“. . . this sea is also of love.”
This planet’s current climate crisis is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. The pressing need to respond is often intelligently and intuitively brought into light by Indigenous and Native epistemologies nurtured by art makers and land maintainers. Those with deep-seeded connections, in tune with the environment’s natural ebbs and flows and dramatic changes, are elegantly responding with their inherent stories. The University of Queensland Art Museum’s recent exhibitions in conjunction with the UQ Centre for Marine Science have prioritised these narratives, and their current exhibition Mare Amoris | Sea of Love, curated by Peta Rake, Léuli Eshrāghi, Isabella Baker, and Jocelyn Flynn, once again uses water as a motif to unify the work of fifteen artists and collectives.
Initially, the Latin title suggests a romanticised and even somewhat Eurocentric encapsulation. However, the concept is extended by reference to mare nullius – the denial of sovereignty beyond the coastlines. So, who do these bodies of water allude to? To what places of trade, exchange, culture-making, sustenance, travel, and belonging do they reside? The works of the artists in this show respond to the consequences of colonialism, and take back their ownership, revitalising suppressed stories and relocating them within international shoreline spaces through connectedness with kinship, knowledge of the land, and intergenerational voices.
Early in this multidisciplinary exhibition Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s Pretty Beach, 2019, pays an emotive and stunningly spectral homage to his late grandfather. Eleven wood carved estuary stingrays are positioned in a black velvety seabed. An iridescent mass of reflective crystal rainfall is suspended above. Abdullah’s sea becomes a site in memory of grief and celebration, with a mysticism redolent of family and place.
Traversing both floors, works by Seba Calfuqueo, Leyla Stevens, Unbound Collective, Djambawa Marawili, and New Mineral Collective throw light on mare nullius as a mere colonial project, attempting to overthrow undeniable ancestral skills and power. Some other responses are works of pride becoming an ode to the land that struggles but endures to offer knowledge. Mariquita “Micki” Davis’s Magellan doesn’t live here, 2017, beautifully showcases the sea’s integral nature to functions of everyday life through Native knowledge of the sacred CHamoru canoe. Other responses are directed at the need for change and the lamentation of loss. Drew Kahuʻāina Broderick’s photographic series a handful of sand thrown against a white wall after work, amidst a rising tide, 2020, performances a frustration articulated within the title – attacking capitalism and colonialism for their hand in the erosion and pollution of ancestral coastlines and sea.
Maternal homes and matrilineal heritages are logically woven through the subject matter of a number of artists’ works. Christopher Bassi’s series Monuments to the South-West Waters of the Great Ocean, 2023, seems to delicately emit its own light, illuminating seashell monuments indicative of his Meriam and Yupungathi heritage, while subtly taking aim at how this symbol of life and oceanic interconnection has been misinterpreted into lifeless fabricated souvenirs. Here, and in works by Djambawa Marawili, Santiago Mostyn, Sonja, Freja and Elisa Jane Carmichael, Judy Watson, Chun Yin Rainbow Chan, and Shannon Te Ao, love and relationship to culture and water systems concretes the importance of custodianship and cultural maintenance.
Of course, although this sea is a zone of confrontation, this sea is also of love. Consistent, forgiving, generous, full of reciprocity, a life source, a place of belonging, and the source of knowledge and power. This love is palpable through the artworks and extended through the artists’ ancestral responsibilities to their land and stories. Much like the infamous terra nullius, mare nullius is revealed to be a blatant fiction through this exhibition that is, in part, an engine for reclamation and continuation of matrilineal knowledges, which are ultimately integral to the survival of all. These artists have made the choice to jettison justified victimhood and understandable exasperation or despair, and instead, have chosen love as a way to navigate forward into the future.
Mandandanji woman Lily Eather is a freelance writer and emerging curator living and working in Brisbane (Meanjin).
UQ Art Museum
25 July 2023 to 20 January 2024