Artist TextaQueen reflects on the process of making photography series Eve of Reconstruction whilst on a residency, evoking themes of grief, empowerment and decolonisation.
It’s early in the summer of 2016, and I am an artist-in-residence at a place called Bundanon Trust, in Illaroo, so-called New South Wales, Australia. The residency is a dense experience for my body and mind that conjures the images in a self-portraiture photographic series, Eve of Reconstruction.
I arrive at most residencies loaded with art, food, and medicinal supplies, but piled heavier with the weight of expectations. There is the responsibility to create whether or not my brain and body wish it; the slug of forgotten or ignored access needs; the pressure of showing up as a token (brown/queer/femme); the gravity of other artists’ neo-colonial projects and their towering gendered, racial projections; and then wariness of how all these might filter into my chronically pained body.
On this residency, there is also the complicated reality of my own settler presence on others’ colonised lands. Bundanon is on the country of the Wodiwodi people of the Dharawhal nation. A few decades ago, an artist famous for depicting the landscape expressed a sentiment, perhaps uncharacteristic of a white dude, – ‘you can’t own a landscape’ then relinquished this property, not to the traditional custodians, but to ‘the people of Australia’. His ‘gift’ allows mostly settler artists to experience and represent land to which we don’t ancestrally belong. The residency proposes itself as an opportunity for artists to ‘refresh and re-focus’ in historic cottages and more modern studios, set amongst tall gums, cockatoos, wombats, and kangaroos near a swimmable river – a privilege that settlers may be able to enjoy with little grief about being on stolen land. A privilege that I have, whilst also being aware that my presence here is an outcome of the colonisation of my own ancestral lands, in Goa, India.
I feel a complicated desire to connect to the Wodiwodi country as I grieve for my degrees of disconnection from my land, culture, and heritage. Yet my body remembers our connection to a time before our land was a colony, where my safe ancestors dream the future and I am their science-fiction creation. They foresee my arrival here as their own rebirth out of the colonial apocalypses reigned upon their home and this continent. They tear pages from the bibles forced onto their descendants, to rewrite in me, the story of Eve, cast naked out of Eden into the unknown.
I am here to storyboard their narrative with my camera, my body, and this alien landscape.
In preparation, I spend the first hours of this day that is my birthday, drawing with markers on paper for a creative series that also invokes the ancestors that I trust. Together, by the afternoon, we summon the will to shuffle out from the cool studio into the extreme heavy heat, loaded with DSLR, tripod, and body sustaining tools.
My scarred left knee twinges on the uneven dusty ground as I make my way to the bush path. My sister, my mother, all her sisters, and I have blemishes on this knee from various injuries – sensory evidence of intergenerational trauma and ancestral connection. I witness echoes of these links elsewhere inside myself and in my surroundings.
Grief is tension knotted in my shoulders carrying the weighted blanket of the blazing atmosphere as it presses down, faltering my steps. Anxiety is in my gurgling gut and in the constant tickle of buzzing flies that land on my skin, returning faster than I can brush them away. Emotional trauma accumulates to overwhelm, possibly as mild heatstroke.
Yes, I am as dramatic as the biblical story I have been called to reclaim.
Though I am like Eve, in some turmoil and seeking solace in an unfamiliar place, I don’t clothe myself out of shame, but with other motivations. When my melanated body enters this landscape, it can’t avoid starting a conversation between the histories it embodies and those of the land – so I guide the conversation’s narrative with how I drape myself.
After intuitively stumbling, in my mind-body fog, onto an emotionally striking location, I undress to re-dress myself in the fabric of the land. The blooming branches I hold against myself become my ‘nature couture’ – unsellable garments that only exist on me in the moments that I capture digitally via a remote shutter release. Posed in my temporary costume, meditating on my transitory contact with the land, I aim for the artifice found in high fashion photography to resist ethnographic projections onto my brown-skinned nudity in nature.
At different hours over many days, I lumber into other scenes, gathering new materials around me to adorn myself. I find restoration. I unpeel emotional layers sitting with eucalypts as I clasp strips of bark they have shed. I soften under an eave of feathery fronds draping down from a casuarina tree. I stabilise as the third leg of a burnt branch tripod, sunk into the slow silty river.
These are the therapeutic feelings constructed by the created images, but to be honest, anxious electricity charges most of the creative process motored by my crunchy inner cogs. The angst accumulates as I take possibly dozens of shots, until the instant of spiritual reprieve – when the digital screen of my SLR gives a miniature glimpse of Eve’s sensual empowerment. Perhaps my agitated labour is what gives dramatic tension to the visuals, later to be savoured on bigger screens and print closer to life-size. Maybe only crip queer magic could crystallise these moments where body dysmorphia, internalised white supremacist beauty standards, shame around sexuality, and other griefs are removed or repaired. I create the storyboard for the decolonial science-fiction screenplay that my ancestors write for me.
The photographs are the archival documentation that my future self uses to write these words, to write our story. They cross-reference them with each of our Venn diagrams of grief: personal/collective/intergenerational. My future self is living in a global pandemic that seems to increase their diagram’s circles, but also the area that the circles intersect, bringing more connection. Their world of cataclysmic change is holding up more mirrors that reflect back experiences they recognise – of grief, pain, trauma, isolation, and also resilience, healing, intersectional magic, and hope. This experience is what our ancestors feel, rising out of their tropical ocean into the humid air, the atmosphere the same temperature as the water, blurring where they end, and what is around us begins.
Visit TextaQueen’s website to see a range of their work including the Eve of Reconstruction series.