Text by Dilohana Lekamge

I Multiply Each Day

In our current era where nationalism is rife in many countries, discussions about migration have become increasingly dicey. The fear that migrants are creating societal, financial, and racial imbalances that will overturn a comfortable norm is a common rhetoric rooted in racism. Arguments in favour of the United Kingdom’s Brexit campaign echoed this alarm. Leaving the European Union after 47 years, Brexit allowed the UK to have stricter border controls than other countries in the EU making it more difficult for migrants to be granted British citizenship. Here in Aotearoa, as Dr Arama Rata points out, “​​Labour came to power in 2017 after campaigning to reduce immigration, and the Greens put a cap on immigration (before apologising and rescinding the policy).”[1] In order to be eligible for a skilled migrant visa in Aotearoa, there are requirements that are directly addressing class and race, requiring applicants to earn a certain amount of money and meet specific levels of verbal proficiency in English. Political parties have historically campaigned to accommodate the wide-spreading fear of threats to national borders from refugees and migrants. This fear of invasion, a desire for ‘normality’, and a sense of national purity is ever-present, even though it often seems hidden.

Taken from the film Beyond the Substrata (2020) by Larry Achiampong, the exhibition title I Multiply Each Day holds several interpretations especially within the social climate outlined above. The multiplication of ethnic minority communities is a fear for those who support nationalistic rhetoric, in that these groups continue to arrive and disrupt an ecosystem that they believe is theirs at a dangerously high rate. Migrants are perceived as threats by those that deem them unwelcome. This perception spurs on a form of resistance to the display of multiplicity that exists within an individual. Though the idea of minority communities growing can spark panic into some, the phrase “I multiply each day” can also be read like a mantra that contains desire, manifesting the reality that these groups do grow and create support for each other in a place that may not want to fully embrace them.

 

As writer and theorist Édouard Glissant states, “Multilingualism is the passionate desire to accept and understand our neighbour’s language and to confront the massive levelling force of language continuously imposed by the West—yesterday with French, today with American English—with a multiplicity of languages and their mutual comprehension.”[2]

 

The collection of film works that make up this exhibition use or refer to language to discuss the consequences and experiences of migration while living in countries that favour European standards. The inclusion of the English language in these works confronts this Western ‘levelling force’ and coerces it to understand non-Western experiences, using it as a catalyst to achieve, at the very least, a form of sympathetic and momentarily observational ‘multilingualism’. By acknowledging the wide dissemination of Western-dominated television and cinema, these film works take advantage of coded visual effects originating from cinematic language and use them in tandem with verbal language to express a non-Western experience within Western structures.

 

Beyond the Substrata, by British Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong, specifically addresses the dominance of the West and discusses racial discrimination of black people within the UK. The film documents a hooded faceless figure, dancer Kanika Syke-Carr, who is a woman of colour but this is not evident in the video. Dressed in black she slowly moves down the aisles and around the corners of an empty supermarket. The figure starts to walk forward as overlayed whispered voices begin to speak. “I multiply each day. I know my enemies well.” These statements repeat as the camera follows her further into the store. As the figure begins to move their body more fluidly, the narration moves in kind, their tone sounding increasingly more assertive and angry, giving way to new words that accompany the scene. “Running from terror into terror. We survived.” “In this parallel universe, some people get redemption, while some get condemned to hell.” In these initial statements, Achiampong begins a dialogue about migration, blackness, racial ideologies, and discrepancies in treatment and experiences because of race and colour.

 

Beyond the Substrata was made two years after the UK’s Windrush scandal came to light—a racially motivated threat of deportation that specifically targeted people of Caribbean descent since the early 1970s. In recent years, the British government was forced to apologise after harsh policies were implemented regarding immigrants working in the UK. This resulted in at least 83 cases of wrongful deportation, mainly affecting a large part of the UK’s Caribbean population. The effects of this operation remain with over 1000 people who have applied for compensation and a further 15,000 claims are expected to be lodged before 2023.[3] This targeted effort to identify and remove ‘non-British’ people brought to light what the British government wanted its citizens to be, a sentiment that is explored by Achiampong in the phrase “White as an angel is the English child, but I am black as if bereaved by light.” Aligning whiteness with Englishness, and blackness as the opposite of white, therefore infers that blackness does not align with Englishness. The actions of the British government in this era of racial discrimination and wrongful deportation highlights what is idealised as ‘English’.

Born in London, Achiampong is the child of Ghanaian immigrants. He explores the various facets of his identity throughout his oeuvre, which is also reflected in his cross-disciplinary practice. The introductory statement “I multiply each day” reflects this belief, speaking to the multiplicity that exists within an individual that continuously expands, in spite of preconceived biases that prompt strict racial categorisation that is socially imposed upon minority people. In fact, because of faltering political and social environments that favour the European-descended majority, it builds circumstances within which marginalised individuals must continuously adapt in order to exist in these systems that do not favour them. This pattern can be seen in all colonised and Eurocentric nations, including Aotearoa.

 

Michelle Williams Gamaker’s film trilogy Dissolution (2017-2019) similarly aims to confront historical traditions of racial stereotyping and focuses on the development of fictional characters and their individual agendas. The series centres around South Asian characters in films that were initially seen through the lens of British imperialism and instead presents an image of contemporary Britain and the various diversities that make up its population. The trilogy follows one actor, Krishna Istha, a trans South-Asian British artist, as they go through the process of casting via a screen test in House of Women (2017) and into two contemporary interpretations of historical moments in film where South Asian characters have been inadequately represented. The Fruit is There to be Eaten (2018) casts Istha in a reimagining of the 1947 film Black Narcissus, where white British actress Jean Simmons was originally cast as Kanchi, a silent character known in the film as the ‘beggar maid’. For her role, Simmons wore dark makeup and elaborate jewellery including a nose piercing in order to portray a South Asian character to the camera. The character of Kanchi was a local to the film’s setting in the Himalayas, however the film was shot entirely in a London film studio with decorative backdrops giving the impression of a foreign location.

Williams Gamaker’s third film in the trilogy, The Eternal Return (2019), casts Istha again in the role of Sabu, who was the only Indian actor in the main cast of Black Narcissus to play an Indian character. Throughout his acting career, Sabu was consistently typecast, playing parts such as a child elephant driver or as Mowgli in The Jungle Book (1942) and cast in movies with titles such as The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Arabian Nights (1942), and Cobra Woman (1944). His film career slowly dwindled after serving in the American army in World War II and he eventually joined a well-known English circus where he starred in an act involving elephants. This circus is where the last chapter of the Dissolution series takes place and follows Sabu’s act and his backstage laments about becoming a satirised reflection of the already exoticised characters he used to play in his films. The Eternal Return, is shot entirely in black-and-white and uses a combination of filmic devices to indicate the time this work is set in, including costume and archival footage from circuses in this era.

 

Williams Gamaker allows these once disrespected and disregarded characters like Kanchi and Sabu to have new life through the creation of narratives where they are not considered merely exotic embellishments, but central characters that have their own intentions and desires. She describes this method of film-making as a form of ‘fictional activism’, an act of protest that takes shape as a fictional form in response to injustices that occur in a fictional setting.[4] House of Women and The Fruit is There to be Eaten recasts a silent character in brown-face with a British South Asian actor whose character verbally rebels against the Anglican beliefs of those with which she shares the scene. The Eternal Return presents a different perspective on the career of a South Asian actor typecast as a sidekick and places him as the main character and narrator of his own story. As a trans actor and performer, Istha’s mutability as an actor, as well as their own shift to a more masc-presenting individual by the end of the third film, reflects a fictional activism where abilities to typecast and categorise are transgressed. By illustrating the fluidity of a performer’s ability to showcase a variety of characters and depth within individual roles, their performance contradicts the clichéd characters that informed the need to produce the trilogy.

Christopher Ulutupu’s commissioned work also reimagines historical narratives, though not that of Eurocentric origins. Hidden amongst clouds (2021) stems from his series New Kid in Town (2020) filmed in Nelson. There he used a cast of his family members to present a story that dramatises and fictionalises his own real-life experiences. Ulutupu comes from a Samoan family largely based in Nelson, a predominantly Pākehā populated region of Aotearoa. Hidden amongst clouds imagines stories around Samoan Atua in a new light. The tales of these spiritual figures frequently come in the form of fables, often carrying moral reasoning, and are told to children in order to contemplate the idea of consequences, both immediate and eternal. These fables can be used as tools to shape a person’s character while building connections to the origins of their culture. However, they are also utilised to instil fear of said consequences in order to uphold specific, and often religious, virtues. The same can be said about biblical tales that reward one idea of righteousness and condemn anything less.

 

The introduction of Western religion to Polynesia by missionaries and settlers largely eclipsed customary spiritual beliefs and created distance from precolonial practices. Queer and gender non-conforming people, for example, were integral figures in the familial ecosystem, and were not considered unconventional. However, after Western religious values became rife, to varying degrees the stigmatisation of these community members also became more common. Consequently, the morals of those belief systems were centralised in children’s fables to divert younger generations from more condemned pathways.

 

In this new film, Ulutupu aims to decentre morality by summoning powers descended from tutelary spiritual figures. Instead of praising morality and obedience, he rewards the characters that deviate from virtuous expectations with superpowers of their own. Ulutupu’s film works are inspired by popular film and television that are notable in queer culture, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a prolific queer icon, and The X-Men, a series that has been widely recognised as a queer allegory.[5] These new mythologies that Ulutupu has constructed do not reward morality like their older counterparts. Instead, they reward otherness and those who protest the pressure to assimilate and conform to Western originating norms. The characters in these works are celebrated by showing them that their eccentricities are miraculous. Ulutupu uses cinematic effects to reimagine the resonance that spirits can hold for those who do not conform to the ideas of virtue initially imposed on them as children, thus creating a reconnection to a precolonial observance of spirituality.   

 

Similar to Ulutupu, who uses his family as a centrepoint, Emily Parr conducts a genealogical search, one that is more closely connected to figures within her familial line. Through the time spiral: ‘Oli Ula (2021) is an extension of Parr’s previous video ‘Oli Uli (2019-20) which combined visual and verbal narration to tell the story of her family’s link to Tāmaki Makaurau. Shown as a site-specific response in The Booth, Parr acknowledges its geographical significance to her family history. Parr’s great-great-grandfather Gustav Kronfeld was a Jewish merchant held in an internment facility on Te Motu-a-Ihenga in the Hauraki Gulf during World War I. He was interned under the suspicion that he was aiding the Germans. Across the water in mainland Tāmaki Makaurau were his 10 children and his wife, Louisa Silveira of Lotofaga who had moved to Aotearoa with him from her home of Samoa. Now the site of the University of Auckland’s Law School, the house once looked out to the island of Te Motu-a-Ihenga which currently operates as a site for conservation and tourism.

 

Through the time spiral: ‘Oli Ula uses The Booth as a portal of communication through time and distance, drawing on the original function of the space as a telephone booth for the building when it was constructed in 1934. For Parr, The Booth is used to bridge the gap between her generation and that of her ancestors, mirroring the gap that existed between her great-great-grandparents while they were separated during Gustav’s internment.

 

Parr’s work is reminiscent of a children’s story time, the film guided by the artist’s soothing voice that narrates drawn pictures to tell a tale. The intricate line drawings that appear throughout, act like characters that the artist moves through the story, etching real people that Parr describes through her spoken narration. To aid the story telling, Parr uses letters sent between her great-great-grandparents and family memorabilia as symbols of their significance to each other and to her. Overall, the work reads as a keepsake, a precious record of family history that has been carefully put together and generously shared. Parr explores how knowledge is gained and lost as generations move on and as different lands are considered home. This very specific recounting reveals an extremely intricate portrait of a family influenced by resettlement and forced separation.

 

Throughout history Western powers have commandeered migrant stories and warped them to displace those most deeply affected, making them side characters where they should be the protagonists. Western media, including films, allows these forces to redeem their actions and justify their motives, but wholly from their perspective as the dominant power. Though using Eurocentric languages, such as the English language and those made by Western film and television, do not allow for a true understanding of non-English speaking cultures, they do, however, create opportunity for those who are versed in these languages to glimpse their use outside of their initial imperialist agenda.

 

There are common threads in this exhibition that reference colonising forces and the reverberations of migration. The artists who have made them have commandeered these narratives and used devices introduced by Western forces and co-opted them to favour their own motives. I Multiply Each Day responds to the experiences of these artists living in environments that can be inhospitable to minority groups. Their works speak to the compromise and adaptation that is required to navigate these places and signals that in order to speak to a socially biased system, one must sometimes use the tools of the oppressor to communicate the experiences of the oppressed.

 

[1]Rata, A. (2020). 5 reasons the Māori Party’s anti-immigration stance is kaka. ​​E-Tangata.

https://e-x.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/5-reasons-the-maori-partys-anti-immigration-stance-is-kaka

[2] Glissant, E., & Dash, J. M. (1999). Caribbean discourse: Selected essays. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia.

[3] Windrush generation: Who are they and why are they facing problems? (2020). BBC News Services. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43782241

[4] Williams Gamaker, M. (2019). On Fictional Activism: Exploring the Film Trilogy Dissolution. In Deepwell, K. (2020). Feminist Art Activisms and Artivisms (pp. 40 – 53). Valiz.

[5] Betancourt, M. (2016). The Queer Subtext of X-Men Shines Bright at Flame Con. Vulture. https://www.vulture.com/2016/08/chris-claremont-on-the-x-men-queer-subtext.html

This essay response was commissioned by Gus Fisher Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition I Multiply Each Day, 2021.

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The University of Auckland