In Episode Three of our second Talanoa Series, visual artist, wrestler and gamer Michel Mulipola (Sāmoa/Aotearoa), Mohawk multimedia artist Skawennati (Turtle Island) and Sci-Fi/Fantasy artist and illustrator Solomon Enos (Hawai’i) discuss the importance of shapeshifting, imagination and innovation in Indigenous storytelling, as well as in their respective practices.
Click here to watch the third episode of the Talanoa series on In*ter*is*land Collective’s website, and continue reading below for Ioana Gordon-Smith’s response to the video.
In their essay “‘What’s a Story Like You Doing in a Place Like This?’: Cyberspace and Indigenous Futurism,” the writers at Novel Alliances note that for “many uninformed readers Indigenous Science Fiction (sf) is an oxymoron.” 01. “‘What’s a Story Like You Doing in a Place Like This?’: Cyberspace and Indigenous Futurism,” Novel Alliances, Updated 23 March 2015, novelalliances.com/2015/03/23/whats-a-story-like-you-doing-in-a-place-like-this-cyberspace-and-indigenous-futurism-in-neal-stephensons-snow-crash/ They observe that popular culture, new technologies, fiction and speculation are often seen as incompatible with preconceptions of Indigenous culture as fixed in a remote past.
Imagination and innovation, however, have always held a place in Indigenous cultures. In 2003, writer Grace Dillon coined the term Indigenous Futurism—itself a spin on an existing Afrofuturism—to describe an upwelling of creatives working across literature, science fiction, fantasy, video games, novels and comic books to (re)imagine Indigenous pasts, presents and futures. Skawennati, Solomon Enos and Michel Mulipola are among many Indigenous artists reimagining Indigenous worlds. Skawennati, based in Tiohtiáke/Montréal, is a Mohawk artist best known for her machinima: moving-image works that utilise video-game software such as Second Life, a platform where users can generate their own content within the 3D-rendered virtual world. Solomon is an Indigenous Hawaiian artist and illustrator whose paintings, illustrations, murals and game designs lean towards sci-fi and fantasy. Aotearoa-based Sāmoan illustrator (and wrestler!) Michel often draws on the comic-book genre to depict and illustrate Moana-centric stories.
Skawennati, Solomon and Michel gathered over Zoom and between their homes in Turtle Island, Hawai‘i and Aotearoa to share and compare their approaches to visual storytelling. There is no shortage of ideas across the trio. As Solomon observes, “there’s a wealth of stories and narratives and ideas that need to be translated.”
What is meant by ‘translated’ is an underlying thread of the talanoa, although Skawennati, Michel and Solomon never really use that term specifically again. Instead, they spend time discussing, among other threads, shapeshifting. Shapeshifters, of course, are the trickster archetype par excellence found across Indigenous storytelling. Think of Māui turning into a bird, or Wesakechak, who can shapeshift into plants, water and wind. 02. Ionah M. Elaine Scully, “Shapeshifting Power: Indigenous Teachings of Trickster Consciousness and Relational Accountability for Building Communities of Care,” The Seneca Falls Dialogues Journal 4, no. 1 (2021): article 6. Tricksters, as I have noted elsewhere, “are consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through loopholes and outwitting the confines of constructs.” 03. Ioana Gordon-Smith, Mischief Makers, into panel, Pātaka Art + Museum, 27 November 2021-6 February 2022. Fundamental to the role of shapeshifters is the sense that the way things are now is not the way things must be, and that in fact numerous realities are possible.
Shape-shifting also appears in the popular genres of comic books, virtual reality and illustration that Skawennati, Michel and Solomon all draw upon. In their talanoa, they share their interest in superheroes—seemingly ordinary figures who can transform into the extraordinary. The superhero appears within the comic books that fill Michel’s studio and fuelled his childhood aspirations, and is also seen in Skawennati’s latest approach to depicting deities. In her recent work On the Occasion of the Three Sisters Accompanying xox on Her Visit to The Queen: Osahè:ta’, Onon’ónsera, O:nenhste (2022), Skawennati depicts the three sisters—personifications of corn, beans and pumpkins—as Indigenous deity superheroes.
Reimagining stories is not without its risks. Skawennati shares the criticism she has received for depicting the three sisters. Solomon offers some insights into the difficulties of reimagining Indigenous figures and stories. He notes:
the curiosity of going visual is that you’re taking something that is in multiple forms and you’re creating a singularity out of it. There’s a challenge in that, because in a way we’re creating canon. Before we didn’t need to have that singularity, because we’d encourage everyone to have their own interpretations of what these deities look like.
Here, we can begin to glimpse what might be meant by ‘translation’: to take something that exists primarily in an imagined form in the interior mind, where it is free to take on many different shapes, and give it a concrete visual identity. The etymology of Indigenous words also comes through a parallel to stories, where words take on multiple, nuanced meanings and are not fixed to one definition. Though a multiplicity of Indigenous imaginings to one story (and a single word) was once sustained, the dominance of Western ways of seeing the world necessitate more-immediate visual representations. Solomon explains:
How we visualise things that didn’t need to be visualised in the past but now [have] to be in order for [them] to compete with all the other visual junk food that has nothing to do with our culture. And in order to compete, we have to excel.
Across their practices, Skawennati, Michel and Solomon offer their own takes on how worlds can be reimagined, translated and shapeshifted. Solomon talks about the potential of augmented reality to layer onto the current landscape Indigenous agrarian systems and ways of sustainably using land. Nor are their imaginations necessarily divorced from real-world realities. Skawennati describes how her work, which has often utilised virtual reality, is slowly incorporating more and more physical forms, such as soft sculpture and costuming.
The importance of speculative imagination has been widely discussed through the emerging discourses of Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism. Michel offers his own take on a Moana version of imagining new worlds: Fetu-rism. ‘Fetu’ in gagana Sāmoa, or ‘whetu’ in te reo Māori, translates as ‘the stars’. The evocation of the skies describes how Skawennati, Michel and Solomon look beyond the here and now to imagine what was and what could be. Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous science-fiction and Indigenous whetu-isms “are central to the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures imagine new kinds of tomorrow.” 04. “‘What’s a Story Like You Doing in a Place Like This?’: Cyberspace and Indigenous Futurism.”
This is the third of three edited talanoa in our second series produced with In*ter*island Collective. Click here to view the first episode, click here to view second episode, and click here to view the first Forever Fresh Talanoa Series, released in 2021.