Perth artists Gabby Loo and Steven James Finch will be exploring a new approach to the Western canon of art and culture at this weekend’s Disrupted: Festival of Ideas. Entitled “Epistemicide in the Western art canon”, their workshop is about making visible the alienation experienced by people of colour in the face of this cultural monolith. Nina Levy spoke to the pair to find out more.
Nina Levy: Tell me about yourselves and your artistic practice.
Steven James Finch: I am an early-career community artist with migrant settler heritage living on stolen lands. I have an ongoing concern about care, culture and ethical art practices in the face of ecological collapse and climate disaster. I recently become interested in decoloniality of the illegal state of Australia and solidarity with First Nations people.
I have edited literary journals, built and lived in nomadic off-grid structures, curated festivals and visual art exhibitions, produced Fringe performances, written and performed poetry, literature and performance art. Throughout I have tried to constantly ask what is the best way of living and caring for each other and for all beings? How can we be good, curious, just and truthful?
Gabby Loo: I am an emerging multidisciplinary artist and community arts facilitator based on the stolen lands of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation. I am a second-generation migrant of Shan and Hakka ancestry.
In my personal arts practice I enjoy visually exploring my intersectional identities and autobiographical histories, of past and future self. I tend to accompany these ideas with fictionalised and surreal elements. I currently explore these ideas through illustration, comics, photography, textile works and small sculptures.
I am a co-director of Paper Mountain, creator of the CaLD & ATSI Creatives of WA online community group and I co-coordinate the ongoing community arts project Belonging with Aisyah Sumito, a local artist and curator. Belonging is a Noongar boodja-based community arts initiative with an aim to provide a safe space for artists to express ideas of self and identity, to make art, and have a voice with a particular focus on platforming Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) youth. We host communal workshops, meet ups and forums.
NL: What has shaped your artistic practices?
SJF: During my degree, when I thought being an author was a relatively straightforward process of releasing books, I developed an interest in the ethics of Soren Kierkegaard. Ethics for me became tied to aesthetics and interrelationality or spirit. I roughly remember Kierkegaard describing the ethical way as watching the face of someone who is perfectly responding to an imperfect but youthful actor on stage. So, for me, initially, creative practice and meaning-making is tied into ideas of being good and living ethically. So, instead of a solitary writer I’ve become committed to helping others express themselves. I have learned from running a magazine with my peers and putting in a lot of volunteer hours; from living off-grid in a nomadic structure in a backyard, hosting dinners about the end of the world; from running an artist run initiative; and from doing all of this while living in economic precarity.
What really helped me get to where I am today is meeting and working with incredible and good people, like Gabby Loo, Amber Boyatzis, Vidya Rajan, Claire Bushby, Alina Tang, Janet Carter and people on the dotdotdash and Paper Mountain team, people from Aunty Mabel’s Zine Distro. This led me to a key moment in 2016 when I was doing a short course with the Centre for Cultural Partnerships at the University of Melbourne, when Tania Cañas was a tutor, and spoke of how Western pedagogy and education had led to this widespread epistemicide, the death of the diversity of knowledge. From that moment, I began to take my community arts work more seriously. In speaking with our collaborators from the “Seasons, Histories, Hopes” exhibition at the SLWA, I have learned so much about who I am and what knowledge I can share with my cultures and communities – one of which, from Walter Mignolo and others, is the idea of decolonial aesthetics.
GL: In 2017 I graduated from UWA with a Fine Arts Major. I’ve been a freelance independent artist and community arts facilitator ever since. As an artist of colour I am driven to create change in the Perth arts and foster culturally safe spaces for marginalised identities.
My arts practice was shaped by personal experiences of art as therapy, a means of self-empowerment and self-acceptance. As a gender queer young person of colour, my lived experiences are laden with intersectional discrimination and the battle against harmful effects this has on my well-being. As I move towards my future, with my past as a reminder in my back pocket, I’m always learning how to unpack the internalised harm and decolonising my modes of thinking and foster positive attitude of self-realisation for myself and others.
My lived experiences and learning from peers who have also been through similar experiences are very relevant to the core of my practice, guiding how I work with individuals in communities and build creative communities which value cultural safety and decoloniality. As an artist based on stolen Whadjuk Noongar land, it is my hope that I can support creative spaces that foster intercultural solidarity, amplify the voices of BIPOC folx (Black, Indigenous, and People of colour), and learning the truth about our cultural histories (colonial erasure and Western Euro-centrism sucks big time!).
NL: How did you meet? And how did you come to collaborate?
GL: We met while volunteering at Paper Mountain, an artist-run-initiative and gallery on William Street in Northbridge. One of the first projects we worked on was during KickstART Festival 2017 for WA Youth Week. Steve, who was the Festival Coordinator at the time, asked me to run a community workshop series and exhibition for migrant and refugee background youth, supported by OMI, Propel Youth Arts WA and North Metro TAFE. It was then that the ongoing community arts project Belonging was born.
SJF: I approached Gabby to ask if they wanted to run a series of art workshops for the Office of Multicultural Interests. It was all a bit last minute, and a process that was a bit stressful for Gabby, but they really stepped up. Belonging became a beautiful ongoing project. For the State Library exhibition, I spoke to Gabby as I was applying for the fellowship. Initially we were going to do two separate individual projects, but as we spoke together and organised community gatherings, we realised that the project needed a many-voices approach to the idea of Asian identity in WA, and so it became a group project we co-facilitated.
NL: You recently co-curated and presented Seasons, Histories, Hopes at the State Library of WA, a group exhibition about Asian migrant history in WA that is the culmination of the year-long research project Imagined Migrant Future. In the exhibition catalogue you talk about how the project evolved over the year. Can you talk us through that process of evolution, and what the project uncovered for you?
GL: The Western framework of archives, libraries and museums use the white gaze to constrict the living cultural practices and everyday objects of people into palatable stereotypes and racist imaginaries.
SJF: We entered the State Library space knowing this, but also assuming that people who work in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) Sector would be aware. What we found were State Library materials, signage, and processes that seemed unaware of the inherited racist structures they were replicating. We also experienced racism from some staff members; people who would tell us our research project was misguided or unimportant in focusing on Asian migration, or who would assume that we did not belong in the staff areas or that we must be cleaners. Our fellowship itself was named after James Sykes Battye, chief librarian of the State Library, who in his Cyclopedia of Western Australia only mentions Chinese people once, and that is in reference to there being a State budget surplus and a discussion by the government on acquiring cheap labour to further increase the surplus. I wish to mention that there were also staff members who were helpful and professional, that this is not about a series of isolated incidents, but about how ongoing racist structures are perpetuated by administrative organisations.
GL: Despite these disheartening experiences there was always a strong feeling of hope when we met with our exhibiting artists. Sitting together and discussing with other non-white people our struggles with racism, both external and internal, our specific cultural knowledge and histories, and being heard as humans rather than as racialised identities was incredibly empowering. We have documented a lot of our experiences and our histories in the documentary Imagined Migrant Futures by Michelle Vuaillat and our exhibition catalogue.
NL: And you will be presenting a workshop this month as part of the Disrupted Festival of Ideas: Epistemicide in the Western Art Canon. Firstly, for those who don’t know, what is epistemicide?
SJF: Epistemicide is the colonial act of killing knowledges. It is a term used by Boaventura De Sousa Santos in the book Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide to describe how colonial powers destroy language, ancestral ties, memories and culture of subordinated groups. We’ve found this term useful in understanding current monologic expressions of culture. As local artists we’ve found that there is a violent process of meaning-making predicated on erasing and writing over the lived cultural truths of First Nations people and People of Colour that is, unfortunately, quite prevalent today, even from well-meaning individuals. And so we feel this is a much needed conversation to be had with our community.
NL: And what will the workshop involve?
SJF & GL: During the workshop we will be looking at the following ideas:
- Unpacking the constructions of truth, particularly as defined by Western Euro-centric efforts at universal truths through the erasure of cultures, languages and diversity.
- Specific histories that uncover cultural bias and theft, particularly during the Enlightenment and Modernity.
- Identifying and discussing international/local decolonial art histories and repatriation efforts.
- The effects of representation on lived and racialised bodies.
- Reference to other efforts in decolonial thought and activism.
NL: Who do you hope to see at the workshop?
GL: We hope to meet an array of people who are art admirers, artists and art workers. They do not need to have any training/experience. However, we hope those with a keen interest in truth-telling will attend and learn how our histories are documented and shaped through art.
SJF: Anyone that has ever, like me, been seduced into liking Western culture and the Western art canon, and as a result have gone through periods of real self-doubt and self-hate and shame and racial dysphoria. This space is for you. These are the truths that have always been there. Your lived experience, your cultures, your childhood: they are all as valuable and deserving as any of this.
Pictured top: Gabby Loo. Photo: Giselle Natassia Woodley.