History

Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s new exhibition at Artspace Mackay explores Australia’s slave-trade history

A pile of human-looking skulls
Written by Publishing Team

Australia’s dark and often forgotten slave trade history is on display as part of a harrowing but powerful new exhibition in North Queensland.

From the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of South Sea and Pacific islanders were brought to Australia to work on plantations, often by force or trickery.

They were paid well below what European workers earned and experienced slave-like conditions.

The practice is often referred to as blackbirding.

Unmarked mass graves full of laborers who died on those plantations are still being uncovered.

Artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby is a fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander and this month opened her first major solo exhibition in Mackay inspired by that history.

“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.

A woman stands in front of a light-box photo in an art gallery
Jasmine Togo-Brisby lives in New Zealand, so this is the first time a lot of her family in Mackay has seen her art. (Supplied: Mackay Regional Council)

The centerpiece of her exhibit is a piece called Bittersweet, made from unrefined sugar and resin.

“It’s compiled of over 100 life-sized human skulls molded out of sugar,” she said.

“It’s talking about our part of the sugar industry and the legacy that is still there.

“As an artist, I’m quite driven by unconventional mediums and forcing those into being what I want them to be.”

A swirl of hundreds of feathers
Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s piece, called, Into Something Else, is made with feathers. (Supplied: Artspace Mackay)

The exhibition also features pieces made from taxidermal crows and crow products, which Ms Togo-Brisby says anchors the art to Australian South Sea Islander culture.

“There is a body of light boxes… [which were] captured at the site of the Don Juan, the first Pacific slave trade ship that came to Queensland in 1863,” she said.

“The remains of that ship are still very much there in Dunedin in New Zealand.”

Creating visibility

Ms Togo-Brisby, who traveled from her home in New Zealand for the exhibition.

But with an extended family in Mackay, she said it was incredibly special to bring the exhibition to the city.

Ms Togo-Brisby said having lived in New Zealand for six years, a lot of the family hadn’t seen most of her work.

“Why I make work in the first place and why I wanted to create such a large exhibition like this, particularly here in Mackay, is to create that visibility for our contemporary existence,” she said.

“And so maybe others are able to see what it means and what it feels like to identify as South Sea, and what we hold within our bodies — which is that inheritance that was passed down from our ancestors, which isn’t very far ago .

A series of pictures hang on a wall in an art gallery
Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s exhibition is on until the end of March. (Supplied: Mackay Regional Council)

Artspace Mackay director Tracey Heathwood said the title of Ms Togo-Brisby’s exhibition, Hom Swit Hom, was a Bislama language version of home sweet home.

Bislama is the national language of Vanuatu.

Exhibit emotional for community

Prominent Mackay South Sea Island community member Donnielle Fatnowna said it was “quite amazing” to have Ms Togo-Brisby’s exhibition featured so prominently at Artspace Mackay.

“It’s just absolutely amazing that they have come to our town to tell our story,” she said.

“So this is actually quite amazing and emotional for us.”

She said works like this helped keep the story of what happened to her community alive.

“[The artwork] does hit home when you start contemplating it,” she said.

“For the wider community… the more knowledge that you get out there, the people will talk about it but talk about it in a way that it’s not derogatory.

“It’s talking about this as what happened. This is what a group of people’s experience has been, and the major connections that we have between Australia and the South Pacific islands.”

A close up of pile of skulls, made out of sugar.
Tens of thousands of South Sea Islanders were tricked or forced to come to Australia to work on plantations. (Supplied: Mackay Regional Council)

Alongside Ms Togo-Brisby’s exhibition is a series of works by her cousin, Mackay-based artist Dylan Mooney.

Mr Mooney is a Yuwi, Torres Strait and South Sea Islander man.

Called Boundless, the works are by Artspace Mackay as a series that fuse ancient storytelling, queer culture and contemporary illustration in defiant slogans and vibrantly described coloured portraits.

Mr Mooney’s Boundless will be on display until March 20, while Ms Togo-Brisby’s Hom Swit Hom will be on display until March 27.

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