Banaba’s history of exploitation on display

16 November 2017

While Australia got rich off the exports of its phosphate empire: wheat, dairy and meat, Banaba was being systematically ravaged.

A leading academic in Pacific Studies at The Australian National University has turned to visual arts to expose a little-known but shameful chapter in Australia's history.

A multi-media exhibition by artist and Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at ANU, Katerina Teaiwa, tells the story of exploitation and environmental devastation of the South Pacific island of Banaba in modern-day Kiribati rendered uninhabitable by decades of phosphate mining.

The discovery in 1900 of high-grade phosphate in the coral-based rock of Banaba, formerly Ocean Island, triggered the removal of its total population by Australia, Britain and New Zealand so the phosphate could be mined.

"Australia mined the island from 1900 to 1980 turning the phosphate into superphosphate fertilizer which enriched agricultural land across Australia. So while Australia got rich off the exports of its phosphate empire: wheat, dairy and meat, Banaba was being systematically ravaged," said Dr Teaiwa.

The exhibition, Project Banaba, will coincide with the 72nd anniversary of the forced removal of an estimated 1,000 people to Rabi island in Fiji, on 15 December 1945.

The Carriageworks Arts Centre in Sydney commissioned and funded Project Banaba in recognition of the significance of the work. It will tour Australia and opens in at Carriageworks on Friday 17 November.

"I wanted to transform my academic work into something creative, visible, tangible and accessible so more people will learn about Australia's part in this human and ecological calamity wreaked in just 80 years," Dr Teaiwa said.

"Today people associate Nauru and Christmas Island with refugees, but historically these islands, along with Banaba, were treated by Australia as a resource to be stripped and exploited.

"Banaba used to be 80 metres above sea level, but the mining operators cut away 90 percent of the surface, reducing Banaba by 20 to 30 metres above sea level."

The exhibition interweaves rare historical photographs and archival film with new multi-media artworks to tell the story of imperial and political injustice experienced by generations of Banabans.

"The effects are still being felt by Banabans today, their personal stories are about betrayal, loss, displacement but also resilience," said Professor Teaiwa who is the great grand-daughter of one the inhabitants removed to Fiji.

"I've printed images of our ancestors onto transparent fabric alongside a timeline screened on hessian sack bags that resemble those used to transport the superphosphate fertiliser across farms. When they are hung, the images appear quite ghost-like. I want people to be as haunted by this as our communities are."   

"This project was an excellent opportunity to work with staff and students at the ANU School of Art, as well as other arts practitioners, and internationally renowned Pacific artist Yuki Kihara who is curating the show."

Project Banaba runs from 18 November to 17 December at the Carriageworks Arts Centre in Eveleigh. Dr Teaiwa will present a free artist's talk on site 11am on 18 November.

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