Ten Thousand Suns spotlights the technologies of First Nations peoples through craft


26 March 2024

Cristina Flores Pescoran, Abrazar el sol (Embrace the sun), 2023-2024, Peruvian cotton, size NA

Pamela See reflects on the craft works in the 24th Sydney Biennale.

The highly anticipated reignition of the White Bay Power Station, as part of the 24th Sydney Biennale, delivers an illuminating testament to technologies sequestered by centuries of colonialism. Although this facility dates back to the mid-twentieth century, coal-powered steam engines enabled man to become “independent” from nature in the late eighteenth century. This catalysed the Industrial Revolution and in turn, fuelled the manufacturing that accelerated the pillaging of resources from colonies. It is within this relic of the modern age that ancient rituals have been reinvented in the context of contemporary art. The revelationary results are rejuvenating on a physical, spiritual and social level.

Disambiguation is not essential to engaging the visceral yet ethereal Abrazar el Sol (Embrace the Sun) (2023-24) by Peruvian multidisciplinary artist Christina Flores Pescorán. She has embraced Chancay gauze weaving, a loom-less pre-Incan technique endemic to a valley near her birthplace of Lima. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries CE, the gauzes were fashioned for ceremonies including burial. Likened to shed snake skin, these textiles symbolise transition. The veil is entirely constructed using Peruvian cotton. Suspended by exterior threads, like a spiderweb, the form is distinctly corporeal in appearance.

The artist engaged her whole body in weaving the supersized structure and she invites audiences to share in this process of healing by navigating it. A survivor of a form of skin cancer, the artwork represents her pursuit of alternatives to “aggressive” and “intrusive” Western medical procedures. The fibres are dyed using purple corn, which she consumed over the course of her treatment. Presenting the artwork amid instruments crudely constructed to overcome the constraints of daylight, emphasises the fragility of its organic form. Yet, it is in this juxtaposition that audiences might also find hope for a more harmonious relationship with nature.

It is with a touch of irony that Navajo fibre artist Eric-Paul Riege appears to harness the resources inadvertently imparted by the nineteenth-century colonisers of Dine or present-day New Mexico. His ancestors were the first First Nations people in North America to adopt silversmithing. They invented the beaded “squash blossom necklace” to trade with settlers. The jewellery also signalled wealth within and among tribes. Emissaries of the nineteenth-century Art and Craft Movement also heralded Navajo weavers as exemplars. Their handcrafting of functional objects from locally sourced materials was an embodiment of the lesser arts. His sculptures may reflect an amalgamation of both signature crafts. He places emphasis on a spirituality that prevails despite colonialist intervention. ...oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo…  (2023) is a monolithic example.

A plethora of by-and-large synthetic alternatives to natural materials has been “woven” into a beaded necklace of divine proportions to memorialise the introduction of the Spanish Churra sheep to Dine. Whereas in Artspace the other examples are suspended as might be worn,...oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo… extends from ground to ceiling across two floors of the station. The feat of contemporary and colonial engineering gives the venue a cathedralesque reverence.

In Navajo jewellery and textiles, the metaphysical manifests in form and pattern. The entrails of sheep are connotated by the shape of the beads, and their colours are denoted through their black and white faux fur coverings. To Australian audiences, the sheep could be considered a symbol of British colonialism and their introduction contrary to the interests of our First Nations peoples. However, this work might suggest the adoption of the animal as a totem. The artist celebrates the role sheep play in his community as a source of food and wool. ...oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo-O-oo…demonstrates how a selection of First Nations peoples in America adapted and survived colonisation. Craft and commerce were amongst their arsenal.

Nikau Hindin, Ebonie Fifita-Laufilitoga-Maka Fungamapitoa, Hina Puamohala Kneubuhl Kihalaupoe, Tahiti Kesaia Biuvanua, Rongomai Grbic-Hoskins. Aumoana (2023–24), Aute, hiapo, kapa, masi (bark cloth, broussonetia papyrifera), umea, kōkōwai (earth pigments), nonu, gogo, tongo, gadoa, koka (natural plant dyes), smoked tō, smoked mānuka, smoked eucalyptus, smoked niumotu’u (coconut husk), muka cordage (phormium tenax), ash doweling (fraxinus oleaceae), toka’i manioke (tapioca starch), size NA

Relations with Europeans may have begun with trade in the most recent among the regions to be colonised: the Pacific. Aumoana (2023–24), which roughly translates into English as the “oceanic”, harkens back to a time before First Nations peoples of the Pacific were converted into Christians or coerced as labour on plantations. Suspended above the Turbine Hall in a composition reminiscent of a constellation are manu aute. The term translates from Maori as “bird kite” or “mulberry bark”, with the meanings of the former being interchangeable.

Each of the relatively young sextet of artists is a contributor to paper bark cloth-making revivals in their respective communities. The process begins with isolating the inner bark from mulberry tree branches. This bast fibre is soaked and beaten using a wooden paddle. The macerated material is then pounded into large pieces of cloth. Across the Pacific, there are slight variations. For example, Maui artist from Hawaii Hina Puamhola Kneubuhl Kihalaupoe sometimes ferments the fibre prior to beating it on a stone anvil to make “kapa”. The first step in the making of “ahu”, as practised by Arioi artist from Tahiti Hinatea Colombani, is scraping the outer bark off mulberry tree branches using shells. The project lead is one of the three Rarawa/Ngāpuhi artists from New Zealand, Nikau Hindin. Hindin is committed to resurrecting the aute-making tradition, which had been extinct for a century. Prior to the colonisation of the Pacific, paper bark cloth served an array of both utilitarian and ceremonial functions, from swaddling at birth to shrouds for burial. Another consistency is the application of pigments extracted from plants and soil to embellish paper bark cloth with culturally specific symbols.

Aute is the traditional material used to create manu, and a number of styles, such as a bird man kite, feature in Aumoana. Emphasised are the roles the kites have traditionally played in divination and signalling over vast distances. Flagged is a post-colonialist movement that is demonstrative of the restorative capacity of collective craft practice.

The component of Ten Thousand Suns at the White Bay Power Station situates dialogues of First Nations resilience within a modern-day relic of colonialism. The venue might also symbolise an industrial age discord with nature, a favouring of mass consumption over a meeting of individual needs, and mechanisation over the handmade. The exhibition presents a contrast in materiality and aesthetics that serves to amplify ephemerality, tactility and, ultimately, humanity. The comparative fragility of both the artwork and audience in this building lends to contemplations of the spiritual. This is especially apparent in cases where delicate craft forms have been magnified to monumental proportions. However, the devil may be in the details. It is in the techniques employed that ancient knowledge has been embedded and imparted. Through craft, these artworks offer audiences alternative avenues to physical, social and spiritual well-being.

Further Reading

Adair, J. (1944). The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths. University of Oklahoma Press.

Artspace. (n.d.). Eric-Paul Riege Performance.

Biennale of Sydney. (n.d). Cristina Flores Pescorán.

Biennale of Sydney. (n.d.). Eric-Paul Riege. https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/participants/eric-paul-riege/

Biennale of Sydney. (n.d). Nikau Hindin, Ebonie Fifita-Laufilitoga-Maka, Hina Puamohala Kneubuhl, Hinatea Colombani, Kesaia Biuvanua, Rongomai Grbic-Hoskins.

Gerschultz, J. (2008, September 24-27). Textiles as Cultural Expressions [Conference Paper]. 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America. Honolulu, Hawaii.

Majer, M. (2021). Chancay Gauzes. Lace of South America. Bard Graduate Center. https://lacesouthamerica.commons.bgc.bard.edu/2021/11/15/chancay/

Maysmor, B. Kites and Manu Yukutuku (2006, June 12). Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Maysmor, B. Kites and Manu Yukutuku – Types of Maori Kite. (2006, June 12). Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Moore, L. J. (2001). Elle Meets the President: Weaving Navajo Culture and Commerce in the Southwestern Tourist Industry. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 22(1), 21–44.

New Zealand Society. Aute: Making Maori Tapa Cloth. (2015, November 20). Radio New Zealand.

Pullan, M. (2020, July 14). Sharing Knowledge in Tahiti: Reflections on the Chief Mourner’s Costume. The British Museum.

Smithsonian: National Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). In The Pandemic’s Wake: Artists in the Pandemic Landscape.

Woodward, A. (1971). Navajo Silver: A Brief History of Navajo Silversmithing.  Northland Press.


Pamela See ✿ A renaissance woman



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