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The Delicious Smell of Death

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Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Bitter Sweet, Te Uru gallery Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Re:finery, St Paul Street Gallery, AUT Flag of the South Sea Islanders community, designed by Tony Burton in 1994, adopted the same year by the Australian South Sea Islanders United Council. Map of Malaita, showing Kwaio territory Chelsea Sugar Factory circa 1884, photographer unknown

Thousands of South Sea Islanders, as the sugar workers quickly became known, died in the fields of disease and exhaustion. Thousands more returned home with welts on their backs and a knife or spade bought with their pathetic earnings. Some settled in Australia after their contracts ended, and survived as subsistence farmers and casual labourers.



Jasmine Togo-Brisby,
Bitter Sweet,


24 September - 13 November 2016

Te Uru’s western staircase has a glass wall, and my eyes filled with spring sunlight as I climbed its fifty or so steps. When I turned into the small room on the gallery’s top floor I could see, at first, nothing but a faint golden glow. The room was windowless, and its lights had been turned off.

As my eyes blinked and squinted at the dark, my nostrils filled with a sweet, delicious smell. I walked towards the gold, breathing its scent greedily, then stopped in shock. I was standing at the foot of a mound of skulls, made out of millions of grains of brown sugar. A single skull sat atop the pile, gazing into the dark. The smell of sugar was suddenly sickening.

A mound of skulls is an ancient symbol of terror and conquest. As they pushed east and south, through the cowed kingdoms of China and Europe and the Middle East, the Mongols raised monuments of heads outside gutted cities. When the Mongols’ imitator Tamerlane captured Baghdad in 1401 he decapitated ninety thousand men, women and children, and used their heads to build one hundred and twenty pyramids.

By the time they were conquering Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century, European empires were imitating Tamerlane. In the Congo Belgian colonists collected and displayed the heads of natives who displeased them; in India the British punished recalcitrant locals by firing their heads from canons.

In the late twentieth century the pile of skulls became a symbol of genocide. When it fled before Vietnamese invaders in 1978, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime left behind the bodies of thousands of its victims at sites like Tuol Seng, the torture and execution camp on the edge of Phnom Penh. The invaders turned Tuol Seng and other sites into museums, and arranged the skulls of the old regime’s victims into piles. Photographs of these sculptures were reproduced in Western newspapers and magazines, and became tokens of the Khmer Rouge’s depravities. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 left behind new mounds of skulls.

In the Pacific the pile of skulls is perhaps a more ambiguous symbol. In many of the region’s ancient societies the borders between life and death were pervious, and the dead were garrulous and mischievous participants in the affairs of the living. The spirits of ancestors spoke through shaman-priests, or birds, or the weather. They aided or thwarted their descendants’ harvests and hunts. They rejoiced at feasts, and keened at funerals. On many Pacific islands an ancestors’ skull was a locus of their soul, and the redoubt from which they intervened in the world.

The Kwaio people of Malaita built houses in the clefts and caves of their mountains, and filled them with the skulls of their ancestors. They asked favours of the dead by slaying pigs and spilling kava outside these skull houses.

Because they were so valuable, skulls were vulnerable to theft and desecration. Raiders rifled skull houses, and took fresh heads from enemies captured in battle. In the Roviana lagoon region of New Georgia chiefs showed off the skulls of their enemies on the rafters and shelves of their homes. Skulls were traded for canoes, for pigs, and - after the arrival of Europeans - for guns.

By the end of the 1860s white headhunters were cruising the Western Pacific. In 1872 John Moresby navigated a paddlesteamer through the Solomons, the New Hebrides, and island New Guinea, and recorded stories about ‘kill kill’ ships that kidnapped and beheaded locals and traded their remains with headhunting chiefs. The captains and most of the crews of the ‘kill kill’ ships were white men, and often they encouraged islanders to board their vessels by dressing as ministers, brandishing Bibles, and promising lessons in the gospel of Christ.

In 1927 the Kwaio people slew a party of tax collectors sent into their territory by British colonial administrators. In response, the British landed a small army on Mailaita, executed the first sixty Kwaio they encountered, and raided the skull houses in the island’s mountains. The drunken invaders smashed and burned many skulls, and threw others into the huts where Kwaio women had traditionally secluded themselves to menstruate.

The bones of Pacific islanders are still being disturbed. At the edge of the public cemetery in Mackay, an old port town halfway up Queensland’s Pacific coast, more than a hundred bodies were recently discovered in unmarked graves. They belonged to some of the sixty-two thousand Melanesians who were put to work on the sugar plantations of Queensland and New South Wales in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Many of the islanders were kidnapped. Out of a desire for adventure or a need to escape trouble, some of them willingly signed contracts that promised them a few pounds’ ‘wages’ at the end of three years of hard labour.

Thousands of South Sea Islanders, as the sugar workers quickly became known, died in the fields of disease and exhaustion. Thousands more returned home with welts on their backs and a knife or spade bought with their pathetic earnings. Some settled in Australia after their contracts ended, and survived as subsistence farmers and casual labourers.

In 1901, under pressure from trade unions, Australia’s parliament passed the Pacific Island Labourers Act, which proclaimed sugar a white industry and prepared the way for the deportation of the South Sea Islanders who remained in Queensland and New South Wales. Some islanders boarded boats for home voluntarily, but others crossed the Great Dividing Range and spent the first decade of the century hiding in the gum forests and scrublands of the Australian interior.

When they returned to the towns and villages of the coast, many of the South Sea Islanders avoided arrest and deportation by pretending to be Aboriginals. Secretly, though, they continued some of the practices of their ancestors. In Mackay they established a house of magic, where sorcerers met and spells and fetishes were exchanged. Arranged marriages between Tannese and Malaitans, Efateans and Ambaens linked distant islands, and kept a Melanesian community intact. Only in the 1970s did many South Sea Islanders begin to proclaim publicly their ancestry and identity.

Jasmine Togo-Brisby is a South Sea Islander. Her ancestors were kidnapped from Vanuatu, and put to work for a wealthy Sydney family which seems to have protected them during the deportations at the beginning of the twentieth century. Togo-Brisby made Bitter Sweet after reading about the exhumations at Mackay.

By mixing the sweet smell of sugar with the horror of a pile of skulls, Togo-Brisby reminds us of the suffering and death that underwrote Australia’s economic development. Marx wrote that capital comes into the world dripping blood and dirt from every pore; in nineteenth century Australia it also dripped sugar. The slave labour of Melanesians gave start-up sugar planters fat profits. The cannier planters turned these windfalls into share and real estate portfolios, and sugar was soon flowing through every organ and capillary of the Australian economy.

New Zealand was quickly implicated in the slave economy of its neighbour. Ships from Auckland and Dunedin enlisted in the fleet that kidnapped Pacific Islanders and transported them to the sugarfields of Australia. (1) The enormous factory that Chelsea built on Auckland’s North Shore in the early 1880s refined sugar harvested by South Sea Islanders. The whips and ropes that masters used to drive and discipline South Sea Islanders were made from New Zealand flax.

Bitter Sweet is both a desecration and a memorial. Its skulls are anonymous, and lie in an untidy pile, unmourned by stones and unprotected by wood or soil. And yet, despite their sad disarray, the skulls are a symbolic link to Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s ancestors, and thus a source of power and pride.

The skulls were made from a single cast, and are therefore virtually identical. Yet Jasmine-Brisby created each of them by hand, refusing to outsource the labour. Again and again, she mixed unrefined sugar with epoxy resin, watched while her mixture hardened, and then cautiously separated her cast from its copy. The skulls may be anonymous, but they have been fashioned tenderly, reverently.

After the colonial invaders withdrew from their mountains in 1928, the Kwaio people recovered their ancestors’ remains, and rebuilt their sacred ossuaries. Today the skullhouses still stand, and the Kwaio dead are still revered and petitioned. The astonishing sculpture on Te Uru’s top floor can be seen as Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s attempt to recover her desecrated forebears.

Scott Hamilton

(1) On the other side of Auckland, at the St Paul Street gallery of the Auckland University of Technology, Togo-Brisby is showing a large work made of stitched-together Chelsea sugar bags. She has beaten the bags in the way that ni-Vanuatu women beat barkcloth, to create the mats that they call ‘nemasite.’ Re:finery is part of a very fine exhibition called Influx, which has been curated by Ane Tonga and brings together a number of young Pacific Island artists. One of these artists is John Vea, who shares Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s angry fascination with the exploitation of Pacific labour by palangi capital.

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This Discussion has 2 comments.


Richard Taylor, 10:18 p.m. 21 October, 2016

Good review Scott. The skulls must have given you a scare!

Tamburlaine the Great. I read that play by Marlowe. It is a crazy play with Tamburlaine glorying in his conquests and power. Is it a commentary though on brutal England and France around then when Protestants were burning Catholics alive and vice versa? And there were plenty of skulls in Europe also, so the practice continued in Africa and India.

So humans seem skull obsessed.

The hardships of working in Queensland would have been increased by the heat, and snakes etc.

The sugar works. There is Baxter's 'Ballad of the Stone Gut Sugar Works' I think it is. He worked there once.

Human history leaves a lot to be desired. No desire myself to see mounds of skulls though, might take a look at either of both though...

Thanks for this.

 In reply

John Hurrell, 9:03 a.m. 22 October, 2016

Some readers might remember the Luke Willis Thompson show at Hopkinson Mossman on a similar theme, or notice the work by Quishile Charan currently on at Artspace (positioned under and over the stairs) and discussed by Lana Lopesi and Francis McWhannell here:

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