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Radical With-nessing on Common Ground

Truth-telling, ancestral acknowledgement and community activism paving paths to decolonial futures

By Holly Bynoe

18 March 2024

Kia ora, iwi, mahi, marae, moana, waka, mana, tupuna, pōwhiri, taonga, maunga, and aroha were few of the reverberating Māori words that filtered through our collective bodies, minds, hearts and spirits during the most recent gathering of the Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) 2024 Triennial Conference. Under the theme, ‘The View From Here: Sustainability, Community and Knowledge Systems,’ the conference welcomed delegates from the four corners of the globe in beautiful Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, from March 3rd to 8th, under the radical hospitality and care of the Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum (AWMM) and Te Whare Taonga o Waikato Waikato Museum.

As museum conferences go, this gathering proved provocative, intimate, challenging, inspiring and transformative. Participants and hosts comprising elders, Indigenous knowledge keepers, stewards, museum professionals, academics, artists, curators, activists, liberation advocates, spiritual guides, scientists, outliers and change agents were taken through the protocols of welcome, establishing respectful boundaries and Indigenous lineages grounded in Māori consciousness and worldviews.

On the grounds of the University of Auckland, the welcome ceremony and ritual started with a torrential downpour, with the heavens giving libation and blessing to the Earth and kindred from all times and generations. This omen satisfied the grounding and reverence that the tupuna/tipuna (ancestors) continued to demand and reaffirmed during the 6-day convening. Participants huddled under trees seeking shelter while waiting for the pōwhiri—a traditional ceremony—to begin in the wharenui or communal/meeting house. A wharenui/marae is the central heartbeat and gathering space for Māori encounters, teaching, ritual and exchange; they are spaces that host community celebrations, funerals, weddings and important events for the iwi (tribes) and is a place to memorialise the ancestors. It is a place where Māori identities, values, cosmologies and philosophy are reaffirmed; it is a place of belonging.

Annelize Kotze, CAM Board President and MC for the welcome invitation. All images and permissions by Holly Bynoe unless stated.

At the Waipapa Marae, we processed, drenched, women first, then men, in an order acknowledging the deep traditions of defence, the importance of encounter, kinship and rights of passage brought forward and kept in practice by the Māori. What could have been easily overlooked as patriarchal order superseding was given space for interpretation by the lead elder, who carefully explained the role of gender in the ritual. A marae is a place where challenges are met respectfully, and issues are debated and held in balance by Rongo, the God of peace. As shoes were unbuckled, umbrellas opened to dry, and feet scampered across the wooden porch to find shelter and warmth in the dimly lit belly of the wharenui. Greeted by the sheer awe and an architectural wonder with high ceilings and wide embracing ribs, spines and columns, and carvings of Māori deities and craftsmanship continued to awe in the many taonga—artefacts, traditional buildings, carvings, waka/canoes, objects and artwork—we encountered physically and virtually across presentations. Following an exchange of song, call and response, evocative and heartfelt opening welcomes and critiques were made by Māori elders and CAM Board Members Annelize Kotze (South Africa) and Nichodimas Cooper (Botswana), whose sharing called upon the spirit of the ancestors to gift each participant with the ability to hold each other voices and perspectives with kindness, love and respect. Keynote speakers Chanel Clarke and Dr Melani Anae established the tone for the spiritual positionality of matriarchal power, liberatory techniques and ancestral interrogation, which remained central in the coming days. 

Not to be taken as a gathering which forefronted buzzwords that have been captured and co-opted by museums and their EDI—Equality, Diversity and Inclusion—aspirations, the work of decolonisation continued to be foregrounded as a challenge with Clarke highlighting the need for institutions and its living human material engaging in ongoing reflexive work to move institutions out of talking and into the action or in her words, out of the noun and into the verb, out of intent and into reality. During her presentation, she lamented the urgency of ‘checking oneself’ while holding to actionable, transparent, and accountable values. Her down-to-earthiness as Tāmaki Paenga Hira’s (AWMM) first Māori curator chronicled the enduring legacies and traumas of colonisation on the spirit of Māori people while giving space for aspects of truth-telling which can lead to remediation with the institution and the psycho-spiritual impacts of those giving of their intellectual and embodied knowledge to museums. She questioned the status of institutional ‘postcoloniality’ while advocating for museums to think about embracing new knowledge and being mindful of actions that re-trauma staff and communities along with institutional gaslighting. Echoing these realities in philosophical ways, activist Dr Melani Anae called up the philosophy of the vā, a secular and sacred relational space that informs a code of ethics. Anae highlighted the urgency of tapping into Ancestral Intelligence as the most profitable AI to have a relationship with. Her presentation unlocked several scaffolds to recall humanity’s original GPS to value cultural identity and collective stories, asking a very important question: Can we have a relationship with the museum like the one we have with our grandmothers?

Upon closing the sacred meeting in the marae, visitors were traditionally greeted with the hongi (Māori greeting). As noses touched, mixed in with handshakes, fist bumps and hugs, we left the marae and gathered at Fale Pasifika to break bread. A fale—the heartbeat of villages— the second largest in the world- is the spiritual home of the University’s Pacific community. The model of Fale Pasifika takes inspiration from a Samoan fale and has a grounding energetic resonance recalling the boat’s hull. It is held in place by numerous gifts from the diverse pluri-Pacific regions. The cohort was welcomed by a totemic installation, ‘Beacons’ (2004), made by the late artist Jim Vivieaere (1947-2011), topped by seven frigate birds, both male and female, another signifier of our islands, navigation, migration, master boat builders and craftspeople who were transiting the Pacific and beyond in ancient times. The frigate becomes a symbol for the mobile agency of living entities. During this time, we could ground into convivial and relaxed sharing, connecting to new and old friends and colleagues, and diving deeper into our stories as ways to be seen.  

Jim Vivieaere, (1947-2011),  ‘Beacons’ (2004) presents seven totems with the magnificent frigate birds, male and female at the top.

The second day was packed with storytelling, heartwork and presentations that focused on kaitiakitanga, cultural custodianship and museum practice, care and protection of Indigenous documentary heritage collections, and perspectives that gave shape to the many views from wherever here was for those bringing local consciousness forward. The presentations forefronted the need for Indigenous creative practices to acknowledge the foundation of ancestral technologies while building more equitable and transparent relationships to the actualities around the processes of restitution, reparation, reconciliation and truth-telling. 

But how do museums truth-tell and build reflexivity in systems often blind to inherent bias, and what kinds of provocations allow them to speak about their complex histories and colonial present? Might self-determination and agency rise internally to combat privilege and exclusionary tactics while embracing degrowth and slow cultural work, rejecting widespread urgencies around labour and output? What pathways of care are provided to those doing the brave and risky work of reformation, and might boards of directors welcome more feminine leadership and voices to soften aspects of hierarchy and power, transforming climbing the ladder into a circle and competition into sharing? How can curators be empowered to curate the erased and disavowed voices, perspectives and experiences into the museum’s narrative and revised system of values? 

Questions on land stewardship and reform from the ancestral lands of Hawai’i came forward in origin stories of the Colocasia esculenta or kalo, more commonly known as taro/dasheen/callaloo across the Caribbean. Biocultural ecologist Dr Kawika Winter pointed to the conceptual framework of the plant and its relationship to the ongoing plight of the Indigenous people of Hawai’i in the wake of the climate collapse, highlighting its significance as not only a staple source of food but is central to the social structure, spiritual and mythological systems of Hawaiian culture. In their cosmology and worldview, the Kalo is humankind’s elder brother. As a part of stewarding and restoring land impacted by colonisation, Winter suggests restoration as an antidote to colonial violence and ongoing settler conflict. 

How does ecological and biocultural restoration function in places that are rising daily to encounter and resist the hydra-head of the colonialist-capitalist order? Can our more-than-human allies provide us with new museum strategies as we develop tools to counter the 3Cs, Colonialism, Capitalism and Christianisation of our spaces? Collective remembering of our diverse creation stories, plant allies, folklore, cosmological entities, memories and mythologies might offer a wellspring of resources as we consider the importance of cultural identity within shaping viable community spaces that are critical, compassionate, adaptable and self-determined. 

Relational thinking explored via Winter’s presentation.

Curator at the Natural History Museum, London Miranda Lowe CBE, shared the prejudices inherent in the National History Museum, highlighting the work of Hans Sloane, Charles Darwin and others who historically dominated the narrative of discovery, species collection and nomenclature while dismissing the intellect, mahi (work) and capacity of enslaved and formerly enslaved people, Indigenous people and people of colour, like John Edmonstone, who were used as collateral of bioprospecting. Zoning into the ability of museum professionals to engage thoughtfully with complex content, she shared the prevalence of tokenisation across museums, the difficult but necessary work of plurality and the fact that specimens and artefacts have stories to tell that broaden the dimensionality of museum collections, that perhaps there is a greater chance now more than ever to find ways to advocate for what might be trapped in the materiality of objects telling stories far more intricately than we can. Lowe shared some of her critical scholarship that has been ongoing in the institution for over two decades, highlighting papers like Nature Read in Black and White: Decolonial Approaches to Interpreting Natural History Collections and her activist practice as a founding member of Museum Detox. She closed with a call for action, asking what allyship in museums looks like to us as a group. Some jumbled words I wrote attempting to answer include presence, autonomy, listening, being embodied, empowered and able to hold conflict and multiple perspectives respectfully—simultaneously. Closing, this resource was shared, highlighting the guidance offered to museums struggling to incorporate the leadership, lessons and actions to move into their decolonial process. 

These curious provided pathways for conversations around the archive, the call to collect, reclaim, and repatriate Pacific Islands taonga (artefacts), of which there are hundreds of thousands, questioning the museum as a living, breathing, inclusive space for multiple knowledge(s) a question around the elevation and placement of Māori mana to be held, cared for and elevated. The care and protection of Indigenous heritage collections is one of the global underlying material concerns as institutions grapple with frozen governance systems. At times, poor legislation, undefined political will, growing populism, conservatism, and ongoing systemic corruption perpetuate long-term precarity across museum spaces. Coupled with the climate emergency Pacific Islanders and institutions are already feeling, the parallels with the Small Island Developing States of the Caribbean are undeniable. Jacqueline Snee, Head of Documentary Heritage at the AWMM, shared personal stories about her family’s archive, the loss encountered during a flood and the many ways in which her family tried to secure the lineage, memory and representation of her grandfather for generations to come. This begs the question…

What are museums protecting, and for whom?

It was clear that Kaitiakitanga (guardianship), repatriation/restitution of sacred objects and ancestors, remains a high priority for institutions across the Pacific Islands. The brave pleas continued through to the end of the day when we saw how outliers and those working in community museums and in deep informality were navigating issues around reconciliation and anticolonial transformation. From the context of a cultural advocate working across the Caribbean’s creative ecologies, the knowledge brought forward during exchanges on Intangible Cultural Heritage, agitation, and reformation can inform a vibrant anticolonial toolkit of resources on aspects of care, beginning the conversations around the right for Indigenous peoples to return, land security and the more complex geopolitical elements of what can be seen as slow-moving regional Caribbean restitution and a somewhat stalled 10-year-old CARICOM Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice and recent agitations by oversight groups to the Church of England to consider increasing their reparation fund to £1 Billion. These models, pleas and requests are consciously within the energy field of our global emissions, with success stories emerging from four corners. Perhaps the instrumentalisation of pioneers and elders can pause to allow for authentic stories and different types of agitation/activism and justice to emerge, highlighting the degrees of grief, loss, and varied legacies of underdevelopment that the vestiges of colonialism have inlaid on the psychological and spiritual aspects of land and people.

Social Worker and the University of North Carolina Rotary Peace Fellow Alexandra Rose provided a handy map and schema of how social justice and the power of agitation and inward-looking can add to the healing of institutions. During the many workshops held in smaller, intimate breakout groups, social justice resonated as the crux of the most challenging reformation work museums are facing. While living spaces, museums can often feel and function like fossilised entities. For spaces to become reflexive and conscious of their bias, discrimination and colonial histories, leadership, staff, and individuals must cast internal eyes into their own lives, which could perhaps be the starting point to confront bias, prejudice, systemic racism and other causalities that have kept them far away from their awakening and human consciousness and relating to the information and knowledge systems birthed by the natural and spiritual worlds. Suppose our tables cannot pull up a seat to offer to those bringing in fugitive, rambunctious, infectious and anticolonial strategies. How long will they continue to commit atrocities like alienation, dissociation, covert and overt violence, and subjugation? Rose’s ‘Tools of a Systems Thinker’ follows the vein of black feminist writers like adrienne maree browne, who makes a case for new explorations around interconnectedness, circularity, emergence, wholeness, synthesis, and the importance of relationships rather than working in systems that embody isolation, analysis, silos, disconnection and linearity.

At the end of the day, as the rain kept falling, the auction table grew with gifts from across the four winds. The exchange and showcase are part of CAM’s strategy to raise funds while allowing participants to collect and learn more about interesting memorabilia, crafts, wear, souvenirs, books, and objects of heritage from each other’s lands, makers, and artisans. 

The dawning of the second day evoked similar steam and intentionality of the day prior, opening with a call for vulnerability and exposure. Canadian Museum for Human Rights curator Felix Berry’s performance and reading titled ‘Portrait of an aunty whose ancestral remains are our responsibility’ encapsulated the heartwork of the conference. Guiding us through a story of mothership, twins, elders, residential schools, sedation, kidnapping, addiction, ripeness, loss, celebration, and the deep somatic. Rather than bringing his curatorial practice to the table, he laid bare in rapid-fire procession the life of maternity lost and found, backdropped by intergenerational trauma and the bonds of ancestry that are broken from his context the trauma, death, displacement, dispossession and pain present in Canada’s residential school history. Berry’s words were possessed, leaky, daunting and heavy, dropping across the ears of the unwanted, orphaned and peripheral. Underpinned by the dark, very recent past of Canada’s broken land treaties with its Indigenous people, his story wrote stories across our collective bodies and boundaries, creating new fissures to pass through and potential imaginings around what social transformation can look like if we choose the path of healing. Donned in a feathered shirt for protection, the young scholar proclaimed bareness as one of the pillars of truth-telling in his path to reconciliation. Under the bones of the ancestors and throughout hijacked landscapes and violated bodies, the decolonial intelligence became reactivated and ‘re-alived’ itself in pulses of blood, sensuosity, sex, magic and the necropolis. The mother is held in an interstitial place, a place for fishes where “what you love should be.” While gatekeepers, colonial dependency, the hydra heads of capitalism, the silent threat of low-lying disappearing islands, fragile collections and systems of dependency lived well on the outskirts of his performance, his words moved the cohort deeply back into the practice of embodiment, one of the repeating healing tools informally held in regard in sidebar conversations. 

Lesley Hatipone Machiridza, Professor at Great Zimbabwe University and current Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cologne, strong words of critique landed squarely on the cohort with nods reflecting the questions he prompted, including who is being served by museums, highlighting that within Western conception the museum doesn’t function as a space for Indigenous people or alterity. As the dominance of Western worldviews continues to perpetuate and infiltrate, Indigenous and Global South communities are often excluded from decision-making and collaboration, which frequently leaves the museum in an antiquated state, lacking fresh imagination and little room to experiment with their social context. 

While that is changing globally, his repetition of ‘decolonisation as a fallacy’ and the complex realities that many museum professionals face where the intangible, spiritual, holistic and multiple knowledges continue to be sidelined or corrupted by draconian bureaucracy, coloniality of power/knowledge, and hegemonic psychology, his questions circulate back to Clarke’s opening remarks where she pressed for loosening, interrogation, activism, asking the question, how do we leave or why do we stay in museums when their systems fail to keep up with the work of justice or stories and values fall out of alignment with communities that we are in service to? How do we practise refusal, disobedience, infection, maroonage, cunning and tricksterism to heal the thing that is broken rather than breaking ourselves further? 

Smudging ceremony offered by Heather Fraser, Site Search Archives Specialist at Algoma University, Canada on behalf of the First Nations cohort of Jay Jones, Felix Berry and Elder Robert Green.

Sustainability, while a buzzword in the museum sector, was tackled in actionable and compassionate ways during Patricia Allan, curator of World Cultures at Glasgow Museums, presentation on her ongoing work on rural education and economic development across the coastal regions of Ecuador. Communities are waking up to heritage loss and the growing impacts of El Niño and La Niña on biodiversity and striving to consider context-based mitigation strategies to combat the challenges faced by climate injustice. While impacts can loom large in the imagination and everydayness of communities who are on the frontlines, they also provide opportunities for deep introspection, adaptation and flexibility within communities that now have to provision further away from shorelines and care for threshold spaces that might have offered stability and security to their communities in the past. 

Prof Karen Brown and James Brown from the Shared Island Stories Between Scotland and the Caribbean: Past, Present, Future, the University of St. Andrews shared their ongoing transnational work in Costa Rica with community leaders like Teresa Morales, who continue to centre the museum as “decisive force, the protagonist and the creative motor of the museum,” noting collective processes like self-interpretation and communities acting together to recognize their collective experience part of the more significant and rigorous work of communities to lead their own spaces and write their stories. The Transnational Youth Exchange between Scotland and the Caribbean, which focused on the Outer Hebridean islands of Harris, Lewis and Uist in Scotland and Barbados, allows young people to be in contact with each other’s homes, spaces, families, language and culture. The sharing brought a powerful case study of sustainable development that helps counter social issues common to islands, such as depopulation due to outward migration of youth, intergenerational traumas, challenges around unsustainable tourism, and isolation. 

Rangitāhua Island from the sea. Image courtesy Land Care and Research.

What could only be labelled as a treasure, Te Mana o Rangitāhua, a five-year (2020-2025) iwi-museum (tribe-museum) research partnership led by Ngāti Kuri in partnership with Auckland Museum culminated our third day of sharing. Plural voices from the Māori community guided us, Tammy Tauroa and Sheridan Waitai, through transformational aspects of this work that focuses on wellbeing and reconnecting back into Indigenous practices to benefit from remembering and re-storying of Rangitāhua, the Kermadec Islands. The islands, located halfway between mainland Aotearoa and Tonga and containing marine and terrestrial biodiversity found nowhere else in the world, have been identified as one of only four pristine marine ecosystems on Earth. The prospects to study the impacts of climate change, mitigation strategies, and island precarity while unearthing tangible and intangible links between people, the environment, and taonga move deeply into the verbs of Aroha and Kumanu (love and care). The interdisciplinary team presented beautiful graphics, timelines, and documentation from their island visits, and they passionately shared aspects of collaboration that respect mana motuhake (sovereignty and self-determination). Rather than a code of ethics to govern our relationship with each other, the institution, and our communities, might a living protocol better serve us, and can unnatural partners teach us the things we have yet to learn about ourselves?

The day culminated with multiple sharing spaces for participants to share about their work on the ground, grassroots initiatives, and campaigns that their museums and global organisations are undertaking, along with special screenings of short films, experimental works, documentaries, and performances mixed with cultural displays.

Sharing spaces at the AWMM allowed for many participants to share informally on their work showcasing documentaries, heritage material and other information.

We travelled south the following day to Te Whare Taonga o Waikato Waikato Museum on the banks of the Waikato River in Hamilton. The Waikato River and its surrounding regions have been populated for approximately 800 years, providing physical and spiritual sustenance for Māori living along its catchment. On the way,  Auckland disappeared, revealing rolling hills, pasture, farmland and waterways. Early autumn blooms of mānuka—of which the Māori have a long relationship, referring to it as taonga and an ancestral plant ancestor with many usages from medicinal applications to vessels, craft and weapons making—and harakeke New Zealand flax, the most critical fibrous plant, littered the highway. Across the hills, invasive species were being put to death, their woody carcases whitening in the sun, allowing for replanting native species. 

Mānuka, also known as tea tree, shrubbery is dense and compact with flowers providing nectar for bees to make the highly coveted medicinal grade honey.

In easy conversation, we learnt, guided by David Reeves, Chief Executive of Tāmaki Paenga Hira, the words to a Māori waiata song, Te Aroha. The song set the tone for the day as we were welcomed in ceremony into the museum, gaining insight into how Māori culture is being adopted, integrated, and shared and the transformative power anchoring welcome and hospitality in this way. The morning featured several presentations from curatorial, collections management, community engagement and archives, which gave us an idea of the breadth of work they conduct and the spirit of Sankofa, Akan/Ghanaian philosophy—learning from the past to build the future—which is a fundamental part of nation-building and anticolonial groundings in the Caribbean. Institutions are looking at their past carefully to gauge ways forward that are respectful to Māori leadership, stewardship, guardianship, and ancestral fields. Phrases and sayings graced presentations: “From a small seed, a flower blooms,” “A tree comes from one seed but bears many fruits,” and “I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past,” pointing to cohesion, mutuality and aspects of wellbeing reflected in the exhibitions at Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

At lunch, we explored the grounds and river bank, soaking in the beautiful sunshine, and grounding our feet into the River while listening and watching youth learn to row and sing. This was a welcomed break before heading into the deepest somatic and healing experience of the conference. 

CAM participants on the bank of the Waikato River soaking radiant sunshine.

Over the past eight years, husband and wife duo Lissy and Rudi Robinson-Cole have been using their creative energies to explore maatauranga Maaori (traditional Māori knowledge) and their whakapapa (genealogy) through crocheted sculptural forms. Wharenui Harikoa (House of Joy) is their most ambitious creation to date—a full-scale wharenui featuring vibrant wall pillars, carved human forms, patterned wall panels, and carved centre posts entirely crocheted by hand. Bringing together neon colours and traditional Maaori carving shapes, their mahi offers a new understanding of the importance of (harikoa) joy and Aroha (love) within Māori worldviews. 

CAM participants experiencing the Wharenui Harikoa.

Upon entering, we were greeted by the open and uplifted arms of Hiwa-i-te-rangi, who is voluptuous, kneeling and inviting us to draw close to her essence. She is the youngest of the seven sisters in the Matariki or Pleiades cluster and the star to which Māori dreams and aspirations are connected. According to Māori astronomer Rangi Mātāmua, Hiwa-i-te-rangi represents collective aspirations for a prosperous season. Her supplication welcomes collective dreaming as the feathers that align the pillar behind her carry wishes—of success, future growth and prosperous vision—to the heavens. Participants were invited to take their shoes off and enter the carpeted sacred space of Wharenui Harikoa. 

 Hiwa-i-te-rangi, Lissy Robinson-Cole, Rudi Robinson-Cole, Ben Rikiti (Ngāi Tūhoe) 2020.

Sitting and spilling out of the entrance, a soundtrack lulled us into silence and took us on a journey through the cosmos and our lived experiences as the lights, imagery, gods, and goddesses fluttered across our vision. In the void, there is everything and nothing, source and beyond. Collaborating with international artists, Ben Rikiti, Manutahi Gray, Hollie Tawhiao, Maungarongo Ron Te Kawa, Linda Munn, Francoise Danoy, Tinna Thorvaldar, Rewi McClay, London Kay, Nigel Borell, Te Hemo Ata Henare, Marree Kimete, Melissa Tapu-Maclean and Carmen Paulino, ‘House of Joy’ is a global manifestation of liberation and collective prayers of the healing of intergenerational trauma that are explicit in spaces that have colonial histories. To my surprise, Atabey, the Taino Mother Goddess and Creator appeared on a Tukutuku panel as a collaborative offering from Paulino (Borikén/Puerto Rico) to render us maternal protection and refreshment via sweet waters. The Waikato River delivered. We were all invited to write our wishes to the ancestors and offer them up to the prayer box, which will ascend to the heavens and cosmos with the help of the little star sister.

Atabey. Tukutuku panel. Lissy Robinson-Cole, Rudi Robinson-Cole, Carmen Paulino (USA), 2022.

Our last day was at the AWMM for the final panel, workshops and closing reflections. ‘Reflecting communities within museum practice’ welcomed back Miranda Lowe. Following her powerful presentation on the first day, Lowe spoke about ground-up activations like Museum Detox, which has piloted transformative aspirations of museums across the UK who need support with their EDIA—Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Action—aspiration. Highlighting values like people first, zero tolerance for discrimination, and learning deep listening in order to unlearn and relearn, she took the time to paint a picture detailing the painful and often slow process of decolonisation. Sherilyne Jones, who has been working in the museum sector in Belize for almost 20 years, shared some success stories of youth integration and decentralisation that are critical to outlier countries like Belize, which are struggling with resources to preserve, protect, articulate and activate the 14 archaeological and two historical sites that comprise The Museum Of Belize’s remit. Like many Caribbean nations, of which Belize is included, national cultural policies are often retrograde and asynchronous when considering the communities being cared for. Under Houses of Culture or Casas de la Cultura, rather than centralising efforts to educate and create programming for those in Belmopan, several cultural houses have opened up to serve the many Indigenous people who comprise the country, including the Mopan, Q’eqchi’ Maya and Garifuna peoples.

La Casa de la Cultura de Corozal. Image courtesy the Government of Belize.

The Shared Island Stories representatives, Karen, Jamie and myself, in the capacity as a PhD candidate, were part of the facilitated workshops, which were offered on diverse topics, including conservation, intergenerational exchange, language revitalisation, community engagement, social justice and sustainability. Our intergenerational exchange workshop allowed participants to speak about people in their lives who were knowledge-keepers and storytellers. This broke the ice and established feelings of intimacy as participants talked about metaphors, healing aspects, the importance of grandmothers, and how the digital divide is causing challenges within traditional sharing. Commonwealth secretariat Terri-Ann Gilbert Roberts (Jamaica) reaffirmed the importance of youth empowerment through their autonomy, which means that balance always has to be negotiated for youth to feel secure and belong to their place. While traditional knowledge can sometimes feel precarious, how can the knowledge of a changing world, speculations for the future, heritage materials, and memories from the past be held simultaneously? What platforms look at both aspects and how can we soften and make approaches feel more contouring to shepherding in agency and compassion for multiple world views? How do we create moments to bring more embodiment into intergenerational knowledge transfer in worlds—young, old, future, present and past—so that all sides feel witnessed? 

Intergenerational workshop led by the Shared Island Stories cohort of Prof. Karen Brown, Research Fellow James Brown and PhD Candidate, Holly Bynoe. Image by James Brown.

Chamorro scholar and activist Michael Bevacqua, from Guam—an organised, unincorporated territory of the United States—closed the conference with reminders for us to look for and call up the smallest of miracles to defeat the biggest of beasts. As a colonised state for the last 503 years, Bevacqua shared about language loss across Guam and how members of the lost generation are agitating for the reclamation of the autochthonous language, Chamorro. As founder of the first-ever Chamorro Studies Program, he shared personal stories about his children learning the language and his grandparents witnessing the miracle of hearing them speak and putting Chamorro into the world. The colonisation and capture of Guam began in 1668 by the Spanish and created multiple levels of psychological disruption, inducing cultural obscurity and (dis)ease.

Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary Frantz Fanon noted that the experience of subjugation often led to feelings of inferiority, self-hatred, and internalised racism, epitomised by the concept of ‘colonial alienation,’ where individuals internalise the negative stereotypes imposed by the colonisers, resulting in a fractured sense of identity. This is where legend and myth become balm, high medicine, and antidotes to colonialism. Bevacqua shared a legend from the Chamorro people that changed the “contours of possibility.” Guam is plagued by a giant fish chewing away at the island’s core in the fable. After many attempts to capture the fish, the fish continued to terrorise the people. The women got together and concocted a simple plan of capture. They cut off their hair, weaved a net from the tendrils and captured the giant terrorising fish with their collective net of hair. From this legend we can glean many things about emergent liberation and colonial infection strategies. 

Can colonised and formerly colonised people work to reclaim agency and dignity via the revolutionary and liberatory opportunity of weaving our best gifts and stories in knots, loops and newfound glitches? Can these carry secrets, inventions, new movements and ontologies shared with our more-than-human kindred so that they can collaborate with our ancestral—past, present and future—intelligence to move towards wholeness, healing and joy? Can our collective daily refusal to live and work in capture within Eurocentric historical imaginations be ground down to a stall? Can we collectively imagine, love and action new possibilities for our futures and shared humanity inside and outside the institution where our bodies, experiences and beingness remake, remap and rebirth our viewing from where we are? Not in the lie, nor beneath the heel of the behemoth, but sliding surreptitiously and trickster-fully along the strand of our grandmother’s hair into the eye of the needle.


Holly Bynoe is an independent curator, writer, spiritualist, Earth Ally and researcher from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Bynoe is co-director of Caribbean Linked, a regional residency program supporting cultural exchange, and co-founder of Tilting Axis, the meeting and Fellowship charting decolonial methodologies and models of creative sustainability across the region. Bynoe held a 5-year tenure as Chief Curator of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. In 2020, she joined social arts non-profit, The Hub Collective Inc based on Bequia to help generate their sustainable, environmental, memory and heritage pillars and is co-founder of Sour Grass, a curatorial experiment supporting contemporary Caribbean art practice. She is currently a PhD Candidate in the “Shared Island Stories Between Scotland and the Caribbean: Past, Present, Future” at the University of St. Andrews and is living and working between Scotland and the Caribbean.

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