Ioana Gordon-Smith (Sāmoa/Pākehā)
plural noun: outcasts
a person who has been rejected or ostracised by their society or social group.
Outcast is the first time John Vea and Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s practices have been considered together. There are some immediate sympathies between their works. Most notably, both artists are concerned with drawing attention to those historically overlooked, marginalised, outcasted.
John Vea’s work consistently draws attention to the everyday realities experienced by Moana workers living in Aotearoa. In the past, his works have responded to construction workers losing their jobs during the 2008 global recession or the overlooked labour of cleaners. Drawing attention to invisible working conditions is at the heart of Vea’s Section 69ZD Employment Relations Act. The title references a section in the New Zealand’s Employment Act 2000 that entitles workers to rest and meal breaks. Each clause stipulates the minimum breaks required for various hours of consecutive work.
Vea’s installation replicates the experience of the workplace break time. The space is typically drab; the dull yellow walls, plastic chairs, fold-out tables, posters of beaches and a whiteboard for posters and announcements a caricature of corporate break rooms. A closer inspection reveals a charged tension in the space regarding the status of Moana workers. Various news clippings embody the deficit, race-baiting rhetoric about Moana peoples that dominate the news. And yet, there are elements of affirmation too. The cliché posters of Pacific beach scenes feature excerpts from renowned Moana scholars, including Teresia Teaiwa, Albert Wendt and Epeli Hau‘ofa. The foods—from the cans of Tai-yo and breakfast crackers—and the list of international dialling codes for different Pacific islands speak to how break rooms can become familiar Moana spaces.
The tensions between the motivating and demotivating, however, are largely only observable at a distance. The entire installation can only be perused up close for a 15-minute interval at 10.30am, a 30-minute lunch break at 12pm and the last 15-minute interval at 3pm, mimicking the timing and duration of break times. For the remainder of the day, inactive with the lights and the television turned off suggesting the break is over. A clock within the installation keeps track of the real time of the gallery as well as the installation time of the work. Collapsed into the same time span, the experience of workers and that of viewers are here synchronised.
Perhaps Vea’s most sustained concern has been with Moana workers brought to New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) scheme. Launched in 2007, the RSE scheme allows employers in the horticulture and viticulture industry to employ immigrants for up to seven months. While providing a stopgap for labour shortages, the scheme also doubles as an international development strategy. Consequently, the scheme prioritises workers from Pacific Forum countries.
Contractual obligations require RSE workers to remain with their original employer, hindering workers’ abilities to circulate the job market while simultaneously creating job insecurities. Effectively, they become a captive labour force, one vulnerably dependent and susceptible to exploitation. These restrictions, coupled with their short-term contracts, render them a blind spot in our conception of labourers, one that only rises to the surface during moments of extreme vulnerability, as seen in the recent devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle. As historian Scott Hamilton notes, “The new migrant workers cannot easily be counted as … members of the Western working class …. They occupy a sort of twilight space between economies and cultural codes.”
Togo-Brisby shares a similar concern for the invisibility of Moana peoples. Togo-Brisby is a fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander – a name and identity that describes a group of peoples abducted from their homes in the Moana in the later half of the 1800s to work on sugarcane plantations in Queensland. Tens of thousands of peoples from more than 80 different islands were brought together by this slave trade, euphemistically known as blackbirding. In a cruel twist, the turn against indentured labour in Australia resulted in the mass deportation of South Sea Islanders in the early 1900s.
For many years, Togo-Brisby has been developing a distinct visual and material identity for Australian South Sea Islanders. Knowledge of the Pacific Slave trade is growing, but pales in comparison to the the lack of awareness of its histories within our own oceans and shores. Togo-Brisby’s works in part draw light on these overshadowed histories, but more significantly produce a material and visual history distinct to Australian South Sea Islander. As Togo-Brisby notes, ‘our culture is a combination of island traditions fused with culture inherited by plantation owners’. Both Togo-Brisby and Vea show a care for those caught between codes of understanding; between ancestral homes and forced relocation, between the monotony of labour and the ongoing resilience of Moana culture, and between what we know of Moana experiences and who gets left out of the story.
an object made by shaping molten metal or similar material in a mould.
The exhibition title Outcast is also a deliberate pun on casting, a process both Vea and Togo-Brisby use when working with plaster. Over the past few years, Vea has responded to the workers’ exploitation and subsequent invisibility by making several performance-based and installation works that employ what he calls ‘urban taro’. Cast in plaster from roadside cones, the stylised taro forms allude to Moana workers in both agricultural and construction industries. The choice of metaphor here is damning. The plaster repeats of ‘urban taro’ signify the reproducible unit: cheap, easily obtained, and easily discarded.
Critiquing the treatment of Moana peoples as units of labour is repeated in Vea’s ongoing installation Import / Export, 2008-onwards. The work contains Vea’s urban taro forms in twelve large pallets: one for each Pacific Island nation involved in the Pacific Islands Forum at the time. As crated sculptures, the work hints at a global economy of cheap, immigrant labour. The urban taro have also appeared in Cultivate, a work first performed in 2008, in which Vea and a group of fellow artists re-enact the process of planting. The performers and the urban taro ‘migrate’ to a new site, where they are ‘planted’ in rows. That same formation is visible here in the exhibition. In the past, visitors have been allowed to remove the urban taro and take them home, permanently separating the artist-worker from the fruit of their labour.
Casting, by contrast, is a method Togo-Brisby uses to manipulate existing and recirculate existing imagery. She first introduced plaster into her repertoire in 2020 in response to Wunderlich ceiling tile designs. Wunderlich was an Australian-based company whose ornate and detailed pressed-metal ceiling tiles appear in many buildings of note, including Wellington Town Hall. They’re also a family who acquired a house maid: Togo-Brisby’s great-great-grandmother, granny. Today, Wunderlich pressed-metal ceiling tiles are treated as heritage items, restored in town halls and their designs archived as catalogues in libraries.
Togo-Brisby’s earliest plaster works, which she colloquially calls ‘rosettes’, retrofitted Wunderlich’s designs to feature Australian South Sea Islander emblems, such as ships or flowers. Quite literally revealing the dark side of Wunderlich’s history, Togo-Brisby’s versions were blackened with oxide and featured multiple childlike-dolls fanning out in the circle. Facing inwards, outwards, up and down, the tight spacing of the doll forms echoed the way in which bodies were squeezed into slave ships.
For Hold, 2023, Togo-Brisby uses plaster casting to further interrogate how we frame heritage histories. Tam tams are a colloquial name given to large vertical wooden slit drums from Vanuatu. Almost all cultures across the ocean have some version of a horizontal, undecorated, slit drum. Ni-Vanuatu vertical drums, however, are distinct for the carved representation of a figure at the top. The representations might relate to ancestors in general, or ancestors of peoples who sponsored the drum to be carved, or the lineage of a particular hut, or a chief (and their lineage).
Togo-Brisby has previously created plaster replicas of souvenir tams tams. In As Above, So Below, 2023, multiple plaster tam tam forms were laid out ‘in the mode of a slave ship’ and referenced an illustration used as an abolitionist symbol and recurring image used by diaspora artists across the world responding to slave histories. A similar ship reference in Hold is not so immediately obvious. Responding to the site for the first time, Togo-Brisby’s layout is more readily recognisable as a mirror to the Gus Fisher Gallery Dome above it. Though less overt, the slave imagery is still there. Recalling the layout of dolls-as-bodies in her earlier plaster rosettes, the tam tams appear in a similar circular configuration. Tam tams are, after all, distinctive in the taxonomy of ocean drums as representations of ancestors, of bodies.
In her earlier series of plaster rosettes, Togo-Brisby compared the relegation of Australian South Sea Islander histories with the restoration treatment of Wunderlich tiles in the nearby Wellington Town Hall. While not a Wunderlich feature, the dome within the Gus Fisher Gallery similarly holds a high status with Heritage New Zealand. With geometric designs and decorative plaster moulding characteristic of art deco, the dome is a centrepiece of the Gus Fisher Gallery and an architectural feature that has been renovated, restored and now protected. In placing Hold beneath the dome in a similarly geometric and decorative layout, the difference in how we memorialise Australian South Sea Islander material histories and western decorative movements are brought into direct comparison.
no longer wanted; abandoned or discarded.
something, especially a garment, that is no longer wanted.
The disregard for histories of labour that span the Pacific Slave Trade through to the ongoing RSE scheme is a fundamental oversight that Vea and Togo-Brisby respectively address within their works. A refusal to cast off the image of labour that underpins many of our industries and highly visible goods prompted a new collaborative work. Working with the politics of branding, Togo-Brisby and Vea turn their attention towards co-opting and subverting different corporate logos, high-jacking recognisable designs to carry the names and languages of Moana peoples.
$22.70 per hour, 2023 is a new collaborative line of t-shirt designs priced at minimum wage. The first features a silhouette of the Chelsea Sugar Factory in Auckland framed on either side with a palm tree with the words ‘South Sea’ beneath, and the second a Tongan iteration of the Hard Yakka logo. Drawing on a legacy of graphic identities (or identi-tees) as a form of political commentary, both t-shirt designs reinsert a missing Australian South Sea Islander and Tongan presence respectively into the branding of sugar and tradie clothing.
Hijacking familiar forms of imagery is also apparent in Togo-Brisby’s Monopoly, 2023. Sugar bags have been flattened, beaten and adhered to emulate a nemasitse. Nemasitse, a form of tapa made in Erromango in Vanuatu, is a deliberate reference to a prized Ni-Vanuatu artform. The coupling of sugar and nemasitse also appears in an earlier work, Re:Finery, 2016. Drawing out connections between Australian South Sea Islanders and the Chelsea Sugar Refinery—whose long-term presence in Auckland informed the shape of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and entertained many children on school field trips—has been a recurring strategy to both draw out our entangled and complicit involvement in the Pacific slave trade.
Togo-Brisby’s work, like Vea’s Import/Export, begins to implicate New Zealand within the transnational market of Pacific labour. While discourses and histories of slavery, indentured labour and exploitation are often deferred to other localities, both artists here, through the RSE scheme and the Chelsea Sugar Refinery, suggest the deep entanglements between New Zealand trade and Moana labour. Our ideas of the Moana and New Zealand alike are typified by casting off labour we prefer not to see, labour we choose not to remember.
Across their works, Vea and Togo-Brisby suggest that something is missing here. More specifically, someones. Within the exhibition, we can see how a refusal to ignore any aspect of history also seeps into an understanding of one’s own artistic processes too. In Monopoly, another material and visual reference enter the matrix. Like Re:finery, Togo-Brisby has repurposed flattened and beaten plaster bags to create an Australian South Sea Islander-specific version of a nemasitse. Here, however, a large blue border appears. The distinctive and striking colour emerges from empty bags of plaster that too have been flattened and treated like a textile. Integrating the material discards of the plaster needed to create Hold, Monopoly deliberately re-incorporates all material aspects into her new articulation of identity. Nothing in this exhibition is cast aside.
 Employers can transfer workers to other RSE placements at their discretion.
 The devastation of Cyclone Gabrielle along the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island displaced many, including hundreds of RSE workers who were particularly vulnerable to homelessness. Footage of RSE workers stranded on a roof raised attention on their living conditions.
 Scott Hamilton, ‘Planting plaster: John Vea and the art of migrant labour’, Eyecontactsite, 14 January 2014. https://eyecontactmagazine.com/2014/01/planting-plaster-john-vea-and-the-art-of-migrant-l
 As quoted in Ioana Gordon-Smith, Handle with Care, Auckland: Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, 2016.
 Freemantle Arts Centre, ‘Other Horizons: Jasmine Togo Brisby’, YouTube, 21 March 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3kwZqtgwek.
This essay response was commissioned by Gus Fisher Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition Outcast: Jasmine Togo-Brisby and John Vea, 2023.
Gus Fisher Gallery
74 Shortland Street
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland Central 1010
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