Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s work brings into focus Australia’s colonial legacy and participation in the Pacific slave trade. Between 1847 and 1904, the Australian Government transported more than 62,000 Pacific Islanders to Australia from Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Fiji, Kiribati and the New Ireland and Milne Bay provinces of Papua New Guinea. While some came by choice, the vast number were ‘blackbirded’ – coerced, tricked or forced onto ships and placed under indentured labour conditions.
As Above, So Below, 2022–23, takes the form of 369 Tam tam (slit drum) sculptures made from plaster, which represent the bodies detailed in engravings made for the British slave ship Brookes. These ‘slaves-per-tonne’ schematics played an essential role in abolitionist campaigns to end transatlantic slavery and in Togo-Brisby’s installation become a constellation of possible sound – by means of the drums. In Central Vanuatu, finely carved Tam tam drums are grouped vertically in the soil of ceremonial grounds, with the resonant sound travelling for several kilometres to communicate with other islands. Togo-Brisby elaborates, ‘When the lip of the drum is struck, it is said that the emerging sounds are the voices of our ancestors’, reflecting the instrument’s significance in sharing and receiving messages from ancestral spirits.
As Above, So Below also uses the decorative nineteenth-century ceiling panels made by the Wunderlich company. Two decorative rosettes cast in plaster recognise Togo-Brisby’s great-great-grandparents, who in 1899 were house slaves for the Wunderlich family. The inclusion of these elements provides a counterpoint to the ship’s decks and a familial conduit:
I hold an imagined image in my mind of my granny, at eight years old, after her journey to Australia in the hold of a ship looking up from below deck. Then, on her first day at the Wunderlich’s house, she lies down at night, looking up at the decorative ceiling above.