Still, Like Air, I'll Rise

ST PAUL St Gallery
Auckland
Feb 24, 2017 to Mar 31, 2017

There is an element of triumph in every gesture of defiance. “But still, like air, I’ll rise” wrote Maya Angelou in 1978. Writing of resilience under oppression, she is speaking for her race and gender in an address of historical and structural oppression of Black Americans. Angelou’s is a “confident voice of strength that recognizes its own power and will no longer be pushed into passivity." It’s an attitude of powerful dissent that the works in this exhibition have in common.  

The title is twice borrowed; from Angelou and from Hannah Brontë, whose work Still I Rise (2016) imagines an Indigenous women of colour parliament in Australia, through a rap music video. The work addresses her question “how do we keep fighting if we can’t envision victory?” Brontë’s and the other works in this exhibition have no patience for generalising rhetoric around ‘making change’. Rather each attends to its specific social-political context, and the gestures are direct.

Revisiting Lisa Reihana’s Wog Features (1990) 27 years after it was made, and taking the work as a starting point, this exhibition acknowledges the tone of defiance surfacing again in a series of contemporary works, and sets out to amplify this by bringing these intergenerational voices together. Reihana’s Wog Features was made at a time when identity politics were in the foreground of contemporary art. This was also a time when biculturalism was prominent in political discussions around nationhood in Aotearoa New Zealand. Representation is reclaimed in these works. Salote Tawale’s videos Sometimes you make me nervous (2012) and Pocari Sweat (2014) draw on essentialising stereotypes, reproducing them as self-portraits in direct confrontation with colonialist representations of ‘the other’.

Working with specific moments in history, including popular culture sources, Esther Ige’s work in photography, installation and video engages with the racism that she identifies is still in the ‘blood stream’ of the system now. She is concerned specifically with the prevalence of racism and racist stereotypes in the media and popular culture and “through symbolic expression, gesture and stance: from declaration, to resistance, to defiance, to protest” her work brings this negative stereotyping up for discussion.

Leafa Wilson & Olga Krause present Unprotected #1: This ain’t no disco, the first in a series of built and inhabited structures that establish protection from the conventions Western art, holding ground in the gallery. Wilson & Krause’s work often takes place in institutional spaces, and is directly responsive to the structural inequities that often exist there, and to the need as artists and curators to find habitable positions ‘within’ such institutional systems. Skawennati’s TimeTraveller™ (2008-2013) appropriates the forms of virtual reality game Second Life and those of the contemporary museum industry. Set in 2121, TimeTraveller™ offers viewers the opportunity to ‘embody’ the narratives of First Nations history, at the same time as participating in a form of world making that looks to the future.

The works in Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise do not revise history; they just remember it differently and at times set propositions for alternative futures into action.