ām / ammā / mā maram
Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s exhibition ām / ammā / mā maram includes paintings, sculpture, poetry, and scent. The exhibition sits alongside Aotearoa/Balinese artist Sriwhana Spong’s video work This Creature, in which Spong responds to The Book of Margery Kempe “…invok[ing] the mystic’s styles of writing to create a textured world of Spong’s own”, and Wu Tsang’s film installation Duilian, which “…recreates the untold love story of the famous 19th-century Chinese poet, feminist and revolutionary Qiu Jin (秋瑾) and the female calligrapher and publisher Wu Zhiying (吳芝瑛).” Featuring two female artists, Simpson and Spong, and non-binary artist Tsang, all from marginalised heritages, PICA is setting the standard of representation in WA for their Djilba/Kambarang season.
Simpson brings her first exhibition to West Australia, not in a blockbuster or ‘exhibition of the year’ kind of way, but in one that questions colonial archives and presents uncomfortable truths in a more intimate setting. Simpson’s work brings to light her matrilineal histories, recovering an erased colonial past that impacted indentured Indian women. The Meanjin-based artist has regularly exhibited in solo and group shows across the east coast and internationally since 2011. It begs the question, why has it taken 12 years for Simpson’s work to be exhibited in WA?
Simpson deals with histories and truths not often addressed in exhibitions in WA—ones that are even actively dismissed or shied away from in our frontier state. This exhibition is an exciting new vision for the WA arts scene, both in highlighting histories and stories that are not often brought to the fore, and also in Simpson’s broad use of materials, which is unusual for a solo exhibition of this scale. ām / ammā / mā maram is continuing to push WA’s audience’s perspectives, as did The Art Gallery of Western Australia’s (AGWA) recent exhibition series BlakLight. Blaklight was a series of programming and exhibitions where every floor and every program were authored by First Nations Australian artists, curators and writers. This was a major step for such a conservative institution. Both Simpson and then AGWA Curator and Head of Indigenous programs, Clothilde Bullen, understand how to work “…within the colonial frameworks and architectures…”, whilst pushing the boundaries—something for which we lack confidence here in WA.
In a review in Artlink Anne Marsh was critical of the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) celebratory exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now: An Historical Context. The exhibition sought to highlight more than 150 ‘women’ artists, yet neglected to include many who have made significant contributions in the 21st century. Marsh highlights that private-sector galleries and alternate spaces “…are responsible for a plethora of solo shows by emerging and mid–late career female artists, the scope of women’s art expands further…”. This is evident in WA too. Since 2020, AGWA has held only three exhibitions solely of living Australian women, consisting of WA NOW – Eveline Kotai: Breathing Pattern; Emma Buswell: Selected Knitted Works 2017-2022; and Bábbarra Women’s Centre, alongside the BOORONGUR project by Whadjuk Elder and artist Sharyn Egan at the Gallery 9 learning space. If our state gallery cannot demonstrate a concerted effort to address the historical underrepresentation of Australian women artists, then how can we expect audiences to consider women as being equally at the forefront of art?
In ām / ammā / mā maram, Simpson reflects upon her mothers’ ancestral history, which hugely informs her work. Simpson also reflects upon her practice over the decade that has passed since travelling to her ancestors’ villages—annexed to India from the 19th century—with her mother. Since this trip, Simpson has considered what she has wanted her work to put forth to audiences:
…it was only in 2016 that I realised that I was trying to understand where the intergenerational trauma had come from and make sense of that history, and my and my mother’s relationship to it. Then in 2017 I started making work to acknowledge that history in a direct way…
Along with Simpson’s poetry, sculpture, and paintings in ām / ammā / mā maram, is a single photograph, Women Celebrating, Sydenham Road, Durban 1954. It shows her family: her mother, aunt, paternal grandmother, and maternal great-grandmother. The photograph is a rather unusual inclusion for Simpson, as many of her previous exhibitions have not been so personal— they instead, usual look at the overarching colonial archives of labourers sent from the port of Madras (now Chennai), India, to the British colony of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa, rather than her specific community. The photograph was mounted on the first wall, facing the gallery’s windows and mā maram, a work comprising of two freestanding tables with poetry vessels. The tables were made from burnt mango tree wood, a plant common to both Chennai and KwaZulu-Natal, one representing the waist height of her mother and the other her own. Simpson expands in the didactic text:
… the tables’ charcoal black finish serves as an analogy for the kala pani (black waters) of the Indian Ocean that Simpson’s ancestors crossed to reach the British Colony of Natal…
Every element within ām / ammā / mā maram carried undertones of the hidden colonial archives that Simpson investigates.
Drawing upon trauma through poetry and writing, Simpson explores the sensory moments of her ancestors’ journeys and experiences, while weaving in her personal histories in the work From my mother’s. This work is a seven-panel combination of poetry and line drawing on paper. Simpson handmade the paper from the leaves and bark fibres of her mother’s mango tree, which is marked with black pigment made from the ashes of the burnt sugarcane mulch—its materiality offering a very poetic base for the work. Possibly the gentlest work within the exhibition, as I read the verse, I felt tears land upon my cheek. Whilst standing within one of the early colonial buildings within WA, one can feel anger turn towards the colonists, all while trying to understand, or empathise, or sympathise with the many diasporic indentured labourers forced into the British colony.
Simpson is stepping out of the western canon of feminism, using ideas of sisterhood and matriarchy common throughout diasporic and Indigenous communities. We can draw similarities, without dismissing differences, with the recruitment of Pacific women in 1940s for labour in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the indentured labourers in the British colony of Natal, where all descendants of these colonial histories deal with the complexities surrounding intergenerational trauma. Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland)-based author and researcher, Lana Lopesi, expands on these ideas in Diasporic Sisterhoods and The ‘Always Ready’Feminists, included in the QAGOMA text SIS: Pacific Art 1980-2023. Drawing on philosopher Amia Srinivasans’ framework:
Feminism is not a philosophy, or a theory, or even a point of view. It is a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition. It asks: what would it be to end the political, social, sexual, economic, psychological, and physical; subordination of women? It answers: we do not know; let us try and see.
Lopsei seeks to contextualise this within the settler-colonial diasporic setting where, more often than not, the stakes were higher for women, and the unequipped standard of the places that the Pacific migrant communities moved to, meant that the structural inequality is still felt today.
In kotri / barkis, Simpson draws on both the unequipped structures her ancestors felt and her learnt Indian culture. A traditional Indian miniature painting style is expanded across seven corrugated iron panels using acrylic and enamel paint. Depicting a field of sugarcane, the work specifically lacks figures. Yet, a presence of community is hinted at through the weathered corrugated iron—a material used by Simpson’s ancestral communities within the British colony of Natal. Using the corrugated iron, Simpson is recognising the make-shift houses many indentured labourers lived in during their time working on the sugarcane plantations, adding another layer to Simpson’s speculative archive. kotri / barkis, 2023, is the real eye-catching work in the exhibition, with its bright green sugarcane depictions that initially appear as green fields, yet, upon closer inspection, disclose specks of gold. To some it may seem unresolved, but Simpson’s intention of leaving space is clear, to “[direct] our attention to what we cannot see—to the invisible and forgotten histories in the landscape…”.
The body of work represented by ām / ammā / mā maram is in conversation with itself, speaking untold truths; a new archive we must face and rely upon, as we walk away from silencing histories.
1. Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. n.d. “What’s on.” Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Accessed October 21, 2023. https://pica.org.au/whats-on/.
2. Simpson, Sancintya Mohini. n.d. “About.” Sancintya Mohini Simpson. Accessed October 21, 2023. https://sancintya.com/about/.
3. Ball, Timmah. 2022. “Highlights from BlakLight: First Nation art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.” Artlink, May 4, 2022. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4979/highlights-from-blaklight-first-nation-art-at-the-/.
4]. Marsh, Anne. 2021. “Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now: An Historical Context” Artlink, April 1, 2021. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/4894/know-my-name-australian-women-artists-1900-to-now-/.
5. Miekus, Tiarney. 2023. “Talking with Sancintya Mohini Simpson on history and art.” Art Guide Australia, August 23, 2023. https://artguide.com.au/talking-with-sancintya-mohini-simpson-on-history-and-art/.
8. Simpson, Sancintya. 2023. Didactic text of ām / ammā / mā maram. Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
9. McDougall, Ruth, Lana Lopesi, Ruha Fifita, Moale James, and Emily Nguyen-Hunt. 2023. sis: Pacific Art 1980–2023. Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.
11. Simpson, Sancintya. 2023. Didactic text of ām / ammā / mā maram. Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Image courtesy of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art.