Responses to the Regional Remix event and film by the original organising committee.
Featuring: Katerina Teaiwa, Janelle Stevenson, Talei Luscia Mangioni and Bianca Hennessy. Edited by Trish Tupou. Images by Talei Luscia Mangioni and Akil Ahamat.
In this introductory blog post, we talk to some of the original organising committee behind the “Decolonising the Academy” project and ask each member to reflect on their learnings, a year on. In tandem with the film, “Decolonising the Academy: Trans-Indigenous Possibilities,” we hear how being involved in this project manifested slightly different musings, though ultimately bringing everyone together through a shared drive to “unsettle” themselves and others within the academic space of the Australian National University (ANU).
Katerina Teaiwa has led the project from its inception in 2018, with an aim to draw attention to the movement of Indigenous scholars across Oceania doing work to decolonise and reclaim space and knowledge. As an Associate Professor in the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL), and one of only a few Pacific Islander academics at the ANU, it was important to create deeper connections between work being done by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) academics locally with those across the region. Through this flagship workshop, Katerina was able to create a place for academics and artists to come together and nurture the broader genealogies that connect Indigenous scholars across Australia and the Pacific.
Janelle Stevenson is also from the School of Culture, History and Language and is an Associate Professor in Natural History. After connecting with Katerina at a workshop focussed on education delivery, the idea of the flagship was born. The vision of the project has grown and changed considerably since late 2018 and as a person of privilege, Janelle acknowledges the need for herself and others to make way for BIPOC voices within the academy.
As one of the film maker’s, Talei Luscia Mangioni reflects on what it was like to experience the workshop through the double-bind of being both physically present but also seeing everything through the lens. She meditates on the labour of Pacific Islander women in the academy and the often subtle violence of editing, whilst also contemplating what the goals of the project will mean for her as a Pasifika woman journeying through her PhD.
Bianca Hennessy joined the project in 2018, when it was still in the proposal stages. She sets the scene for us with some sensory memories of Uncle Wally’s welcome to Country and brings the overall workshop into conversation with broader conflicts of organising within a settler colonial space. Asking, how do we learn to let go and surrender when the structures that are in place demand the opposite from us? Importantly, Bianca reflects on her positionality as a white woman within the workshop and how this experience was challenging yet crucial.
On the 27th of October 2019, several Indigenous artists, academics, activists and other interested members of the community gathered at the Kambri Amphitheatre to be led on a welcome to country by Uncle Wally Bell, of Ngunnawal Country. This was the beginning of a three-day event of workshops and community building. Originally titled “Indigenous Peoples and the Regional Remix: Trans-Indigenous Approaches to Decolonising the Academy,” the CHL flagship event was made up of four main goals. Firstly, to foster trans-Indigenous conversations across the ANU and other institutions in order to share decolonial ways of thinking, teaching, and doing research. Secondly, to strengthen the potential of transdisplinary Indigenous studies; thirdly, to emphasise the importance of Indigenous wellbeing within the academic space and finally, to create a short film bringing these conversations together in an accessible way.
Reflecting on these goals, what were some ways that you were able to foster trans-Indigenous conversations with attendees? What did this look like for you and how did it feel?
Bianca: To tell you what I learned from our workshop, I’d tell you to think about how it feels to be in the warming October sun on Ngunnawal country. How it was a dry spring that preceded an achingly dry summer. How we walked slowly, how we hushed gently to listen, how we moved our bodies, how we wept. How Uncle Wally’s voice slid over a calm creek and how the morning light caught Natalie’s basket of woven archival paper. How it feels to be proud of something like a project and a place that was never really yours to begin with.
I think a lot about the ways that coloniality breathes in our actions and non-actions, behaviours, language and norms. In academic gatherings we try to control everything, to make sure we know what’s going to happen. We curate who’s invited or accepted, we pre-approve what they will talk about, we plan for metric-friendly outputs like publications or keynotes. If we’re feeling really bold, maybe we’ll have a public forum. Ironically, while our ostensible purpose might be to learn and to share what we learn, the conditions of our universities – in which scarcity and competition reign – preclude us from standing back to let that happen. I think that if you dig deep enough, these tightly controlled knowledge practices have a lot to do with the ways that settler colonialism operates. Settler colonialism thrives under our desire to control, to know, to predict, to classify, to stratify, to disenchant, and to silence.
I think it’s significant, then, that our workshop deliberately eschewed such attempts at control. We spent over a year thinking over our plans and goals, and hit roadblocks whenever we tried to plan too rigidly or elicit specific outcomes. This is not to say that we expected less of our participants because of who they were – if anything, we knew them well enough to expect more – but that a crucial part of running this workshop was to surrender, as much as possible, our sense of control over what could happen, and what would come out of it. Through the creation of such a space, we were able to spend our time getting to know one another. We gained a deeper sense of the different ways each person related to their academic and artistic work.
What happens in this type of space can (and perhaps should) create challenges for white settler scholars like myself. Being white within structures of white supremacy lulls one into a kind of complacency that is as slow as it is violent. Not acting is acting, but passivity makes you feel absolved of wrongdoing. To reckon productively with whiteness, to begin to rattle its calcified bones from the inside, you need to feel uncomfortable. Viscerally, bodily, and emotionally ill-at-ease. Moments of our workshop did that, and I’m grateful for it. I’m learning that in such discomfort, acts of care towards myself and towards others are crucial for sustaining the marathon of decolonial work.
Indigenous wellbeing was an important part of the Indigenous Peoples and the Regional Remix gathering. What does wellbeing look like for you and how is it a part of your own practice as a member of the academy?
Katerina: Wellbeing should be a cornerstone of any research, teaching and learning institution and it’s particularly critical for indigenous teachers and students. Structurally and historically, places of higher education have lower numbers of Indigenous peoples from Australia and the Pacific Islands region. When you’re a minority within such institutions the pressures are often higher than other groups as you balance traumas and stresses that you’ve inherited from your ancestors with structural marginalization in the present. Culturally, we’re often raised to put others before ourselves which means our own wellbeing is deprioritised. This makes it even more important to pay attention to physical and mental health issues and support other groups in similar positions in the academy.
My main approach to wellbeing is to de-link my personal identity from my scholarly one. Family, my husband and children, my parents, sisters and their families, and the communities I come from are prioritised. I avoid working on weekends or after hours, if possible. I helped found an ANU Family-friendly committee to bring attention to the needs of diverse carers in our campus community. I also have a visual arts practise that is an important outlet for my research that challenges the norms in humanities and social sciences to produce knowledge primarily for ranked scholarly journals and books. Creativity and spirituality are a major source of wellbeing, as is my regular fitness regime.
My background is in Pacific Studies where you’re regularly in trans-Indigenous and “remix” mode. By that I mean, Pacific Studies is a regional area studies space where you’re thinking on and between disciplines, islands, cultures, states and territories occupied by many indigenous communities and more recent migrants and settler-colonial groups. It’s a transdisciplinary, multi-sited, and trans-Indigenous space where you need to understand not just one place or culture but what the region is as a whole, and how the different peoples, places, events, kinship and other networks fit and relate to each other across time and place. There’s a constant remix of approaches, ideas, methods and ways of being, knowing and doing.
Scholars often produce texts that others outside their disciplinary circles don’t engage with. How can we talk about decolonising anything if we continue to operate in exclusive circles? What we do in the academy needs to be accessible to diverse audiences. For this reason, I’m glad we went with a film rather than another kind of output for our flagship project. Producing films or similar media content is something I’ve always wanted to do in the academy as I feel that this is one of the main forms of storytelling that the general public consumes. I’ve produced visual studies and films in my own research and visual arts practices. Years ago, while heading Gender, Media and Cultural Studies in our School, I produced a video called “ANU Happy” linking to all the global remix videos of the popular Pharrell Williams song. It went better than planned and I’ve been hoping for another CHL opportunity since. As a school, however, we aren’t experts at this, our film is experimental and we’re interested in people’s feedback. I’m so grateful to Akil and Talei, Janelle and Bianca, the whole organising team, and to our workshop participants for being willing to work on this and share their stories and knowledge through this format.
It was great to be able to bring in early and mid-career scholars and others to participate and build a network thinking about decolonising the academy. This is something that Indigenous, scholars of colour and many others are thinking and writing about across the world. We hope our film contributes to that broader conversation and that the website provides a forum for and resources in support of decolonial possibilities in and beyond Oceania.
Janelle: Being part of this initiative was challenging and uplifting and I am so thankful to all the participants. Like Katerina, I attempt to prioritise family and friends over work, but often fail. While we know that women in particular still struggle with the workloads imposed by our respective institutions, what became apparent over the course of the event is that this is so much greater for our Indigenous colleagues and in particular Indigenous women. This is where relieving some of this burden and at the same time making room for others is so important for those of us in positions of greater privilege. Something I am still learning to do with more elegance and grace. Bianca spoke eloquently of the need ‘to let go’ but how numerous institutional impediments make being generous toward our fellow co-workers so difficult. Those of us who consider ourselves allies need to feel uncomfortable and reckon with our ‘white fragility’ from time to time. Breaking the mould and learning to give up some of our privilege is a path to greater wellbeing for everyone.
What are some of your reflections after making the “Decolonising the Academy: Trans-Indigenous Possibilities” film? How does this relate/shift/build upon your experiences of the flagship project as a whole?
Talei: As a Pasifika woman with limited experience of the academy, it was both inspiring and terrifying to talanoa earnestly with established artist-scholars about the institutional challenges they had endured during the flagship event. The 1-on-1 and group interview formats we used during the workshop were good because it set up an intergenerational dynamic where I was able to ask my (mostly unsophisticated, rarely on-point) questions. Then editing the film led me to unwittingly memorise some of the responses people gave in the interviews. A few times this year, things would happen in the academy and it would bring to mind some of the interviews, and I would be like, “Oh… that’s what Alice meant when she said X Y Z” or “Faye was so right there”. My relationship to the film is complicated in a way because I felt like the edit was a subtle violence in itself since it cut out so much of the lengthy and rhythmic conversations that were had.
In particular, the film made me think a lot about labour in the academy. It serves as a reminder to me of all the amazing Indigenous academics who often wear multiple hats inside and outside of institutions. Watching the film has made me reflect on the unequal distribution of labour that tends to burden Indigenous women in the academy. It made me think of how I can best be an accomplice to Indigenous peoples on lands that are not my own and how thoughtful and complementary relations can be made between Indigenous studies and Pacific studies, both of which have their unique intellectual genealogies.
For me, trans-disciplinarity is meaningful in Pacific studies because it encourages alternate and creative forms of knowledge production that move beyond tedious texts and honour our heritage and ancestors. I remember reading somewhere that Albert Wendt once said that “all art is research” which I believe to be true and often unacknowledged. It reminds me that most academics certainly don’t think the opposite and believe that “all research is art”. This definitely shows in the type of research that is considered valuable and authentic by today’s standards that earns you academic points. I agree with Greg Dening who said: “imagination is an act of solidarity” and those are words that I live by in terms of my research outputs and storytelling form. Even if this type of labour and research is not unacknowledged by institutions in Australia, I believe it is more powerful and accessible to people from all walks of life.
Indigenous wellbeing is something that I feel like is going to be a question that I try to answer for the rest of my life (or as long as I am in the academy). What I do know is that the competitive nature of the academy and the work-life routines it encourages, often has debilitating impacts and it takes us away from our bodies and relationships with each other. I think for me, wellbeing is and will be in future an ongoing reassertion and revaluing of my body. It’s not locking myself in my office all day, it’s talking to people around me, moving around beyond campus and giving myself time-off for pleasure in my daily life. It’s also about feeling part of a collective, or a recipient of a genealogy of scholars before me, with the intention of trying to leave the academy in a better state than I originally found it in for future Pacific scholars.
This blog is supplementary to the film “Decolonising the Academy: Trans-Indigenous Possibilities.” We will feature opinion pieces from BIPOC writers as we continue to think about how to decolonise the academy and what that means for us as learners, educators, activists, artists and Indigenous peoples. Next month’s dialogue post will work through what it means to teach about blackness in the Pacific and Australia during the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.