There are more than 26,000 Maori and 43,000 Pacific Islanders living in Sydney, Australia. Lured as young adults by the large urban capital, its greater employment prospects, and the hope of a brighter future, this rich and diverse community creatively negotiates narrative and affective ties to Pacific culture and community to account for identity and belonging at home in the diaspora. Pacific Washup, a 2003 video piece by Maori new media artist Rachael Rakena, and Fez Fa’anana and Brian Fuata, Australian performers with Samoan heritage, presents a performative allegorical take upon this history of migration, of personal significance to the artists. Co-produced by Sydney’s Performance Space (the artists had never met each other prior to their coming together to create the piece) the work playfully conjoins documentary tropes with affecting and contemporary Pacifika styled dance choreography to re-enact the journey of migrating bodies washed up on a foreign Australian shore. The piece captures the doubt, uncertainty, optimism and wonder that comes with arrival, and new beginnings signified. It also taps into the traditional and continuing importance of the sea in narrating identity, where for Pacific people, lineage is traced along ocean currents, through historic connections to specific island homelands.
The artists’ re-enactment of a ‘Pacific washup’ in 2003 was a purposive and timely artistic intervention, internationally projected during a decade of xenophobic policy manouvres and manipulative populist politics by the Australian Howard government of the period. Rakena openly discusses the work’s creation in the wake of the Tampa incident, a most significant turning point in Australian and regional politics which, post-September 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, saw John Howard’s conservative coalition ride an image of being tough on asylum seekers and refugees direct to Federal election success in 2002. The Australian Senate inquiry into the Children Overboard Affair revealed the moral bankruptcy of a re-elected Howard government, whose public statements that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard in order to secure rescuing and passage to Australia were not only revealed to be false, but were also supported by images taken only after the shift had sunk, and reinforced internally by orders to government photographers, to not take or circulate “humanising” pictures of asylum seekers during the 2002 election campaign.
Pacific Washup’s subtle, hand-held, durational engagement with the politics and possibilities of arrival – the sense of caution articulated by Fa’anana and Fuata’s dancers’ understated, choreographed steps, tip-toing along Sydney’s beautiful Bondi Beach on a hazy overcast dawn – in many ways continued to dialogue with the nation’s cultural politics post-Tampa. Rakena points out that following the later Cronulla riots, a period of intense racially motivated mob violence across Sydney’s beach suburbs in December 2005, she was affirmed by the appearance of banners promoted by community groups, which delivered slogans such as “Paddington Welcomes Refugees” to local streets and media.
The artwork engages quite beautifully with this terrain through a number of formal and compositional choices as well as through attention to choreography. The opening hand-held (waterproofed) camerawork immediately places the viewer into the mind’s eye of the washed up arrival. Bubbling salt water whips at and dunks the view-finder, limiting perspective, and emphasising the labour involved in this long journey to an under-articulated shore. We are then brought uncertainly into allegory through the slow, stylized movements of the one, three, and many more bodies that emerge alongside our camera-view, and similarly struggle to stand and find their way out of the ocean waves to the shoreline. But it is the dressing of the dancers’ bodies – in plastic blue and red stripy travel bags – through which the artists’ playful sense of commentary really shines through. ‘Every Maori who turns up in Sydney stuffs all their brought belongings in to one or two of those 2 big dollar bags as their luggage’. The bag reference, she says, is something that Pacific Islander audiences of the work instantly identify with and constantly joke about; it touches on the modest economic beginnings and also the shared sense of precarity of the new arrivals in their search for belonging, adventure, and work. Arguably it is this sense of modest tribute and abstracted affirmation in the work which holds the viewer’s attention to the last. There is something about the incoming bodies’ real time dialogue with the patterning of the joggers’ steps across the beach that half-speaks something of the situation. The ‘locals’ seem to take the strange arrivals in their stride, not stopping to gawk and only altering their path slightly to avoid collisions; the exhausted bodies wander up the beach together-alone in some kind of choreographed rhythm, generating an unfolding sense of local time.