Salote Tawale has long seen laughter as more than just a physical reaction. It can signal the presence of tensions that are conveniently hidden from view. The acclaimed artist remembers visiting shopping centres with her Fijian father when she was growing up in Melbourne’s Mount Waverley. A sense of otherness, she says, was a regular experience—and humour was one way to filter this.
“Growing up in such an Anglo neighbourhood, I was really aware of my body in space,” says Suva-born Tawale, who has an Anglo-Australian mother and immigrated to Australia as a child. “When my dad walked down the street, people would really stare at us, or make a big effort not to.” She gives a rueful laugh. “I used humour a lot [during] that time. For me, as an art-maker, that’s where my practice moved into a place that was interesting.” Embodiment, of course, has always been a messy business—especially for bodies that settler-colonial cultures, like Australia, have historically marked out as different.
While Tawale’s practice now spans installation, film and painting, she started out taking photos of places, later swapping photography to study Media Arts at RMIT University in the early 2000s. There, her teacher, Dominic Redfern, introduced her to video art by second-wave feminists such as Susan Mogul, whose famous 1973 work Dressing Up sees the artist deliver a bitingly funny monologue about shopping while eating corn nuts. This would become influential.
In early video work such as Rollergirl, 2004, Tawale breezily sucks an icy pole on roller skates as army tanks loom in the background. “Rollergirl comes from the experience of news I [heard] as a kid, the fact that there was so much nuclear power in the world, it could blow itself up 17 times,” she says. “As a queer Fijian woman in this society, I was othering myself and making a point of it.”
Soon after, Tawale outsourced the burden of her own representation. For Portrait of Salote Tawale, 2006, she invited 38 artists—including Jess Johnson, Emily Ferretti and Sann. Mestrom—to make her portrait with wildly playful results. The piece aimed to subvert how portraiture, a fixture of Western art, assumes that identity is singular. “As a person of colour, you are expected to represent people of colour or Pacific Islanders,” she says. “When actually, there is a real multiplicity to who we are.”
Tawale and I talk about this myth of authenticity, in particular the way it can flatten complexity and reproduce old colonial structures. To further unpack these ideas, in 2017 Tawale travelled to Suva to record oral histories and connect with Fijian artists. “Culture is always changing,” says the artist, who is interested in exploring both familial and institutional archives in her work. Later in 2017, Tawale also visited London to work with the Stuart Hall Library, where she was importantly introduced to the work of Black British artists.
Building upon these interests and travels in Love From Here, Tawale’s current solo show at the Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), the artist presents a video installation that borrows the tropes of a YouTube cooking show. The food—in this case, a can of tinned mutton—becomes a metaphor for cultural dislocation, the way systemic inequalities manifest in what we eat.
Tawale’s other solo show, I don’t see colour at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), also stems from conversation and travel—but in a different way. In London, Tawale found herself at a party talking to a French philosophy student who believed he didn’t see colour. “He had convinced himself that the legacy he sits within didn’t make him privileged,” explains Tawale. In response, the artist made a series of hanging paintings of a face rendered in a washed-out blend of taupes, pinks and peaches. “It’s a fake skin tone, the way skin is depicted in popular culture,” says the artist, drawing attention to not only the cultural fallacy of not ‘seeing’ colour, but how this furthers the colonial project. I don’t see colour notably stems from Tawale being the recipient of the inaugural Michela & Adrian Fini Artist Fellowship, supported by the Sheila Foundation—and to add to her prestige, Tawale also won the 2020 Mosman Art Prize.
Yet it’s Tawale’s upcoming work that most directly speaks to memories of her early youth. When Tawale was a child, she tells me she saw a bilibili, a traditional watercraft made of bamboo, at a museum in Fiji. “I thought I could live in the boat,” she laughs. “I thought I could live between Fiji and Australia.” For the last two years, she’s been building a large-scale sculpture of a bilibili, tied together with bedsheets. The work, which will span between nine and twelve metres, will show as part of the 10th Asia Pacific Triennale at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in November.
For Tawale, the boat reflects present-day anxieties. “There’s a post-apocalyptic vibe to it,” she grins. But it’s also about how art has helped her negotiate the places she finds herself. “It’s about pulling apart elements from history,” she says, “to speak to my own presence.”