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This May, it will be 140 years since the first shipload of about 500 indentured labourers from India landed in Fiji aboard the sailing ship Leonidas in 1879. In subsequent years, until 1916, more than 60,000 Indians landed in the islands of Fiji in some 87 sailings mainly from Kolkata but also from Chennai and Mumbai.

Though the troubled, often brutal, story of the ‘girmitiyas’ – as the indentured labourers from India came to be known – is well represented in literature published over several decades, it is rarely that one comes across creative responses to the highly emotive girmit experience through other art forms.

Last weekend, five Fiji-origin artists from the country’s multiracial milieu came together to host a month long show, ‘Landings’, at the Fresh Gallery in the Auckland suburb of Otara. “The artists explore ideas of loss, removal, grief and how communities have the capacity to remake themselves,” is how the artists describe ‘Landings’.

Landings is the artists’ interpretation through their craft and performance (captured on video) of the colonial narrative questioning how the past and current histories are acknowledged.

Shivanjani Lal, Zaiba Khan, Luisa Tora, Emele Ugavule and Sangeeta Singh are the five artists who’ve brought their works to Landings. The show is an eclectic creative enterprise expressing through diverse media: video, mixed media and sculpture.

The idea for Landings came from Sydney based Shivanjani Lal who was at the show’s inauguration last Saturday. Also present were Auckland based artists Luisa Tora and Sangeeta Singh.

Tora and Singh presented a series of sand and clay sculptures jointly moulded by them as they pressed the clay with each other’s palms while in a slow dance in the manner of how wrestlers lock their palms before a bout. The action is captured in a video that is looped on TV screens behind the sculptures displayed on the floor in front of the screens. The video is very much a part of the artwork.

It’s innovative performing art producing a work of plastic art!

“It’s a metaphorical action showing how culture and society shape themselves as people interact over time,” Sangeeta says.

Shivanjani Lal’s series of maps printed on dull grey board with a distinctly retro feel track the movement of the ships that brought in the girmitiyas to their new homeland.

The routes between the Indian ports and their landing points in Fiji are traced with coloured kite threads, which are also creatively used in her “Yaad Karo” series of photo prints painted with turmeric, to create a special meaning for the subjects in the prints.

Melbourne based Zaiba Khan’s artwork incorporates more than 300 copperplate etchings on rag paper as the main substrate. The watercolour illustrations depict globules and orb-like shapes reminiscent of heavenly bodies in the night skies.

Multidisciplinary story teller and videographer Emele Ugavule and Shivanjani Lal also have videos titled “Keep Going” and “I am not here” respectively as part of the show.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 15 February 2019.