Jasmine Togo-Brisby is a Wellington artist, represented by Page Galleries, who works across a range of media including photography, painting, installation, and sculpture. A fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander, Jasmine’s work examines the historical practice of 'blackbirding'. Here, she talks of the Pacific Slave Trade, home, and finding beauty in difficult things.
How does your work comment on current social or political issues?
When discussing the Pacific Slave Trade I often get asked ‘why don’t I know about this?’ and I think that’s a great question for us as a society to ask ourselves. Who is responsible for our conditioning? For informing us of what information is valued? Why do some histories silence others?
In my current exhibition at Page Galleries Dear Mrs Wunderlich and my previous at Courtenay Place light boxes If these walls could talk they’d tell you my name I’m looking at the disparity between preserving the public legacy of slave owners and the invisibility of the Pacific Slave Trade. It’s a timely conversation at the moment with slave owner/trader monuments globally being torn down, but something that I’ve been trying to unpack since I was a child. I don’t consider myself or my work to be overly political, but due to the nature of my identity and the conversations I’m having with my work, it often gets categorized as such. Through my practice I’m trying to create spaces for South Sea identity to exist within and hold space, for me this seems like a basic request yet it is inherently political.
Describe your aesthetic in five words.
Can. You. See. Us. Now?
What’s your creative process?
Research. Research. Research. Make. Make. Make. I spend a lot of time on my computer researching/searching for breadcrumbs left by our ancestors. It gets quite obsessive and is difficult in all aspects of the word. 2am journeys into online archives and collections is common practice for me. I spend as much time there as I can then I’ll usually become frustrated with what is and isn’t available, then I take that energy to the studio. My ongoing research means that new mediums to work with are always revealing themselves to me, be it sugar, paper sugar bags, plaster or photographic. I will begin to experiment with the medium and manipulate and push the boundaries of the materials. If I’m making sculptural works then I prefer to be alone, I see this time as a type of meditation. If I’m working in photography then I’ll start by messing around in the studio alone or with my daughter taking pics with my cell phone. I’ll then meet with my photographer and we discuss my limitations and possibilities of my vision and go from there.
How do you measure the success of your designs?
I measure the success of my work through my community. I’ll often receive a message from someone back home telling me they can see themselves within the work or that they see the stories of our people. That’s validation for me that I have done my job. Everything else is great and appreciated, but if I haven’t created work in a way that speaks to my community firstly then I’m not doing this right.
Where do you find beauty?
I find beauty within the resilience, self-determination and strength of our families and communities. I’ve just seen a meme on a fellow South Sea Islander's Instagram page which said 'I come from a long line of slaves/survivors, don’t underestimate me!' That pride is a thing of beauty. Our history is difficult, researching it can be challenging and traumatic. Objects of beauty were used as tools to lure our ancestors into the holds of slave ships. From the deck of the ship trinkets, mirrors and beads caught the sunlight and shone to the shore, to entice our people to swim out to the ship, this coercion and abduction was called ‘blackbirding’. As part of my practice I reclaim materials of the trade and I use them as my own material culture and present them to the viewer in a similar manner, a type of subversion of ‘blackbirding’. I lure the viewer with beauty and intrigue, so I guess I also find beauty within the mediums I work with.
What is ‘home’ for you?
Home is acceptance, not being questioned or debated with about my culture and identity. Pasifika slave diaspora isn’t always easy for people to understand, so home is not needing to explain myself. Last year I travelled to Fiji for a ‘Blackbirding’ conference where I met with some of our Fijian born Ni Vanuatu and Solomon descendants of the Pacific Slave Trade. When I meet people whose identities were formed in similar ways to mine there’s a type of connection that happens, and we don’t need many words 'cause we both already know, that knowing is home…those moments are home.
What book is beside your bed?
The current stack is…
Black is a Color (A history of African American Art), Elvan Zabunyan.
Decolonising Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith.
Fields of Sorrow: An oral history of descendants of the South Sea Islanders (Kanakas), edited by Cristine Andrew & Penny Cook.
Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art, Darren Jorgensen and Ian Mclean.
Family Frames: Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Marianne Hirsch.
In two sentences, teach us something we might not already know.
The Pacific Slave ship the Don Juan entered the port of Brisbane in 1863, transporting 73 islanders from Erromango, Vanuatu to Robert Towns cotton plantation in Queensland, and some years later the Don Juan made its way to Port Chalmers, New Zealand where it was purchased by a merchant. What remains of the Don Juan is visible at Deborah Bay on low tide and my family and I created a moving image work at this site, which will be exhibited alongside borrowed museum objects at my solo exhibition at CoCA opening 28 August (it may be grammatically incorrect, but it is two sentences!).