Destiny Deacon’s installation of photographs, video and sculpture in ‘Going Strait’ was commissioned by the Gallery of Modern Art | Queensland Art Gallery and included in their recent exhibition, Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands (1 July – 9 October 2011). The black and white footage in Deacon’s installation is taken from a nitrate film shot on Erub in the Torres Strait in 1899 by the Queensland Department of Agriculture.* Deacon is a Kuku & Erub/Mer woman and has strong ancestral connections to Erub. The people depicted in the film are likely to be Deacon’s ancestors, relatives, or even great grandparents. In contrast, Deacon’s colour photographs and film projection depict scenes from her contemporary family life. Friends, neighbours and relatives gather together in lively activity. In the lead up to ‘Land, Sea and Sky’ curator Julie Ewington interviewed Deacon about the ways in which her Torres Strait Islander heritage is manifest in her work. Deacon’s responses are recorded in the exhibition catalogue**:
“Mum often spoke about her Torres Strait culture and her life on Erub, before she left it. She loved school, but only went up to grade two, then was evacuated to Hopevale on the mainland because of World War Two. Mum had a lot of knowledge, history and proper culture ways, untouched by government and missionary influences, and many memories and stories – knew how to speak the language, sing and dance the songs and cook the food. She tried to teach us language and songs, but we grew up in suburban Melbourne neighbourhoods where no one else looked like us and the culture set us apart. I remember as a child, being spat on, having rocks thrown at me. Racism. We preferred to watch Mickey Mouse or play outside with friends. I was aware of certain words, the food and some songs and dances. I don’t think I have progressed much since then, but when I shut my eyes and think of Erub I think of the beach and the sea. I can smell it and hear it. … I grew up in houses where it was always on for young and old – food, drink, laughs, fights, music and politics – universal mixture of oppressed but aware people – tribal, rural and urban aborigines, Africans, Polynesians, poor whites, African Americans and Torres Strait visitors … There always has been a Torres Strait in Melbourne. People always coming and going. …
It’s strange looking at the few photos we have of TSI family, they seem so formal and remote. I used a photo of my great-grandfather Edward Pitt, grandmother Emma Nain and Mum when she was a little girl for my ‘Postcards from Mummy’ series. They all had a tough life and died young. I wonder if they would like me. … I have a few TSI frocks or ‘Marys’ as mum called them. Some call them Mother Hubbard dresses. I like them, one size fits all and they’re comfortable for a big girl in hot weather, and I have worn these frocks at formal events down south and even overseas. I tell them my real national costume is being in the nude, but the missionaries came up with this garb. I use friends and family as models in my work, so there is a lot of Torres Strait in the images. For instance, Luke Captain poses in ‘Where’s Mickey?’ and I have his brother David in the video ‘Matinee’. My brothers Johnny and Clinton have posed for me, as well as my sister Janina and nieces and nephews, Sofii, Inyaka, Elia, Atticus and Leilana. … I think of myself as an Indigenous Australian of Torres Strait and Aboriginal heritage. I’m proud to be Blak and happy it’s more normal now than when I was growing up.”
* Darnley Islanders pay tribute to Hon. J.F.G. Foxton, a film by Henry W Mobsby for the Queensland Department of Agriculture, 1899 From the collection of the Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, stored at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra.
** The Torres Strait Islands, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011 pp. 105 – 113.
Press release courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.