Torika Bolatagici talks to Colour Box Studio about becoming an artist and her Community Reading Room installation which is open to the public 1-22 June.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a Melbourne-based artist and educator. I’m a full-time lecturer in photographic theory and practice at Deakin University. I’m also a doctoral candidate at the College of Fine Arts (UNSW).
Describe your art.
My interdisciplinary practice investigates the relationships between visual culture, human ecology and contemporary Pacific identities. I work across a range of media, including photography, video and mixed-media installation. My work has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, Aotearoa and Australia. Most recently my series Export Quality (2009/12) was included in the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial, 20-Year Archive project.
Where did you grow up and has it influenced what you create?
I was born in Hobart, Tasmania and spent the first few years of my life living between Hobart, Sydney and my Dad’s village in Fiji – Suvavou. My parents separated when I was in primary school, and Dad passed away when I was in college. Art has always been a part of my life. Mum and I lived a pretty bohemian lifestyle of music festivals and I remember going to ANZART exhibitions and performances with Mum in the 80s. We always made an effort travel across (by ferry in those days) to major music events and exhibitions in Melbourne and Sydney. So visual arts, music and performance have always been a part of my life. It’s all I’ve known.
I went to this Catholic highschool in Hobart called Mt Carmel College. We had a fantastic teacher called Mrs Beck who transformed one of the convents into a darkroom. She was instrumental in teaching me the basics of exposure and photographic printing. I fell in love with photography instantly. I purchased my first camera and dark room equipment in my last year of highschool. It was a Pentax P30. I transformed our tiny housing commission bathroom in Sandy Bay into a darkroom where I experimented with processing my own film, printing and toning. I still have that original enlarger. I just can’t part with it. Maybe my children will want to use it one day…
In matric (years 11 and 12) I continued to study photography, graphic design, life drawing and art theory (under the tutelage of the wonderful Dr Wayne Brookes). When I was 17, at the end of matric I took a year out, played bass guitar in some rock and roll bands and moved to Melbourne for a little while. When I moved back to Hobart, I enrolled in an Arts degree at the University of Tasmania. I was taking some subjects at the art school and some subjects in humanities (sociology, political science, Aboriginal studies). I really struggled in my first year at University. I was the first person in my family to go to Uni, and so I felt really lost. There was no one to guide me through the protocols of academia and I was quite overwhelmed. I remember my Aboriginal Studies teacher rolling his eyes at me, because I would fly into his office at 5pm on a due date with my handwritten essays. I didn’t even realise there was a computer lab on campus where I could actually word-process and print my essays.
I don’t know what happened, but one day in sociology class, something just clicked, and I wrote an essay called “No Justice, No Peace” about the LA Riots. I had been barely passing my other subjects, and when I saw a big “D-“ on my paper, I was devastated and about to quit. Then I found out that a D was a Distinction, and since then I haven’t looked back. I discovered that when I was writing about something I was passionate about, it was easy. I was getting into the writing of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Angela Davis, Bobbi Sykes and going to feminist conferences with mum where I would attend lectures by writers, poets and activists like Jackie Huggins, Marcia Langton and Lisa Bellear. So I suppose it’s not surprising that my writing and research is focused on gender, race and visual culture.
In the early 90s multidisciplinary degrees weren’t very common, and so I looked around for a course that would facilitate my interest in cultural studies and visual arts practice – and so I applied for the Media Arts degree at Deakin Uni and transferred my degree and moved back to Melbourne, where I have lived (on-and-off) since 1997. I was lucky enough to have studied at the Rusden campus that was the home of the visual and performing arts. Sadly the campus itself no longer exists. At Deakin I majored in photography, but I think I ended up with minors in Women’s Studies and Sociology…or something like that. The real turning point for me was my Honours year. It was such a pleasure to spend an entire year working on a single project. I think it was this year that really strengthened my love for research – and so much grew out of the project – invitations to exhibit in San Francisco and New York, and opportunities to present my research at conferences in New York as well as publications. The interest and support for my work from Pacific scholars such as Ann-Marie Tupuola and Fuifuilupe Niumeitolu really spurred me on. Since then I have had a steady flow of exhibitions and interesting projects and publications to work on. I completed a Masters in Multimedia Design in 2003 and I’m in the final stages of my PhD.
What is your current project?
My current project is a pop-up Community Reading Room installed at Colour Box Studio in Footscray. This is a prototype for a space that I would like to develop into a permanent part of the Melbourne art and cultural landscape – a destination for research, community discussion and engagement around international visual arts and culture.
Who or what was your inspiration?
In 2011 I was funded to undertake some research at the Stuart Hall Library at the Institute for International Visual Arts in London. I have always loved libraries, but this library was particularly special for me because of their focus on international visual art and culture. Upon returning to Australia, it has been my desire to establish a similar archive of reference material for the general community to access. And I figured I might as well start by opening up my own personal collection to the public.
Where do you feel most creative?
Nowhere in particular. Inspiration can strike at any time and in any place. With two young children and a full-time career, it is often hard to find the right mental and physical space to contemplate things and to make work in any structured environment. I create when I can. Yoga, swimming and running help to keep my energy high and put everything in perspective – allowing me to stay focused in the moment –rather than becoming overwhelmed by the various commitments that compete for my time.
What will you be working on next?
I’m currently in the final stages of my PhD, so that’s at the top of my list at the moment. I’m also making some new work for a show at Campbelltown Arts Centre for September, and then I’m working towards a solo for Blak Dot Gallery in November. I’m also working towards finding a permanent space for the community reading room.
What can visitors to expect to see from you when they visit Colour Box Studio?
A cosy and comfortable space with lots of interesting books and catalogues. People have commented that the space is ‘refreshing’ and that they could stay all day. Please do! The Community Reading Room will be open from 12-6pm MON-FRI, 11-4pm Saturdays until Saturday 15 June 2013. Visitors will find lots of books about contemporary art and theory from Oceania, Africa and the Americas. Many of the texts deal with postcolonial art, literature and philosophy, visual culture, migration, citizenship and cultural identity.
The main aim of the reading room is as a research destination for researchers and artists from new and emerging diasporic communities in Melbourne. I often hear stories from fellow artists of Pacific and African descent who feel that there was no context for discussion around their work at University – which is often just dismissed as being ‘ethnic’. There is a real failure for people to see that much of this work that is dismissed as ‘identity art’ often refers to universal notions of place, identity and belonging, but can also provide an insight into our geopolitical concerns around environmental sustainability, human rights, globalization, migration and the preservation of culture.
There’s a lot of discussion in the Australian media at the moment, around race and racism, and I feel that much of the commentary is confused and confusing. I would hope that a space like a community reading room would be able to offer safe space for people to discuss issues of race and representation through the prism of visual art. That’s one of the aims of the reading room, into the future, to host community discussions, a reading group, thinkers-in-residence and guest lectures – as well as hosting school groups and workshops for educators.
Where can we see more of your work?
My website www.torikabolatagici.com is always up-to-date with current projects and exhibitions. You can also follow my research activities at: http://deakin.academia.edu/TorikaBolatagici