What’s disguised in the name ‘coolie’?

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The Institute of Modern Art (IMA) is currently closed until further notice. You can find out more about the artist and her work here.

Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s exhibition Kūlī nām dharāyā / they’ve given you the name ‘coolie’ is a multi-media exploration of colonialism through the specific phenomenon of indentured labour. This complex show is also a journey through the artist’s tumultuous family history and an insightful inquiry into language via the troubling term ‘coolie’.

The new work builds on Simpson’s 2018 exhibition Bloodlines (at Metro Arts in Brisbane and Blak Dot Gallery in Melbourne) in which she first explored how her female ancestors were taken from India to South Africa as indentured labourers in the late 19th and early 20th century.

“My practice continues to focus on this history and respond to this lack of acknowledgement of these women,” says the Brisbane-based artist. “I believe this is important as this history has been framed and viewed from an Imperial perspective.”

The exhibition is dominated by a corrugated iron structure in the gallery’s centre, with soil lining the walls and interior. An audio installation provides a soundtrack of a woman singing in Bhojpuri. A video projection shows sugarcane fields, and visitors will also detect the smells of sugar, earth, metal and rust.

Simpson’s extensive research included work with various archives, a trip to South Africa and conversations with her mother, who heavily influenced the artist’s treatment of the word ‘coolie’.

“For her, the word holds trauma. When my mother grew up in South Africa during apartheid, the term ‘coolie’ was still used as a racist and derogatory term against Indian people.

“For me, the word will always hold ties to the indentured labour system, and the movement of free and cheap labourers for the colonies. I hope that viewers come away with a broader understanding of the word, and an understanding of the impact of these lived experiences.”

Kūlī nām dharāyā / they’ve given you the name ‘coolie’
Sancintya Mohini Simpson
Institute of Modern Art
22 February—18 April

This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Barnaby Smith