of such diverse artists with significant bodies of work into such a short amount of time, but I hope that those who were able to attend will be able to follow-up on individual artists.
It was a pleasure to chat about Anisah’s work in more depth, in relation to the concepts, motivations and processes behind her previous work, as well as the way she has been developing these ideas further through the residency. Working alongside Anisah has been one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my residency and I hope that our paths will cross again in the future.
On the Tuesday of week 4, I led the final session of Anisah’s Quid Pro Quo exchange session, in which I covered some basics about web content and layout for artists. We looked at some fundamentals of information architecture and compared and reviewed some of the various platforms available, before taking a look at the backend of a Squarespace site.
On Wednesday 29 June, we were lucky enough to participate in Katherine Kennedy’s presentation to a group of Caribbean delegates attending a UNESCO workshop that was taking place in Barbados that week. While I was aware of some of the work that the Fresh Milk organisation does, I was amazed at the multiple levels that they are involved in building and supporting the arts and culture industry in Barbados. It was truly amazing to see the grassroots through to international reach of the organisation and the delegates were visibly in awe of the breadth of work being achieved. There were audible gasps and ‘wows’ in the audience. It was an honour to be invited to speak about my residency experience as a part of Katherine’s presentation.
My two final days on the island were packed with multiple (and overlapping) appointments as I hopped from parish to parish trying to squeeze everything in, including photographing friends for my series The Camouflage Act. I was really glad to receive an email from Barbados-based attorney Lalu Hanuman, who wanted to pass on a copy of his publication Reality Check about “the mendacity of those in power in the days of European Colonialism – who propagated cannibal myths (and similar superiority notions), the better to facilitate their plundering activities.” (Hanuman, 2005). Not only was I grateful to Lalu for reaching out and gifting a copy of his book, but I was also pleased to learn about his work as an environmentalist and with the Barbados Marine Trust. I regret not being able to meet Lalu in-person, but was thrilled to learn that on the day he met with my husband to give him the book, he was in court and winning the case against the government’s proposal to introduce fingerprinting at all ports of entry, including for Barbadian nationals entering and leaving the country (more information in the online newspaper Barbados Today here.)
Another highlight of my final week, was meeting Russell Watson and visiting his studio to learn more about his practice. Russell really helped me to understand more about Barbadian history, culture, politics, topography and marine life. I was really struck by his photographic series Phylum, featuring disembodied figures framed by layers of luminous coral that reminded me of Byzantine mosaics.
After a final photoshoot with Sheena Weekes at Fresh Milk on my last day, I took one final drive up to Gallery NuEdge to take a sneak peek at the installation of Quaternary, curated by Natalie McGuire, featuring the work of Sheena Rose, Versia Harris, Llanor Alleyne and Katherine Kennedy. It was wonderful to finally meet Sheena Rose (whose work I have been following for some time) and take a walk through the gallery with each of the artists. The gallery is lovely and the works looked beautiful in the space; ranging from sculpture to digital print, and mixed-media assemblage. An exquisite show!
As we drove back from Holetown to Worthing in the rain with the windows open, the smell of roti filling the mini van and the sound of Skip Marley on the radio, my heart was sad to be leaving, but full of gratitude for all the learning, experiences and friendships formed. Each day as I entered the dairy I passed a sign that read ‘Manipura’ – the solar plexus, the centre of vitality. Symbolised by a downward pointing triangle indicating “the spreading of energy, growth and development.”
Thank you Fresh Milk for providing the space for growth, renewal of energy and development.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.