13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Fiji Baat: Oral Histories and Interviews

By Quishile Charan & Esha Pillay (aka Bad Fiji Gyals)


Quishile Charan & Esha Pillay (aka Bad Fiji Gyals), Fiji Baat: Quishile and Esha at the 13th Gwangju Biennale, Podcast Episode, 2021

Date: February 2021

Participants: Esha and Quishile


Esha: Ni Sa Bula Vinaka, Kaisa hai and Hello

Humlog hai Esha aur Quishile and we are the Bad Fiji Gyals. Iske matlab hai ki humo ke dar nai lage ki koi humo ke karaab bole.

Aur jon chij humo ke maange piche rake, humo tuur de ga. And most importantly, humo maagta honour kare hum log ke Girmitiya ancestors jon resist kareez ra colonial times peh.

Aaj humlog ek dusara episode kare for Fiji Baat. Aur ek ek episode baut special hai aur humo magta thank you kare to all of our guests. Tab suno, siko aur enjoy karo. Vinaka vaka levu. And Thank you.

[English translation: We are Esha and Quishile, the Bad Fiji Gyals. This means that we are not scared if anyone calls us bad. And anything that wants to hold us back, we will break it. Most importantly, we want to honour our Girmitiya ancestors who resisted during the colonial period. Today we will have another episode for Fiji Baat. Each episode is very special and we want to give thanks to all our guests. So listen, learn and enjoy. Thank you very much.]

Quishile: Bula Vinaka everybody, Quishile here from the Bad Fiji Gyals. Welcome back to our Fiji Baat podcast, today is our special episode, where the Bad Fiji Gyals we’ll be talking about our research that will be at the 13th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, which is, I believe, opening at the beginning of Feb. So yeah, welcome. Umm, I’ll let Esha introduce herself.

Esha: Hi, Bula everyone, my name is Esha. And yeah, today we are really excited to be doing another podcast episode. This is gonna be the one episode where you get to hear both me and Quishile in conversation, and in general, chatting.

Quishile: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Esha: So yeah we’ll get into our questions. Umm, I think firstly, we’ll do some – we’ll do some basic introductions. Say who we are, what the work we are involved in, umm, and where we are based, etc. So Quishile do you wanna go first and then I can go after you.

Quishile: Yeah. Yes, so everyone’s heard my name, I’m Quishile. So I’m based in Tāmaki Makaurau, which is Auckland, in Aotearoa, which is New Zealand. I am a textile maker and craft, I work in craft. I also do research around Girmit, indentured labour. I have a specific focus on women’s resistance during the indentured labour time period in Fiji. I also have a focus on affirming that craft and textile making is a knowledge system. And that we can tell our histories outside of the West and outside of academic institutions.

Esha: Cool, okay so Hi everyone, my name is Esha. I am currently based in California, in the U.S. So in addition to the work that I do around indentured labour, and Girmit, I also work in education and I recently have started a new job in web design. But when it comes to the research that I’ve done around indentured labour, it’s mostly been around intergenerational traumas. So things that have carried over from the colonial times of Girmit. So the colonial violence and that trauma, and how it’s seeped into our communities today. So when I wrote, when I was doing my Masters, I looked at things like intimate partner violence, alcoholism, death by suicide. And just trying to understand the long history of these different issues that have been impacting our communities for so long. I also look at casteism – so how caste violence affected our communities and our ancestors in the subcontinent and how that played a huge role in indentured labour. And in our ancestors, you know, being brought over to Fiji to work on the colonial plantations.  And how that caste trauma, how it looked on the colonial plantations but how it has impacted us as descendants up until this point.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: And I also look at the histories and stories of indentured labour communities who were brought over from South India. And that’s because I’m from that community. I identify as Madraji or as Tamil. So I look at that kind of stuff. And this is, actually working with Quishile, this is the first time I am working with another descendant from Fiji, so another Indo-Fijian woman. And doing collective work, so yeah this is like the official work that I’m doing. But I’ve done some activism and research, and educational stuff on social media. Yeah, that’s me.

Quishile: Cool, yeah that was a really good breakdown of your work, aye, Esha. Thank you.

Esha: [Laughs.] Thanks.

Quishile: Okay, so the question that everyone’s been asking, “who are the Bad Fiji Gyals?”

[Esha and Quishile laugh.]

Quishile: Maybe we should touch on how the name began. Cause I think that might be an interesting one for listeners.

Esha: I think so. I think so. Yeah, so for the name, I’m really happy that people really like that name. It started off as a joke, cause I was – you know for me, we are like bad women or bad gyals and what not, is because the type of research and content that we produce and the work that we do, it faces a lot of backlash. We as individuals have faced a lot of backlash in the different kinds of work that each of us do, individually as well.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: And for me, like growing up, as an Indo-Fijian woman, and as a descendant of Girmit, you know it’s just like that idea of a bad woman or like a woman who is kharaab. Kharaab in Fiji Hindi means, like, bad. It was such a normal thing that I heard, so I heard this about the women in my family, it’s been directed at me. It was just such a normal thing, of being, like being really bad. About ridiculous things you know, it was just a very misogynist thing. And I was like hey, why not? It was just a play on words, but now it’s like this thing that’s stuck.

Quishile: Well I think also people, other, we won’t name any names here, but other people that work in indentured labour and research have also called us these things too. So like you’re saying this wasn’t just a work thing coming up with this name. It’s also like words that have followed us around, you know, in a cultural sense.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: But I think also in a historical sense, if we look at the research that we were doing, I think you and me both really, we really enjoyed seeing the rebellious moments that, you know, Girmitiya women were doing. And they would use that same kinda languaging, that’s even used now, to kinda shame women or to keep women in their place in our community.  And I just remember reading those colonial articles, you know these bad women…And I think I remember, feeling a lot of solidarity with them reading that. Cause I feel like calling ourselves Bad Fiji Gyals, is a reclamation of all that kinda stuff that they would label, you know, our ancestors. The ones that were rebelling and leading these resistance movements. And I think that, yeah it’s like a way of showing – flipping these words and taking their meaning away from them as well.

Esha: Yeah, for sure.

Quishile: Yeah. So yeah, it’s like part of how – that’s kinda how the Bad Fiji Gyals got its name. It’s stuck. And here we are. [Laughs.]

Esha: And you know what else I would add, when it comes to descendents themselves doing this work, I think both me and Quishile are also trying to really pushback on respectability politics.

Quishile: Yeah.

Esha: And professionalism, and language, especially in the work that we do. And how we write. So for it to be Bad Fiji Gyals, of course there’s gonna be some people who think like “Oh, what’s that all about?” or “Why are they talking like that?” or “Why do they have that name?” But it’s a very political thing as well.

Quishile: Yeah.

Esha: Yeah, it’s pushing back on a lot of things, a lot of different things.

Quishile: Yeah, it’s also breaking down the colonial constructs of ideal womanhood that were set out not only just for us, but our ancestors. And I think it carries on that very long legacy of women leading these resistance movements and also goes to show that rebelling or resisting against colonialism, it can happen in small moments like this. Within a name, or the languaging, or the words that you are using. Exactly, like what you said, stuff like respectability politics and so much of that has been forced onto our community. And me and Esha have talked about it in the essay, we even talk about it in other podcast episodes with our guests, but yeah that’s definitely like a recurring thing in our history. That whole clean up phase, where they tried to clean us up, which they’re still trying to do. Maybe Esha you can talk a little bit to the whole clean up aspect of our histories.

Esha: Yeah, so umm, I think if I take an example from our essay, because we also expand on this in detail. It’s just when our histories are told, whether it’s by academics, or just even when you’re reading about it. I mean, of course, the violence of indenture is acknowledged but it’s so complex, and it’s so complicated. It’s not just as if indentured labour happening; but then the retelling of it, it’s just so – I mean we talk about this, but we’re also fighting against white supremacy but then it’s also Brahminical supremacy and casteism, and the violence that we have also faced by the Indian state. So when both of these, whether it’s white historians or Indians, upper-caste Indians from the subcontinent, when they retell our stories – they don’t understand that the both of them are the problem. Like none of them helped us. Like white Europeans, they didn’t give us the opportunity, to be a part of what was indentured labour, and then at the end of the day, Indian people from the subcontinent, they didn’t also really support us or want to help us.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: But this cleaning up of the history is, it makes everything – it makes complex parts of our history really neat and tidy. And that doesn’t make sense. It also takes away from our militant – histories of militant resistance – fighting both the Indian state and European colonisers. So that’s how I kind of view that.

Quishile: Yeah. No that was great, that was a good breakdown. I think, before we get carried away and keep chatting about the research, I’ll just quickly introduce how this all came to be. So like I said in my introduction, I’ve spent quite a bit of time outside of this collective looking into women’s resistance. And that’s really, that’s a special aspect of Bad Fiji Gyals because that’s actually just a huge part of our histories as descendents, which has been made invisible. That is hardly recognised. There’s an over emphasis on the pain and the trauma. Whilst, that’s a really good thing that we talk about, you know, the impacts of colonialism. It’s also important to recognise and unpack who was resisting and why they were resisting.

I remember in a trip back home to Fiji, a few years back. I had come across the 1920’s strike in some archival documents. And then I remember coming across it from – there was one reading by K.L. Gillion, so a chapter in one of his books, now this was written quite a while ago. I wanna say it was written in the 70s but it might be written in the 60s. I don’t know the exact date. Then there was Ahmed Ali, he is an Indo-Fijian descendent, of Muslim heritage. He wrote about it and kind of followed up from K.L. Gillion’s research in the 80s. And then the most recent reading I had come across was Margaret Mishra, where she is documenting women’s movements and women’s resistance in Fiji. And she is [writes] from indentured labour to more contemporary times. And she slightly touches on the 1920s strike. And what was interesting to me, from these readings, firstly by this white man, and then an Indo-Fijian cis man, there wasn’t really that proper recognition of Girmitiya women leading this resistance movement. Yet, when I went to the archival documents, that’s what I was seeing. Was that actually no, I see women leading this strike. So why is it then, why are they made so invisible? Why are they so hard to recognise within this history?

Then going back to Margaret Mishra’s paper, which we can link in this episode afterwards, I can’t remember the name, the title of the paper, but she was I think the only person that I had seen actually acknowledge women in the strike. Like I said, it was a touch, she just touched – briefly, sorry, briefly touched on it.

And anyway, there was an opportunity last year, from SEVENTH Gallery, which is a gallery based in Melbourne, Australia. They’d offered up a space to exhibit a project and I had started engaging with Esha online, on her page @coolie_returns. And that was, how long were you running that for Esha?

Esha: I think maybe like 2, 2 ½ years, something like that.

Quishile: Yeah, so I just really enjoyed the way that Esha was engaging with our histories. I found her to be like a breath of fresh air, in regards to criticality, complexities. Also casteism is just not much talked about in Fiji and how it’s an ongoing thing on the ground in Fiji and how it even impacted our ancestors, you know back in the day. There’s an assumption that caste was left in India. And then when they were on the boats they were casteless. And they came to Fiji casteless. So that was one of the things that really struck me about Esha’s work. That type of complexity and criticality was really there. And so when this project was offered from SEVENTH Gallery, I just knew straight away that you were the right person to approach in regards to this work. And yeah so I sent out a message, you said yes and here we are now.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: Umm, no I so, thank you Quishile for explaining the backstory to how even the SEVENTH project was even able to come together. And at that point, before Quishile approached me, to kinda tell me about the exhibition and the research, we had only met once. We had only met once in Fiji. I was back at home, after I had come back from Fiji and we were on a phone call and Quishile told me about this opportunity. And for me there was – first of all, this was my first time doing something “in the arts.” It was something I wasn’t involved in or know much about or how things work, or worked in that field. But I knew of Quishile’s making, of her textiles. When we had first met in Fiji, she had kind of explained that to me, like what that means to her, her family history and why she does it. And I was really amazed by the work. Because for me, making and textiles – yes, I have grown up around those things. I’ve seen the women in my family take on that role. But it’s something that I don’t practice. So for me, learning about another person who comes from similar histories, interacting, with family practices – for me, I wanted to learn more about that.

And then the exhibition, honestly it was like an opportunity. It was an opportunity with another Indo-Fijian woman, another descendent. And I’ve never had that opportunity, so I said yes of course, like I want to work with somebody else. Because even so far, even when I was running that instagram @coolie_returns, all of that – well I will say my knowledge and what I know about anything, it’s not my own. It’s a bunch of people who have come into my life and who have taught me things, who I have had conversations with and relationships with. And that’s why I have the politics that I do. But producing content on that page, it was just me doing that, that physical labour of that part. And I’ve always known I really want to work with other people, just because the quality of the work is better. And the level of – yeah, the critical aspect of looking at something together with other people, it’s just worth it.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: So I was like, you know what, I’ve never done anything in the arts before. I’ve never worked with a gallery but this was my opportunity to work with another person who comes from that history of being a descendent from Fiji. But also looking at resistance, which is something that I wasn’t actively looking at. I look at things in my own family or the direct communities that I come from, but looking at political resistance in that context of a strike and labour rights, and you know fighting colonialism in that way, was new for me. So umm, yeah I was like this is something we have to do. But even learning about that history was new, definitely.

Quishile: Yeah, I think that’s a really great thing you brought up though. Like before this project, Esha, your understanding of resistance in Fiji, especially led by our ancestors who were women, like did you think we were this active back in the day?

Esha: No. I did, just like – growing up around really assertive and strong women in my family, like I just know, it’s also like a cultural thing, like I know how the women in my family are. But to think about our ancestors and connecting this long legacy of resistance, wasn’t something that had crossed my mind.

Quishile: Yeah, I think a really big thing for our collective, even with this research project now. The research project snowballed into our collective. I think a big thing for us, the both of us, was showing descendents that we actually have these other narratives, these other histories. We don’t just come from histories of displacement, trauma, violence. We have these really amazing ancestors that were doing really –  they stopped a whole system. I mean we’re still unpacking that, in our collective, and we’re still writing and researching about it. But for us to come together at that point in time, and to be like no this was actually happening, this is what these women were doing. And how cool is it that we actually have these narratives and these histories. And instead of just focusing on the very generic narratives and histories that do exist around Girmit.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Cause I think that’s another thing when it comes to literature or academia, around the histories, it’s gotten to a point where it has become very generic. There’s not a lot of complexities. Even with your individual work, Esha, it’s a very rare thing to find people researching outside of western ideas or ideologies of knowledge production and what is respectable history.

Esha: Right.

Quishile: I think that’s by far one of the most important things about coming together to do this project. That collectively we could show how significant it is to focus on histories outside of these mainstream narratives.

Esha: Yeah, no for sure.

Quishile: Yeah. That came out a little bit jumbled, but we got there. [Laughs.] But yeah I think now is a really good time to just quickly talk about the collective work and Esha touched on when she was chatting. But I think one of the really cool things about this is seeing what you can do in a collective and what your work looks like doing things as a collective. And it comes back to it, like you can’t do this on your own.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: And it was a really huge thing for us at the end of writing, of doing this research, writing this essay – it took us months to fully process what we have done together. And it was pretty like – sorry if my family is listening, but it was pretty fucking awesome so.

Esha: [Laughs.] You know with the essay, anytime I look at that essay, I still – I get shocked.

Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: At how we wrote such a fire essay within a span of – okay so, the research, planning and coming together was a year long process.

Quishile: Yeah.

Esha: But, to actually physically write that essay was maybe done in a couple of months. It’s really wild.

Quishile: Well I think also with these types of histories what people don’t – they only get to see the end products of everything we make, whether…what I’m trying to say is, with that essay everyone’s seen the end product right. They’re not seeing all of that labour that goes on behind the scenes. Your right there was so much research going on. And this is a very…

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Cause for both you and me, a big part for us for unpacking the complexities in our histories, and I remember having our meetings being like okay so what do we need to add in the essay so that anyone who is a descendant will come sit down and read this, for them to understand all the different things that are going on. And then we kept on adding on to the essay, okay so now we need to bring in this, we need to bring in that. That took such a long time to figure out. The core of what needed to be there so people had the resources and tools in front of them to start unpacking that complexity – just around the 1920’s strike and what else it’s connected to.

Esha: Yeah, yeah and the thing is when we were doing the research and writing, we realised how this one strike is connected to so many different issues, that haven’t been given the space, when you look at retelling our histories. So whether that’s the casteism, the upper caste violence our ancestors faced, or whether it’s the types of the colonial tactics that they were using. And I think Quishile, you talked about this in one of our Fiji Baat podcasts, but there was a huge difference between how men were protesting and resisting versus our women ancestors. So I don’t know if you just wanna say a short thing about that.

Quishile: Yeah, so what’s interesting is from that, from indentured labour or Girmit’s beginning in Fiji, you clearly see a difference between cis men and everybody else in Fiji, and how they mobilise and how they’re resisting. A lot of the Girmitiya men –  they weren’t as physical as the Girmitiya women. I would say a lot of that comes down to – yes, you are oppressed under the system of indentured labour, but within this system, you have more power than the Girmitiya woman. And with that being with cis…words…because they were cis men, they, it means they can mobilise differently.  They were afforded different things within the system, that our other ancestors weren’t afforded. And we do talk about this and this is one thing that we try and point out within indentured labour – there isn’t one experience that fits all people. People were coming into the indentured labour system, and they were experiencing it differently. And because when women were coming over, because they weren’t just labourers. They were brought over to essentially meet the sexual and domestic needs of the male labourers. And so they’re doing all this free labour while they are working out in the fields too. Because women, they were more oppressed under this system, they were experiencing a lot more physical and mental violence. I would argue that’s why they were retaliating so physically. Because it wasn’t an option for them. They didn’t have those options of going to write letters, going to parliament. They didn’t have the same – they weren’t afforded the same forms of respectibality that the men were. Esha, I don’t know if you want to add anything to that?

Esha: You know what I was gonna say, like, the specific types of violence that you know our ancestors who were women or not cis men, that were experiencing – it’s because these sexual and colonial stereotypes were already put onto their bodies. For the reasons why they were brought over to Fiji. You know, what was their role on the colonial plantation. Because for them it was to really set up to have a family –  what do you call that like a nuclear family?

Quishile: Well what’s interesting for us in indentured labour in Fiji, the colonisers were really concerned with heteropatriarchy and heteronormativity.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: And they really tried and used the woman to try and conform everybody else in the plantations to this idea of nuclear families. The idea of that was..that all the bad living situations, the coolie lines – and a lot of people were living in cramped quarters. There wasn’t any marriages taking place outside of western unions, weren’t legally recognised.  So you had this situation in Fiji where women had multiple partners, they didn’t need to be tied down the same way they were under Brahminical heteropatriarchy in the subcontinent. So the idea of trying to introduce nuclear families and trying really to have that as a thing during indentured labour was a way of conforming and controlling the population.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Of the labouring population. But obviously the issue with that was, that specific violence of enforcing a nuclear family or enforcing heteropatriarchy, that fell on women first and foremost. They experienced the brunt of the violence, whether that be from you know the colonisers, the people working on the plantations, or the Girmitiya men. I feel that was…I don’t know if you want to add anything else to that?

Esha: [Laughs.]

Quishile: That’s just me trying to break down the nuclear family.

Esha: No, no thanks for doing that. I think the one thing I wanted to add was because that all of those things were happening to reinforce the nuclear, heterosexual family, was just to make sure our ancestors were continuing to work. And that they were gonna be continued to be exploited. But at that time it wasn’t working and it’s because of the resistance that was happening against that. But that goes onto why we do the work that we do. Because it has to do with – and you’ve mentioned this before also Quishile on the podcast – this historical punishment.

Quishile: Yeah.

Esha: And why, why we are so bad. And why we need to be constantly reprimanded for our ancestors actions for resisting. Because at the end of the day, they could not be controlled.

Quishile: Which I think is pretty…when you look at the history and when you flip the historical narrative that’s set out for us, as Indo-Fijian women who are descendents, that’s pretty badass. You’re just like whoa.

Esha: Yes.

Quishile: That’s cool. We talk about it in the essay, but one of the women who lead…who’s very pivotal in the strike, there’s this one line that has always stuck with me, and just paraphrasing here – and she walks up to a police officer and says “I’ll do just as I like.” And that line is just very powerful to me, because our ancestors existed in this all-encompassing system that tried to control their bodies and at all costs so that they were just labourers. And really strip them away of their humanity. So to hear that line, to see that living and breathing in the archives, in newspaper accounts, I think for me coming to that line, “I’ll do just as I like,” I was just like whoa. And it’s been really nice being able to revisit this history and give that power back to those ancestors.

Esha: Yeah, yeah. So yeah, Quishile I think the only other thing that I wanted to add to the points that you just made is I also really, really liked that line. I thought it was just a very powerful thing to say, a very brave and courageous thing. It was also just like a brave and courageous moment.

Quishile: Yep.

Esha: But I think that specific line is something that I also see reflected in our communities, especially among the women today. You know like this idea, this stereotype of how Indo-Fijian women should act, behave and how they speak. Those expectations don’t match up with also how our ancestors were actually living and what they were doing and resisting in that time. It’s just a very powerful reminder that we have…that we come from very brave and courageous people and women.

Quishile: Yeah no exactly, and I think seeing that line and seeing that especially in the archives and at that point in history only reflects the women in your life and even I would argue why you and me are the way that we are. It’s because of ancestors like this, it’s because of elders who are women that have been in our lives and have been like this as well. And have consciously and actively made these discussions, where they have fought back, whether that be in grand gestures or in these small moments of just around your household. All of this contributes to us being the women that we are today.

Esha: No, for sure, for sure.

Quishile: Yeah, humbling moments, aye.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: I mean I think it’s just cool, I mean when we are trying to learn about our histories, these are not the first things you’re thinking about. So I think to actually find some material, whether it’s in the readings or it’s in the archives, and to bring those things back into our lives – and to have them to be present with us today is very powerful.

Quishile: Yeah. And I think also healthy forms of representation of Girmitiya women within indentured labour. And I just don’t think we’ve really had that. There hasn’t been a focus on people who are researchers in bringing forth stories of our women and showing the strength and the courage. And I would say the love and care that they had for the rest of the community. I think that was what was really cool about the 1920 strike, that this wasn’t just about just these women. This was them caring and looking after their wider community.

Esha: Right, right. Okay I think the next thing I definitely want, for the folks listening to this podcast to understand, and that is a major component of our collective and the work that we do is your textiles Quishile and your making and that history. So, do you kinda just wanna first start off talking about which textiles are gonna be at the Biennale and what they mean?

Quishile: Yeah. Okay so there is, oh my goodness, there are five textiles in total. So there is four textile work which is a protest banner, an embroidery work, and two archival documents that come from the wider research project of ‘We Do Not Have Enough to Satisfy Our Bellies.’ So that will be at the Gwangju Biennale. And that is accompanied by an older work of mine, that I think was made in 2018 called ‘to grieve among the sugarcane fields.’ Which is a collection of archival images that I was gifted from the Fiji Museum. Shout out to the Fiji Museum. Where I wanted to break down the colonial violence that is associated with archival imagery cause photographs back then were an object of control under, you know, the colonial administration. It was a way of them documenting the other and enforcing an idea of what the other was. And our ancestors were a part of that project, especially Girmitiya women. So for example, a lot of these images were used as postcards to send back to the colonies, to the Empire. But the thing about these images, a lot of the time for descendants, this is the only way we get to see and understand our ancestors. These are the only access points we have.

And when the museum gifted me those archival images, I was like what would it mean to break down these images and put them in a textile landscape, which is made by a descendent who is a woman. And this is made by my hands and there is that love and care which was never afforded to these women when they were taking these images. And that textile banner is 11.4 meters long. I don’t even know how I even dyed that textile work but it was hard making that work.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Quishile: A big thing about the size of that banner, was to show how monumental these women were and their impact and their imprint in Fiji. And also, they are the beginning – they birthed our community. And I also as a descendent have a lot of love for my ancestors. And I wanted to show that at quite a large scale. So the textile work, that one is – actually all the textile works, they go through a process of eco-dye or a natural pigment dye. So some will be imprinted by plant material, others will be dyed with broken down pigments from plant material and there is a lot of screen printing involved, hand-carved, lino-carving, wood-block prints, there’s applique work, yeah there’s heaps of things happening. And of course you got the archival documents, the archival images.

So for me, with textile making, I’m very fortunate. I was – I inherited craft and textile making through my Aaji, my grandmother. I am her namesake, so I’m named after her. And I strongly believe that’s where this all began. It started with the name. And I have been surrounded by textile makers and craft people my whole entire life. And that is the women in my family. And this is an active part of how we identify – these are our knowledge systems in my family. Craft and textile making, and it’s a big thing for us. It’s also how we share space together and how we communicate and textile making and craft- it’s also a big way of showing another person physical love. Whether that be making something for someone, or celebrating them in some sort of a way.

So a big tradition in my family is making blankets for a loved one or embroidering something for somebody or making an item of clothing for them.

Esha: Right.

Quishile: So, for me, these are the histories I come from. And the way that I bring that into my practice, when I talk about Girmit or indentured labour, but especially women’s resistance, it’s about connecting up women’s labour and honouring that. So whilst I look a lot at honouring my ancestors, through undertaking this manual labour that is inherited, which has a lot of cultural meaning, not only to myself but to my family. And I know for other Indo-Fijians as well. It’s about respecting and honouring and acknowledging that labour and also in return, to acknowledging and accounting for labour of women back in the indentured labour era.

For me, textiles is a big way of communication. And a big thing, not only for our collective, but for myself as well is accessibility. And a big thing growing up is – when it comes to Girmit narratives or the literature, the writing…I can always find myself in a spot where I become retraumatised or triggered by what I’m reading. That’s always been a deep concern of mine, what does it mean when descendents come to view their histories – how are they viewing them?

And that’s where telling indentured labour through textile making came about. I strongly believe it’s a very healthy way of communicating the histories. It is a form that I believe most Indo-Fijians understand. Because they’ve been raised around textile making or craft, in some shape, way or form.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Whether that be certain elders in their life or extended family. Like you were saying Esha, you’ve been raised around it.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: So I wanted something that was easily identifiable and recognisable for descendents. Where they can see themselves in the work and recognise their histories in the work. But instead of focusing on that pain and trauma of our histories – celebrating us, celebrating our ancestors, celebrating our elders, our labour, the histories we come from – and this is also my way for also loving and caring, continuing these legacies of love and care and how we look out for the community. And how we tell our stories with love and care. This is my way of contributing to that long legacy of where we come from. And so, yeah, that’s a really big way of explaining the works. Obviously you can tell, textile making means a lot to me.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: I just wanna say, no, that’s a very beautiful way to honour your family and your family practices. And we definitely need more of that when we are retelling our histories. Umm, but it’s not – Yes, I think like it’s a part of you honouring the legacy of the women in your family and your ancestors, but it’s such an active thing that is still such a huge part of our communities to this day. And, yeah, it’s just like giving space to something that’s so valuable to Indo-Fijian communities.

I think for me, it’s just been – first of all,  it’s been super educational learning about what goes into making. Because I was just like how are you getting these textiles this colour? Like understanding screen-printing, embroidery. Because for me – even after you had finished making the textiles for SEVENTH Gallery, even then I did not fully understand how much fucking labour it takes to make even one textile. So now it’s’ been, what, a year and half later, and I’m just fully understanding. I’m just like, how did Quishile make those four textiles for SEVENTH.  Like even today, I don’t fully understand it because the labour is just so extensive.

Quishile: Mmm…and it’s a very specific form of labour. I think I’ll be honest, unless you’re there watching or seeing it, I don’t think a lot of – again, it’s like our essay, a lot of people are looking at finished or finalised products. Or they’re looking at the textile hanging, and they’re not really understanding the various forms of labour. And even like a lot of this knowledge is not my own. It’s intergenerational, it’s been passed down to me. It’s inherited knowledge. And I really actually have to say like I’m so thankful for all the support and love that comes from my family in making this work. Like they have such a huge part- they are constantly a part of the making process. They’re there for my ups and my lows around my textile making – when I make a mistake, I’ll be on the phone like Aaji help. [Laughs.]

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Yeah, I think that’s a really cool thing to bring forward with the textile making, you’re looking at traditions and practices that have actually been existing in our community, long before we even came to Fiji, as well. And obviously they have molded, they’ve changed, they’ve adapted to Fiji too. So it’s really fun being able to experiment and explore with these techniques and these traditions. It’s been really nice to keep them actively in the present.

I think what’s been really cool in doing textile making and craft, let’s say within a contemporary arts setting is that – one women’s labour, that’s an aspect within the arts that’s still not acknowledged. And especially so craft, it’s not seen as good enough to be within the field of contemporary art. And if we think about where the arts is at the moment, the arts is all about the contemporary world of arts.

Esha: Right.

Quishile: So that’s been a very hard space to navigate. Cause you have to do a lot of work affirming, no this is important, this is significant. So it’s been really cool, when I do get space to show these works, it’s not just like an artwork, it’s a textile, it’s a craft piece. It comes from all this history, it comes from all this cultural knowledge. That these are works that are shared between myself, my family and other descendents across Fiji. It’s a really beautiful thing. That these works are going – I, it was quite shocking when this work got picked up by the 13th Gwangju Biennale. Because you’re like “what the fuck!” our histories are going to South Korea. Like this is wild, and yeah, and it’s been really affirming seeing my own family. Cause obviously at first they were like what do you mean you’re gonna be doing textile making and crafts in the arts. It was hard for them to understand.

Esha: Right.

Quishile: They’re used to kind of more white-collar- they would want me to be in a white-collar job at the beginning. But now, they really do see themselves in the work. Like this is their labour, these are their practices being honoured.

Esha: Right.

Quishile: I think that’s a really cool thing to be able to do. And it’s really cool when you go home and you hear it from the elders in your family. And other women across Fiji, and they’ll look at your work and be like “Hey, that’s what I used to do when I was young.”

Esha: Yeah, yeah.

Quishile: It’s just a really nice way of being able to share space with other people in your community.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Yeah, and I just think, I’m gonna be a bit cheesy here, but textile making and craft – I really do believe, it is a really expansive knowledge system of love and care. And it’s just really awesome to take all these things that I have inherited, that I’m actively a part of in my community, and just show how amazing and beautiful our practices are.

Esha: Yeah, no absolutely.

Quishile: That’s my cheese done for the moment.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: And definitely, I think that – I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I don’t think the Bad Fiji Gyals are gonna be physically present in South Korea. But Quishile’s textiles will be physically present at the Biennale, so for whoever is attending and for whoever has the opportunity, like definitely please go. And check them out, and hopefully you get to listen to this podcast because then you can see or you can get a little background info about all that it takes to make these things and to create this textiles and the historical significance and what it means to Quishile as well.

Quishile: Yeah, awe. That was nice. [Laughs.]

Esha: Okay.

Quishile: I just wanted to add that – I think a really cool thing about our collective is the way that we undertake labour to acknowledge other forms of labour.

Esha: Hmm.

Quishile: I actually just really love that aspect of the work that we do. I just wanted to give a quick shout out to that.

Esha and Quishile: [Laughs.]

Esha: No definitely, I just think that- just to kinda like wrap things up, and to end this podcast episode and to going back to who we are and why we work together, I think before coming together, the individual work we were doing, plus all the different communities of people that we have collaborated with, or who we have learned from – it’s just like the dynamics of this collective, and I think we have also written this down in the essay as well, but it’s really just giving space and acknowledging all the different forms of labour that have happened in our communities for so long.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: And giving them space to just exist as they are. Without trying to…I don’t know..if it’s over romanticise or to spin it off as some other narrative. This is really what it is. I think in the world we live in today, a lot of these different various forms of labour, they’re just not seen as valuable. And I think our collective really tries to fight against that.

Quishile: Mmm.

Esha: Yeah.

Quishile: Yeah, no definitely. I think this has been really cool, just being able to sit down and have a talanoa with each other and break down what this collective is, our research. So for anyone listening, please do take the time out to check the website out. To check out the other podcasts if you would like to learn about the histories we come from. The types of forms of oppression and structural violence we are trying to break down in the collective. And make sure to read the essay if you’re interested. I know we don’t deep dive heaps into it in the podcast, but we didn’t wanna give too many spoiler alerts, you know.

Esha: [Laughs.] And yeah, our website – if you just go to our website, you’ll find links to everywhere else where we are. But it’s badfijigyals.com.

Quishile: Yeah, it’s pretty simple aye. [Laughs.] But yeah anyway, Vinaka to our listeners, and yeah, and Vinaka Esha for sharing this space with me today and breaking down the collective and our research.