- Project Banaba
Coinciding with the seventy-second anniversary of the relocation of the people of Banaba to Rabi Island, Fiji, an extraordinary exhibition by Katerina Teaiwa, brought to light the trauma and dislocation of the Banaban people and Australia's inextricable role in the destruction and dispersal of their land and culture for fertilizer. Commissioned by Carriage-works, Sydney, and curated by the interdisciplinary Samoan artist Yuki Kihara, Project Banabawas a reanimation of rare and recently declassified photography, film, and archival material, refined into an intimate and creative visual historical voyage. The exhibit was in a sense a remastered narration of diverse records covering early European photography of life on the island through to the intense period of phosphate mining that led to the destruction of the island's landscape and the community's subsequent displacement to Rabi, Fiji.
Teaiwa, herself a descendant of the Rabi-Banaban community, has delved deeply into the stories of her ancestors and their histories, extending the research that formed the foundation for her 2015 publication Consuming Ocean Island. As the artist argued in her book: "If the very ground of one's identity is mined, shipped, and dispersed across foreign landscapes, then 'all worlds' truly do become available for Banabans to route, root, articulate, and seek" (Teaiwa 2015:181). Project Banabacan be seen as an extension of this reflection, a materialization of the routes and articulations of the human emotive experience underlying the reality of its current indigenous descendants.
Within the exhibition, viewers moved through the sobering darkness of Carriageworks' warehouse hall, which had been divided into three aesthetic domains: a central voluminous curtain series, a three-screen video playing on the perimeter wall farthest from the entrance, and a coral reef–like assemblage of photographs, reminiscent of a salon. With a contextual narration offered at the entrance, formal written information was minimal. Separate explanatory labels were provided for the three domains, each containing its own thematic elements, but these were easily lost in the dark, industrial expanse of the room. A simple map of the region was included on the wall, plotting Katerina's research movements and the forced migration of Banaba's people and land. Throughout, there was no conclusive, unilinear, or chronological narrative but rather a concerted layering of material histories, relationships, and aesthetics. This nonlinear stylization captured the sociocultural fragmentation, juxtaposition, and reclamation of identity and culture inherent in Banaba's history.
The core element of the exhibition was formed chiefly of voluminous curtains of archival images printed on voile, dominating both the visual and physical movement throughout the space. To view the other pieces, one had to move through tonally bleached scenes of life on Banaba: summarily, fishermen, schoolchildren, miners, and ancestors. The transparency of the voile provided a ghostly aesthetic to the dark space, with the [End Page 238]irregular layering of the sheets and focused spotlights allowing the background images to become visible as shadows.
These lighter, ethereal forms were contrasted with the harder "facts" that grounded the story of phosphate extraction, represented on coarse hessian sacks. Stylized as commercial phosphate packaging, these sacks hung from the ceiling and displayed key dates, quotes, company crests, logos, and maps of Banaba on the front. The backs were embroidered with calico silhouettes that formed bone-colored reliefs of the rock pinnacles created through the phosphate mining process. These textual elements integrated information inscribed on the objects themselves, thus avoiding the need for excessive contextualization. It invited the audience to engage with the historical facts, words, multiple voices, and texts as artworks themselves, as well as the coarseness of such "academic" information to capture the truth of Banaban history.
The hessian and calico dually functioned not only as a voice of the island's history but also its materialization. The calico was an allusion to the material of uniforms worn by colonial officials and phosphate management staff and workers. The hessian sacks were a direct reference to the transportation and packaging of Banaban land/ancestors to become superphosphate, fuelling the primary agricultural industries of Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.