Salome Tanuvasa, Equally Different I and II, 2021, in Golden Daughters of the Sun, Kunstraum, London, 8 – 31 Oct 2021. Image courtesy Southern Stars. Photo: Daniaal Khalid.

Salome Tanuvasa, Equally Different I and II, 2021, in Golden Daughters of the Sun, Kunstraum, London, 8 – 31 Oct 2021. Image courtesy Southern Stars. Photo: Daniaal Khalid.

Southern Stars Projects is a new gallery and project space in London, founded by Argentine-born, London-based curator Gabriela Salgado. Drawing on the shared affinities between artists from the southern hemisphere and her experience as former Artistic Director of Te Tuhi in Auckland, Salgado’s project brings together artists from the Pacific, Latin America, Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand, including Arapeta Ashton, Joyce Campbell, Christina Pataialii, Peter Robinson, Shannon Te Ao and Salome Tanuvasa.

With Southern Stars’ first physical exhibition, Golden Daughters of the Sun, presented at non-profit art space Kunstraum and featuring the work of Salome Tanuvasa, Sabine Casparie sits down with Salgado in London to talk about this new platform, its inaugural exhibition and how Southern Stars offers a space for Indigenous voices and decolonial perspectives in the European art world.

I visit Gabriela Salgado in Kunstraum, a Shoreditch gallery, on a rainy London afternoon in October. Her new art platform and gallery, Southern Stars, has just opened its inaugural exhibition, Golden Daughters of The Sun. It is a temporary exhibition; Kunstraum is a separate non-profit organisation “primarily supporting artists with origins in the African & Caribbean diasporas and People of Colour of the world”[01] 01. . It is a fitting host venue for Southern Stars’ first exhibition, which specialises in artists from the southern hemisphere, spanning Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, Latin America and Africa.

A burst of colour greets me when I walk in. Golden Daughters of the Sun is an exhibition of three female artists of different generations and countries: Delia Cancela (b. Argentina), Dalila Dalléas Bouzar (b. Algeria) and the youngest artist, Salome Tanuvasa (b. Aotearoa). All three artists share a focus on women’s agency and empowerment, and an interest in collaborative and transdisciplinary practice. Delia Cancela’s drawings are from her new series Mujeres y Naturaleza (Woman and Nature): elegant and light drawings of female figures entwined with natural elements such as water, fire and sky, taking on the image of goddesses. Dalila Dalléas Bouzar presents recent paintings as well as documented performances, the two media closely connected in her practice. The exhibition includes documentation of some of her performances, which are often ​​ritualistic and addressing the oppression of women. In many performances Dalléas Bouzar paints directly on her face and body and transfers such images to her paintings, where her warrior-like bodypaint bestows her an almost regal presence.

But it is the colourful work of New Zealand artist Salome Tanuvasa that first stands out when you enter the room. Two rectangular textile banners are suspended diagonally through the middle of the exhibition space, each facing a different way. Both works consist of two horizontal blocks in different colours, giving the suggestion of horizons. The top fields, in white and grey respectively, are reminiscent of the sky; the bottom fields, green and blue respectively, of water. On the surface of each banner are more brightly coloured shapes, stitched on so that they appear to float.

Salgado met Tanuvasa when she moved to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017. A New Zealand-born artist of Samoan and Tongan descent, Tanuvasa is based in Auckland and she graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in 2014. Salgado commissioned these two works from Tanuvasa after seeing documentation of a recent exhibition of her work at the Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland. Salgado was drawn to Tanuvasa’s new, larger pieces, which reminded her of panoramas. For Golden Daughters of the Sun, Salgado gave Tanuvasa rough measurements for the work, and left the rest to her. 

Salgado tells me that the two pieces are called Equally Different I and II (2021); the smaller stitched-on shapes are symbols alluding to the sun and the moon, to trees, and clouds. I start to see it now, too: Equally Different I, with its clear, white sky and active forms: upbeat and angular, in primary colours. Equally Different II, with its deep grey sky over a midnight blue ground, its forms more anthropomorphic, in pink and purple hues, giving the scene a dreamlike quality. “These banners are allegorical, but the tones are so well put together that they evoke the light of the sun and the moon” Salgado explains.  “Tanuvasa has the eye of a painter.” Salgado shows me a photograph of the banners against a backdrop of lush plants. “She often takes photographs of the textiles hanging on the washing lines in her garden like you would do with laundry. She really likes that dialogue between her textile works and the flora and fauna around it.” 

Salgado launched Southern Stars after working as a curator all over the world. After studying philosophy in Buenos Aires, she moved to London to do a Masters in Curating Contemporary Art at The Royal College of Art, graduating in 1997. But her work as a curator also took her to many other places, such as Africa (in particular: Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia and Algeria) and Southeast Asia (Cambodia and Vietnam). In 2017, Salgado moved to New Zealand for three years where she worked as Artistic Director of the public art gallery Te Tuhi in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. 

“I discovered so many similarities with South America in those countries”, she explains. “There was a familiar discourse. It wasn’t necessarily about racial identity or ethnicity, but about being ‘in the South’ and having the experience of being colonised. It’s about that different perspective. Many - though definitely not all - countries in the South are connected by history, and those remnants of oppression stay in the economic system, but also in the philosophical and political discourse.” “Latin America was colonised already in 1500. So people learnt early on to administer the expectation of the west, whilst still being able to be ourselves”, Salgado tells me. “Polynesia and the South Pacific was the last part of the planet to be ‘discovered’.“

But it is a more poetic connection and spiritual side that inspired Salgado’s name for her new platform. “What people in the UK may not be aware of is that James Cook travelled to the Pacific accompanied by Joseph Banks, a naturalist and president of the Royal Society. He had a mission to follow the trajectory of Venus in the sky.” A political, colonising mission disguised as a poetic, scientific enterprise. “The idea for the name Southern Stars came to me in New Zealand, when I looked up, I saw the same sky of my childhood in Argentina. What makes us similar is the constellations.” 

Salgado tells me about the work in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015) by Aotearoa artist Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tūe Auru), New Zealand’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 2017. A panoramic video over 20-metre long, it shows British explorers and Pacific people meeting in a utopian Tahitian landscape. The hour-long video moves through 80 live-action vignettes projected onto a green, lush landscape with palm trees and small dwellings, against a backdrop of sea and mountains. Loudspeakers emit sounds of the sea, the wind and birdsong; there is the murmur of voices in several Pacific languages. Actors from PIPA, the Pacific Institute of Performing Art, are enacting a series of scenes informed by Māori and Pacific ceremonies, alongside brutal European practices such as the trading of goods in return for sexual favours. The panorama ends with the violent and dramatic climax of the death of Captain Cook in Hawai‘i in 1779. 

While Reihana uses as much fiction as historical research, her imaginative representation of history raises the question of what it must have been like when British explorer James Cook and his crew travelled to the Southern Seas in the late 18th century, on a mission funded by the British Crown. And yet for the subsequent two hundred years, we have been presented with a very different image. Reihana took the visuals of her landscape from a famous wallpaper from 1804, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, by Joseph Dufour. When Reihana encountered the wallpaper in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, she was struck by the representation of the Indigenous people of Polynesia: she couldn’t see anything that she recognised. The people depicted in the wallpaper were light-skinned, clad in Grecian clothes and wearing the eccentric headwear that was fashionable in the ballrooms of Paris. Reihana decided to turn the imagery around, using the opportunity to talk across time.

This history of visual stereotyping of Indigenous cultures has happened for centuries to colonised countries everywhere, and it is something Salgado is very well aware of. But Southern Stars is not just about giving visibility to artists from the Global South. Take the current exhibition, Golden Daughters of the Sun. “For instance, Algeria officially isn’t even in the southern hemisphere” Salgado says with a smile, “but it’s about that mentality of being South of the epicentre, the centre of power.”

This counts for Tanuvasa too, whose landscape and domestic environment are her main inspirations. Tanuvasa uses abstract mark-making to convey the shapes and forms around her. In some works there is text. Another banner that is not part of the exhibition but included in the catalogue shows the word ‘Essence’ in light blue, stitched-on letters, with deep red elliptical forms dancing playfully and mysteriously around it.

Although Tanuvasa’s main training was in painting, she found herself often confined to her home, trying to combine her artistic career with being a mother. So even though in many of her works, including Equally Different I and II, there is an allusion to landscape, it is mostly the flora and fauna in her direct environment that inspires Tanuvasa. This is because as a young mother and art teacher, Tanuvasa makes most of her works - which also include sculpture and large scale-paintings - at home. For Tanuvasa, the domestic context of her work is not just in the background; it is something to be celebrated. 

“As a child, I grew up in a home where industrial sewing machines and fabrics were distributed around the house” she writes in the exhibition catalogue. “My mother is a seamstress who learned this skill upon migrating to Aotearoa New Zealand from the Pacific Islands of Tonga. While my siblings and I played outside, there were car parts and lawnmowers in the back yards as my father worked as a mechanic. My father gained these skills as he too migrated from Samoa to Aotearoa for a better life. All these experiences have formed me, and I use art to share my experiences.”[02] 02. Exhibition catalogue, Golden Daughters of the Sun, hosted by Kunstraum, 8 – 31 October 2021. Published by Southern Stars.

Collective art production and craft-based media didn’t always fit with the individualised western view of art and authorship. For centuries, the labour and the collective elements of artistic production were smoothed out, unrooting the artwork from its context, its process and its sense of place. Yet for Tanuvasa, working with fabric connects her to her mother in a very holistic way. “Learning to work with fabric helps me understand the labour input by the body and mind when creating my pieces and significantly recognise what it was like for my mother to work with this material” she continues in the catalogue text.

But it appears that the world is catching up, with more and more female artists, collective art practices and the medium of craft gaining attention. The exhibition Making, Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019 presented from 2019 to 2022 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is a major example. And the exhibition Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters just opened in October 2021 at The Box, a new art space in Plymouth, comprising more than 300 artworks- paintings and objects – made by more than 100 Indigenous Australian artists, mostly women, and heavily features performance in the form of song and dance. The exhibition originated at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, which focuses on Indigenous histories and cultures, European settlement and people’s interaction with the environment. It was viewed by more than 400,000 people, and will continue touring in Europe, taking in Paris and Berlin. 

Plymouth was also the port from which Cook set sail in 1768, so this exhibition has a way of showing Plymouth in a different light: not as the original site of expeditions that spread western ideas on other countries, a launching point of colonisation, but as a site welcoming art made by Indigenous artists, a reverse expedition. And it brings me back to Salgado’s project. I ask her if she thinks artists from the southern hemisphere have a common aesthetic, but she immediately refutes the idea. “That would be impossible: these artists are all different and unique. But what unites them is that shared history of colonisation, and a certain sense of loss. For a long time, artists in colonised countries have wanted to please the European palate, yet at the same time they were trying to stay true to themselves. It is that tension, that challenge, that unites many artists from the South.”

Does she feel that George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests last year are having a positive effect for Indigenous artists in general? Salgado is a little sceptical. “Indigenous communities in New Zealand are slowly starting to receive the attention and respect they deserve: there is the renaming of public organisations, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently made a public apology for the Dawn Raids of the early 1970s, many children are now taught te reo Māori in schools. But I worry about the art world. Indigenous artists are popular now but I hope that this is not just another trope, an ephemeral fashion.”

Salgado is more interested in creating a platform for the discussion and exchange of ideas, emphasising connections instead of differences. According to the website, “Southern Stars aims to convey a core belief that not adding to life’s betterment is unsustainable and unethical in the current climate and human emergencies. Upholding the idea of a healthy planet and thriving societies, we share values with artists and audiences to promote wellbeing, avoiding waste production and carbon emissions and implementing fairness and transparency.” To this aim, Southern Stars will have a curated programme of talks, events and meetings. It will also offer consultancy services to public and private collections.

When I started to write this piece, I decided to look up the terms to describe the northern and southern hemispheres. I found Boreal and Austral: the Latin words for northern and southern winds, respectively. There definitely is a fresh breeze traveling through the art world, and Gabriela Salgado’s Southern Stars is one of many initiatives carried by these soft winds of change.

But maybe the time has come to abandon opposites altogether: North and South, Boreal and Austral, Day and Night. Looking at Salome Tanuvasa’s Equally Different I and II again, I no longer believe that the banners are dividing the exhibition space. On the contrary: they hold it together. Day and night are not two poles on a spectrum; they are fluid entities, coexisting together, happening simultaneously depending on our coordinates on the planet. I believe that Salgado is hopeful, too. The catalogue of Golden Daughters of the Sun starts with a poem by Plotinus.

“The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.”

01. 02. Exhibition catalogue, Golden Daughters of the Sun, hosted by Kunstraum, 8 – 31 October 2021. Published by Southern Stars.