Three artists speak about how the land we live on is cleaved by borders or shaped by colonial desires – and how art can reclaim histories that have been forgotten, buried or erased.
A passport, at least in theory, is a symbol of travel. It represents the right to safe passage. The chance to swap one country for another. But for Emily Jacir, it can also speak to a hierarchy of movement, the way a border can contain, restrict and deny. The acclaimed Palestinian artist, who was born in Bethlehem, is best known for poignant works that delve into the politics of displacement. Where We Come From (2001–2003) is a case in point.
‘Where We Come From was based on my freedom of movement as a Palestinian with an American passport, a document which allowed me that basic human right,’ she explains. ‘I utilised my passport to access Palestine for Palestinians who are prohibited entry into their own homeland. The question we are always asked at borders – “Did someone give you something to carry?”— was also an inspiration for this piece.’
To make Where We Come From, Jacir carried out a series of requests on behalf of Palestinians who are prohibited entry into their own homeland and/or who are restricted movement within it. One participant asked her to light candles in a Jerusalem church before visiting a bakery to buy falafel. Another requested that she placed flowers on their mother’s grave.
Jacir, who presented the results as a series of photographs, films and installations, says that the work would be impossible to realise today. ‘Since I made the work, so many changes on the ground have happened: the apartheid wall has been constructed, and Gaza has been effectively sealed off from the rest of Palestine. Palestinians with foreign passports are regularly denied entry into the country at all border crossings,’ she says. ‘Measures such as checkpoints, barbed wire, tanks, and soldiers with M16s have encircled every town and village.’
Since Where We Come From, Jacir’s work has drawn attention to the destruction of cultural knowledge. ex libris (2010–2012) presented at Documenta (13) in 2012 memorialises the 30,000 books looted in 1948 from Palestinian houses and institutions. Six thousand are held at the National Library of Israel, labelled AP – ‘Abandoned Property’. ex libris, she says, highlights the invisible relationship between books and the land. ‘The fate shared by all the books marked AP is that they survived further destruction,’ she says. ‘But restitution of Palestinian property has yet to take place.’
Jacir is also the co-founder of the Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research, a cultural centre built by her great-great-grandfather in Bethlehem. There, she’s curating a year-long program on agriculture and food justice.
For Dean Cross, art is a route to freedom. But choosing the life of an artist, he says, also means exercising the power to change your mind. Cross, a Worimi man who grew up on Ngunnawal/Ngambri Country, Canberra, was once a renowned dancer. Then, struck by the limitations of his own body, he decided to try a new form.
‘I fell into the profession when I was fifteen, and by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had already done all the things that I had expected to do in my career – and, sadly, dance became just a job,’ he recalls. ‘The elbow joint can only move a certain way. The capacity for the human body to express is finite.’
In 2014, Cross took time off. He enrolled at Sydney College of the Arts, retraining as a visual artist. Since then, he’s made work that uses personal and collective histories to explore home, ambition, longing and loss. Last year, the exhibition Icarus, my Son drew on the Greek myth of Icarus, who defies his father to fly too close to the sun, challenging notions of centre and periphery.
The show premiered at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery before travelling to Sydney’s Carriageworks. It featured works such as Cataclysm (2021), a blackand- white image of a Mack truck adorned with yellow numberplates and the installation Icarus, my Son, a pool of sparkling gold that speaks to the allure of the big city.
‘Being an artist from Canberra, I knew that if you wanted to pursue a profession like being a dancer, it meant leaving,’ he says. ‘As I got older, I started thinking, is this really the world I want to live in, where young artistic people are forced to dislocate themselves to pursue this idea of success.’
Cross believes that the worldview that ranks the metropolitan over the regional has roots in colonial narratives. In 700 bowls, presented as part of From impulse to action, the inaugural exhibition at Bundanon Art Museum, he worked with Uncle Steve Russell and Aunty Phyllis Stewart to recreate the list of provisions – including wooden bowls, fishhooks and hatchets – conceived for the First Fleet.
‘There’s a point at which these real-world men sat around a big oak table and asked, “All right boys, we are going to a colony, what do we need?”,’ he says. ‘But there was this complete disregard for First Nations technology.’ He pauses. ‘It wasn’t about what they brought, but what they ignored.’
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith has long understood art’s power to transform. As a child, the legendary Native American artist, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai nation, was introduced to the pleasures of art materials. It would change the course of her life.
‘My father was an illiterate horse trader [and] our reservations were in hardship times, few jobs, abusive treatment by the white agents hired by the government,’ she says. ‘My sister and I were put in welfare homes until we were school age and my father rescued us with a new white stepmother.’
‘In the first grade, I was introduced to wax crayons, library paste and tempera paint. I smelt them, tasted them. The tempera paint became my go-to place of passion.’
Quick-to-see Smith, despite discouragement, studied art at the University of New Mexico. Since the 1970s, she has been making striking paintings that combine art-historical references, found images and personal narrative. Her work, fuelled by the inventive energy that’s propelled her since childhood, draws attention to the issues Native communities grapple with today. Take Spam, a 1995 work that uses the outline of a bison to hint at the colonial destruction of ancient food traditions.
‘White shooters were hired by the government to slaughter whole herds,’ she says. ‘The US government thought that by killing our main food source, they could get rid of us.’
Her new body of work, Indigenizing the Colonized US Map, reflects the absurdity of looking at a map made by someone who has stolen the land. It also traces sites of catastrophe. ‘These 200 years of the Great Invasion have been endless disasters,’ she says. ‘The oil spills, mining waste leaching into waterways, every part of the land is littered with chemical pollution and pesticides. I paint maps to tell an ongoing narrative about stolen land, with humour.’
Post cover image credit: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Adios Map, 2021. Mixed media on canvas, 127 x 203 cm. Photo: Courtesy of the artist/Garth Greenan Gallery.