Installation art shows history of ‘Blackbirding’

Chuck Fe'esago, art department manager lectures “Life Through Art” in the Quay Davis Executive Board Room. Fe’esago presented his experience during the COVID pandemic and his ever-evolving journey with art Tuesday at the weekly faculty lecture series. / photo by Drake Ingram
Chuck Fe’esago, instructor of art, talks about his experience transitioning from performance art to installation art during his lecture “Life Through Art” in the Executive Board Room. Fe’esago presented Tuesday as part of the weekly faculty lecture series. / photo by Drake Ingram

David Rafael Gonzalez
LV Life Editor

Chuck Fe’essago, instructor of art, talked about the process of installation art and a recent installation called “Blackbirding,” which was on display at Cerritos College in 2020, on Tuesday at the weekly faculty lecture in the Executive Dining Room.

Before creating a piece of work, Fe’essago said he does a lot of research without a particular subject in mind of what he wants to work with. He was looking at Western civilizations occupying the Pacific Islands, like Hawaii. 

“I started looking at cartoons during that time and discovered a lot of disturbing things in the process, of how perceptions people were being seen in different places throughout the world and the United States hoisting themselves as being the arbiter of these civilizations,” Fe’essago said.

Fe’essago showed some of the political cartoons, all depicting people negatively and with dark skin. An example of this were the depictions of Queen Liliukalani, who Fe’essago said was depicted as uneducated. 

“This is how public opinion was able to be swayed into believing that it was right for the United States to be able to do what they were doing to the country, in particular corporations who had gone into the Hawaiian islands with support of the country”

Fe’essago said this also started affecting Samoa, which is where his family is from. 

He said a cartoon depicting a slave auction in the Pacific led him to the “Blackbirding” installation.

“The term for the acquisition of slaves, or kanakas, was called blackbirding, Fe’essago said. “Most of the people were either kidnapped or coerced into situations who had to go work for little to no wages on sugar plantations throughout the Pacific.”

“Blackbirding” was part of a larger project called “Biomythography” to spark conversations on how people are perceived. 

“I come from a place where my group is not necessarily on the page to be marginalized. We’re written off as being something that we’re not,” Fe’essago said. “So I introduced these ideas that had larger scopes of understanding but also bringing forth information that even my own people don’t know about in the process.”

One of the pieces in the “Blackbirding” installation was a photograph of a staged war party. Women were at the front of the group because of the Samoan belief that if women were able to win, then the men would be even more dangerous, Fe’essago said.

“I don’t like photographs that are pure or clean; I like to take them and mess them up a little bit,” Fe’essago said. “So I created this construct out of a transparent material which allowed me to do projections from the back.”

Some of the cartoons Fe’essago showed during the lecture were projected on the photographs to show how the cartoons influenced the perceptions of the people photographed. Rods and strings were placed alongside the photograph, appearing like webbing.

“The strings basically identify narratives: narratives that are realized, narratives that aren’t,” Fe’essago said. “They might occur, they might not occur, but there’s potential. A lot of it has to do with the weaving together of ideas.” 

As people left, a colorful postcard with a plastic hula dancer with the word “aloha” printed on it. Fe’essago said that people do not realize what things like Disneyland’s Tiki Room, tiki bars or westernized hulas mean for the culture.

“They don’t think it’s wrong for them to do what they’re doing but they don’t seem to understand that the thing they are doing is appropriating and misusing and misconceiving,” Fe’essago said.

He also talked about several other past installations he put together at the end of the lecture.

Al Clark, professor of humanities, said Fe’essago’s discussion about installation art as an artform was interesting.

“It was so amazing to me that people would go through all that work and present stuff and then tear it down and throw it away,” Clark said.

Fel McCoy, senior studio art major, said hearing about Fe’essago’s work as an artist was the most interesting part of the lecture.

“Getting to see that was just very insightful. I feel like I can relate to his practice now that I’m aware of it more and hearing it directly from him,” McCoy said.

David Rafael Gonzalez can be reached at david.gonzalez9@laverne.edu.

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David Rafael Gonzalez is a senior journalism major and LV Life editor of the Campus Times. He has been a three-time editor-in-chief and has also served as editorial director, LV Life editor and a staff writer.

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Drake Ingram, a junior criminology major and photography minor, is a staff photographer for the Campus Times.

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