Interviews: Léuli Eshraghi on language and ancestors, motivation and context
Léuli Eshraghi is an Australian artist and curator of Sāmoan, Persian and Chinese ancestries living and working between Tiohtià:ke/Montréal and Garrmalang/Darwin. He creates performances, installations, writing and curatorial projects centred on embodied knowledges, ceremonial-political practices, language renewal and hopeful futures throughout the Great Ocean. In early October Léuli presented tagatanu‘u a multilingual performance installation at Watch This Space in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Regional Arts Australia’s Alana Hunt chatted with Léuli about the motivations that drive his practice and the different contexts in which they circulate.
Alana Hunt: Can we begin by hearing about what prompted this complex multilingual performance and installation for you personally?
Léuli Eshraghi: I am mostly a self-taught artist who used to paint in watercolours on printmaking paper, tried some etching and woodcut prints, then made some installations and performance video works. By the time I took part in a series of residencies with performance-based public showings I was focusing on performance as a way to bring poetic texts to action and heal diasporic Indigenous bodies like mine. Some projects in particular have been of great importance to my artistic development. These include, Lukautim Solwara: Look out for the ocean, a project presented by Next Wave with lead artist Rosanna Raymond and 7 other Indigenous artists of Australia and the wider Great Ocean including myself. This took place in February 2017 for the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, over an evening within ACCA's important Sovereignty survey curated by Paola Balla. Also the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence in Honolulu, Oʻahu, again with Raymond but also 50 other artists and collectives from across the Great Ocean and across the United States. I wanted and want to feel wellness in my body and in the chosen and bloodline communities I belong to, so I write, speak, and move in order to make these happen and be realised.
AH: How have you navigated the complex terrain of incorporating not only your own languages, but also those of friends and places you have encountered?
LE: I'm a very inquisitive language-obsessed visitor and learner. I naturally ask new friends and old about their languages or what knowledges might be revived in particular settler and militourist colonial contexts. For all the people I visited in 2017, across territories within the colonial states of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States, and the Independent State of Sāmoa, I wished to speak the words that had been shared with me back to the people that shared them, reflecting back with comparable concepts in my ancestral Indigenous language, gagana Sāmoa. I do not own their or my language words of course, these are part of collective Indigenous cultural and intellectual property. I wish for more and more complex Indigenous modes of being to be communicated as possible, with less and less English translation. Not everything can be reduced to monolingual anglophone consumability or understanding.
AH: Generally speaking contemporary art, particularly within its Western guises, embraces a kind of secularism that is increasingly being disrupted, often by artists whose life and work have groundings outside and beyond the western world. What does it mean to you to bring these stories and energies, their ceremonies and your ancestors, into a contemporary art space?
LE: Each time that I have made this work, it is important to me that I bring my ancestors with me intentionally. These are often the rarest times of the year that I speak gagana Sāmoa. While I signal in the artist statement that I am bringing my ancestors and cultural histories that significantly predate European incursion in the Great Ocean into the space, I don't divulge or expose the content of my actions for settler consumption either. There is a layer of the unknowable that I am comfortable keeping.
AH: Although tagatanuʻu had its Australian premiere in Mparntwe/Alice Springs at the artist-run venue Watch This Space in early October 2019, the work was first shared with the world in Canada (2017) and has also been shown at the Sharjah Biennial (2019) in the United Arab Emirates. What have these different places contributed to the piece, and how has its reception changed across these contexts.
LE: Deconstructing Comfort, curated by France Trépanier, Michelle Jacques and Doug Jarvis at Open Space in Victoria, Canada, on Lekwungen territory was the first place I performed this work (September 2017). It was within the context of a conceptually scaffolded exhibition and national gathering on future cultural directions led by the Primary Colours Initiative. I was fortunate to have a knowing audience of peers and new colleagues during the opening night. While in Hong Kong, during a residency with Para Site in October 2017 I built on the work with a Cantonese speaker to create a component where I interspersed the Cantonese speaker's sections and mine in all the others. I purposely wanted to include Cantonese in honour of the Cantonese language area's struggle against Mandarin domination from Beijing, and because I have two Guangdong delta ancestors.
I expanded the work into a partial commission by the Sharjah Art Foundation earlier this year for Sharjah Biennial 14. Here I worked with curator Zoe Butt, and had the largest installation items used in and after the performance on the opening weekend. This iteration also included a comfortable reading room with texts in different languages that influenced my writing and performance practice, while also providing a deeper learning for audiences. I also cut out expletives in the English version and covered my body more than usual in deference to local values but kept these in the French version I was interspersing in the performance.
AH: Finally, where are you now and what's next?
LE: I've been in Yogyakarta for the first time to attend the Asia Pacific Artistic Research Network workshop and launch led by Dr Danny Butt (University of Melbourne) and Kurniawan Adi Saputro (Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta). I also made a new multilingual text-based installation on currents of thought and action in international Indigenous artistic and curatorial practice for the exhibition-residency, Te Whāinga: A Culture Lab on Civility, presented by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. And then lots of healing, writing and making new work for NIRIN Biennale of Sydney from Garrmalang/Darwin.
Top image: Léuli Eshraghi performs tagatanu‘u at Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber, 2019
Bottom image: Léuli Eshraghi performs tagatanu‘u at Watch This Space photo by Zoya Godoroja-Prieckaerts, 2019