The islands of Mauritius were once virgin, so pure that when the first sailors from Europe came, they would put their hands out for eager, curious birds to nestle in their palms. After that, however, everything changed. Centuries of slavery and indenture, the ecological spine of the island torn out, rainforests replaced by sugar plantations. The artist Shiraz Bayjoo explained this history to me as we spoke about his practice over Zoom, which at its core looks at the possibilities of moving beyond the traumas of the past. As we spoke, one thing became clear — this process of moving beyond would not be a linear one; it may not even ever be realised . The histories, present and possible futures of “postcolonial” nations would always be too tangled to extricate. Yet it is the process of this untangling itself that intrigued me the most about Shiraz’ practice and moved me to speak to him. The necessity of finding comfort within; the present reaching through decades and geographies to the past as an act of resurrection.
“All of us who claim to be of the islands were brought there through the mechanism of empire.” This was how Shiraz explained the genealogies of Mauritius. The island’s population comprises the descendants of colonisers, indentured labourers and slaves, culminating in an Afro-Indian identity, one characterised by overlap. From across the Indian Ocean, Malaysia — where I am from — has a similar history as another formerly-colonised nation. Although Malaysia, unlike Mauritius, has its own various indigenous identities and populations, it is also the product of cacophony. For postcolonial nations, the concept of migration is baked into national founding narratives. It is an extension of the borders first drawn or embedded by colonising forces, which were also inherently moved by capital.
Where then, is the escape hatch? If traces of empire linger in present-day architecture and judiciary of postcolonial nations; if even its non-white populations were brought over by Western dictates (as in the case of indentured labourers or slaves), how then do we in the present move beyond the colonial? Even the term postcolonial, which carries within its prefix the idealisation of a future beyond colonisation, revolves around the idea of a colony. These colonial beginnings are embedded into the present, echoing even after independence, the seat of many issues such nations may face today.
It is from this point of tension that Shiraz’ research begins, sifting between cultural memory and narratives to find a language that can encapsulate the multiple, enmeshed identities of the Indian Ocean. Much of Shiraz’ works draw from archives both literal and conceptual. His work for the project What’s Left Behind , presented at the 2018 Sydney Biennale in collaboration with Australian artist Brook Andrew, is a collage of paintings and archival photographs revealing the intricacies of migratory heritage. The collage as a form is suited to Shiraz’ work: how better to tell a story of diversity than using a form that celebrates the myriad and relies on juxtaposition? At a glance, the collage tells an overarching story, but the best stories contain multiple universes that both revolve around and intersect with each other. Shiraz’ project for What’s Left Behind benefits from close, careful consideration, made up as it is of various curios: miniature sea-coloured paintings in delicate frames, a scattering of coins, like treasures dug out of a shipwreck. These many mediums — found objects, paintings — jostle against each other, resulting in a harmonious clamour.
“We don’t come from this land,” Shiraz says about Mauritius, “but we have become the custodians of it. If we can bring a balance back to these spaces, repair these ecologies, we can bring a balance back to ourselves.” He is speaking about the erasure of the ecologies of the islands — animals and plants that were displaced by human migrations and activities. We Are History , a group exhibition at Somerset House (16 October 2021 - 6 February 2022) of which Shiraz is part, looks at how the commodification of people is intertwined with the commodification of nature. Moved by the desire for the acquisition of capital, the colonial empires of the West sailed out into what we now call the Global South, following the scent of resources — rubber, sugar, tin, all kinds of fruit and spice.
A few weeks ago, I was on a bus driving through Peninsular Malaysia, going north from the state of Johor. As we drove, we passed by vast swathes of plantations. In Malaysia, this landscape carries the histories of the indentured Tamil labourers brought over by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. I am reminded of a fragment of a folk song from these plantation estates that speaks about how personal trauma is coiled around the environment — “two tall trees/suits you as a gallow tree”: a line that compresses the bleakness of plantation life, folding it into the landscape. When I mentioned this to Shiraz, he pointed me to a piece of reading on the “Plantationocene” , which interrogates the idea of plantations and the transformations they wrought on and within the landscape. “Everything that exists in the plantation is forced to be productive,” he said. “Everything else is eradicated. All within the plantation seek to escape it.”
Dan Sa Karo Kaan (in those cane fields) , Shiraz’ commissioned contribution to We Are History , uses ceramic, tiles and sculpture to consider the role of plantation colonies in the landscape of Mauritius. Colourful triangular shawls drape tiny objects on wooden platforms: a comb of coral sits beneath a sketch of two birds in flight, set against a photograph of a mountain enveloped by mist. A brass statuette looms large against a postcard-sized photograph of palm trees and a colonial structure crumbling into the jungle. Shiraz’ work is characterised by this act of piecing together, this situating of disparate objects against a larger historical backdrop. Nothing is accidental; even the most non-descript of items is a metaphor, a cypher pointing to a larger context. “When I go to the archive, it’s the small things I pick up on — photographs, details, letterheads — the emotional resonance of what these items bring. It’s not tangible to think of the complexity of these elements all in one moment — it breaks us. It breaks us thinking of the enormity of suffering, of loss.” The work is positioned within the tension that occurs when escaping the plantation still centres the plantation — as with the earlier trouble with post/colonialism. These histories are embedded within us, but perhaps to say that to escape them is futile is not the framing we should be considering them within. Perhaps the clue lies within the medium of a collage — a space in which all contesting histories simply exist, and we allow ourselves to consider them and move forward nevertheless.
“We had to build ourselves out of what was leftover,” Shiraz says about both Mauritius and Malaysia, regarding the position both nations found themselves in when the colonial overseers left. He spoke about the president’s house in Mauritius being a former colonial governor’s home — “a symbol of [present-day] freedom using the architecture of the past”. “The symbols we bind ourselves to are emblematic of the very same institutions and structures that placed us in bondage”, Shiraz mused, but the more hopeful inverse of that sentence is also true. It is impossible to erase what led to the existence of postcolonial nations when in fact, that colonial bedrock was what brought many of its subjects together to overthrow the empire.
Decades after independence, however, what else can we look towards to establish inter-communal links, whether with each other in the present, or with the pasts from which we came? “We can start looking at the land, the trees, the sky, the minerality… to start to look at the things that our ancestors were also faced with. We need love, shelter and food, this has not necessarily shifted,” Shiraz proffered. “As artists, we can use the poetics of language to navigate into the possibilities of living with these spaces.” As we continued to speak about the impossibility of extricating the body from its surrounding geography, Shiraz brought up the migratory routes of fruit. Mangoes, seen as a shorthand for a generic tropical landscape, were actually brought over to Mauritius from India — a record of nomadic history that is embedded within the landscape. Likewise, the body moulds itself to the landscape, becomes attuned to its seasons, learns to cultivate and desire its fruits and grains.
In talking about A Land of Extraordinary Quarantine (completed in 2015 — before the pandemic!), Shiraz spoke about Orientalist views of tropical landscapes, ones in which they have been romanticised by those with only superficial, extractive relationships with them. Shiraz’ photographs in the project reference these relationships through the documentation of sites of extraction, such as estuaries. This fleeting relationship with the landscape yields only an idealised view of it, based on what it can offer . But sculpting yourself to a particular landscape — whether as indigenous to it or as an immigrant — necessitates a certain surrender, a willingness to achieve balance, to give as well as take. To put it simply: to make a home. Shiraz spoke about other photographs from the project — those of smaller and more private sites of culture and tradition, brought over by those displaced from their points of origin, nestled within the landscape.
I am reminded of the work of the writer Yoon Wah-Yong, in which he often talks about the development of the relationship of Chinese immigrants’ to Malaya’s climate. These immigrants acclimatised themselves to the tropics, becoming familiar with its landscape, learning its seasons — belonging to it wholly, and thus becoming part of it. The desire for the native durian, Yoon wrote, is one sign of this becoming; the body cleaving to the earth — in this case, the immigrants becoming attuned to Southeast Asia’s tropicality. “We bend like vines,” Shiraz said, “mapping ourselves into a world we’ve become a part of.” He had his own story of fruit: something called the Chinese Guava. When it is in season, Mauritian families make a day of it, heading into the mountains to pluck them. “Everyone from Grandma to the littlest cousin in a big van.” This is a tradition sculpted by the landscape, a joy caused by it. We are soaked into the landscape, and the landscape, in turn, remembers us.
At the beginning of our conversation, Shiraz asked how our ancestors managed to survive the worlds in which they lived. “How did they manage to get to this point that you and I are sitting here today talking about these things?” the artist mused. “It is without a doubt things like love, the bonds between communities that went across racial boundaries because people have to survive, together.”
Broadly speaking, “indigenous” in Malaysia can refer to people of Malay heritage, various communities under the umbrella of “Orang Asli” in the peninsula; and from East Malaysia, Kadazandusun, Iban and Dayak peoples — and many more.
Much of colonisation was driven by conquest of resources. The British East India Company, for instance, was a trading company heavily invovled with the British colonial project in India.
Brook Andrew’s What’s Left Behind comprises five sculptural vitrines that represent the elements of water, air, fire, earth and metal. Shiraz Bayjoo was among the four artists invited to contribute to the installation, creating a collage of photographs and archival materials within the “air” vitrine.
Logeswary Arumugum and Kingston Pal Thamburaj, “Tamil Plantation Labourers in Malaysian Tamil Folk Songs”, Journal of Tamil Peraivu, 2017.
Sophie Sapp Moore, Monique Allewaert, Pablo F. Gómez and Gregg Mitman, “Plantation Legacies”, Edge Effects, 2021.
In Malaysia (and Malaya), for instance, the anti-colonial project that immediately followed the Second World War brought together the various Asian races within the country as they planned to rid themselves of the British. One example of this was the widespread adoption across all races of the Malay language, which was seen as an antidote to the “colonial language” of English and a way to create a tangible “Malayan identity”, free from the shackles of colonialism.
Yoon Wah-Yong, Durians Are Not the Only Fruit: Notes from the Tropics, translated by Jeremy Tiang, Epigram Books, 2013.