#eye #eye

Tathra Difinubun

The Sound Of Silence: 
Colonial Silencing and It’s Legacy in Contemporary Indigenous Art

The colonial act of ‘silencing’ has long contributed to the erasure and dispossession of Indigenous cultures, lands, and histories. This has been enacted through the absencing of Indigenous bodies in historical records and archives, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and subsequent loss of land, cultural belongings, and practices. This system of silencing continues to amplify and activate colonial agendas in contemporary contexts, shown in the ongoing silencing of Indigenous voices in politics, in particular concern with land rights and dispossession. If we understand this form of silence as a tool of domination and subjugation, then we can assume that sound can become a form of resistance or rebuttal. Contemporary Indigenous artists working with sound are able to reinsert First Nations epistemologies, spiritualities, and listening practices into the contemporary post-colonial epoch. In doing so, they reject colonial systems of possession and assert their survival and ongoingness.

Rebecca Belmore is an Anishinaabekwe (Lac Seul First Nation) artist concerned with the politics of listening/hearing in Indigenous Canadian communities. Belmore investigates the legacy of colonisation in contemporary Canada through her multi-displinary practice, often exploring the experience of the Indigenous body through themes of violence and historical amnesia.1 The 1991 sculptural/installation work, Ayumee-aawach Oomama- mowan: Speaking to Their Mother was created in response to the Oka crisis (or Kanehsatà:ke Resistance) in 1990, in which a golf course was developed on the traditional land of the Kanien’kehàka or Mohawk people without consent. Through an exploration of Belmore’s work, I will discuss systems of invisible whiteness and possessive logics in the capitalist/colonial regime. Secondly, I will analyse Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan in dialogue with the exploration of Indigenous Australian epistemology and spirituality. By 
discussing the silencing and absencing of Indigenous voices and bodies through this work, I frame sound / the collective voice as a method of revival and as a counter to colonial- capitalist regimes.

Invisible Whiteness and Other Sounds

Through an understanding of race as a construct that exists in opposition to Whiteness, we know that race is something that is seen, and that Whiteness is invisible. This structure of separation elevates Whiteness as the norm, and in doing so, it veils structures of white supremacy, and white privilege as normative in our social and political realities.2 In the same way race has been made hyper-visible by the Western eye, the sound of race has also been amplified by the white listening ear3. As Jennifer Stoever theorises in The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (2016), “sound has been entangled with vision since the conception of modern ideas of race”4. She posits that The Sonic Colour Line, reveals the connection between sound and race in American culture – examining how the racialisation of black bodies extends beyond the ocular discernment of race. Stoever discusses various cases of police brutality and racism through this lens, in which black bodies were attacked, murdered, and silenced by white men as a result of their ‘sonic blackness’5. The murder of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis, for example, occurred when Davis and his friends drove into a gas station, adjacent to forty-five-year-old Michael Dunn, playing loud rap music. After refusing to turn down the volume of the so-called “rap-crap,” Dunn opened fire into the vehicle. Davis was shot in the leg, lungs, and aorta. In the eyes of Dunn, the refusal of a young black man to submit to his own sense of authority justified his death.

If we take Stoevers theory of the Sonic Colour Line and apply it to the context in which Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan was created, we can hear The Sonic Colour Line through the violent response of Canadian armed forces to protesters. Upon hearing announcements that the golf course development would be expanded onto sacred burial
ground, the Mohawk erected a blockade to prevent the bulldozers that were ordered to expand the developed site6. Despite collective efforts from neighbouring Mohawk communities, eventually a raid was ordered to dismantle the blockade. one-hundred provincial police officers were deployed, an order from the mayor of Oka.

This led to a violent brawl between the two groups, with weapons such as tear gas, grenades, and rifles employed – the conflict led to number of injuries and the death of Corporal Marcel Lemay7. Although the Mohawk emerged victorious, such an extreme display of force, and white authority revealed that the voices of the Kanien’kehàka people weren’t acknowledged as voices, but noise instead. The White listening ear didn’t acknowledge a collective calling to protect and defend the land, but a refusal to submit. They were devalued to that of the barbarian, the other8.

In the seminal 1979 book, Orientalism, Edward Said theorised that “the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident”.9 The Orient refers to an imaginative geographical discernment of the East as the embodiment of all things Asiatic, mysterious, profound, and unfamiliar. This construction of the Orient has been increasingly reproduced and standardised through the reinforcement of cultural stereotypes via television and media since the 19th century10. These portrayals, often racist, exoticized and fetishized, also extend to a geographical discernment of white spaces and Other spaces. Said postulates,

“The universal practice of designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is ‘ours’ and an unfamiliar space beyond ‘ours’ which is ‘theirs’ is a way of making geographical distinctions that can be entirely arbitrary.”11

In this way, Belmore’s Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan reflects the “our land-barbarian land"12 mindset of the coloniser and how this is reinforced through the logics of white possession13 enacted by Canadian governments. In devaluing Indigenous voices as noise, and Indigenous land as ‘Terra Nullius,” Colonial logic justifies the continuous dispossession and ownership of stolen land.

[Figure 1]

Resituating Indigenous Epistemologies in Contemporary Art

In the silencing of the Kanehsatà:ke protesters a new voice was unveiled, heard, and listened to. Rebecca Belmore’s call for “political protest through poetic action”14 channelled her own political frustrations into positive communication with the land itself. Ayumee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother, is a sculptural and participatory installation work that invited the people of Oka to announce their emotions, thoughts, and protests directly to the land in response to the aftermath of the Oka crisis. Belmore constructed a two- metre-wide wooden megaphone in which poets, activists and Aboriginal elders were invited to speak directly to the land. The sculpture was constructed mainly of plywood, cork, ochre, and fibreglass. Despite its large scale, its visual aesthetic isn’t overbearing or mechanical. Instead, it’s organic composition exists in harmony with the natural environment it performs in. It resembles a megaphone but rejects connotations of political protest and aural modes of control through its organic form. After the construction the sculpture, it was carried by a collective of approximately 60 people to a meadow over-looking a mountain in Banff National Park, an area known as Minhrpa by First Nations communities. The community was invited to speak through the megaphone, their voice would echo up to 9 times throughout the mountainous range, in a moment of spiritual and communal connectivity. In Belmore’s words, the work became a deeply meaningful and personal embodiment of community and indigeneity “because all kinds of people spoke, and spoke about whatever they had on their minds to the land itself”15

In the essay, Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia (2016), Stephen Gilchrist speaks of the Dreaming, the spirituality of First Nations Australian peoples, as “the totality of Indigenous knowledge and its future potential, made alive through both its immediate and continuing transmission”.16 Gilchrist celebrates Indigenous Australian epistemologies of time, place, and connectivity – exploring the Everywhen as a collision of linear temporalities. In the Dreaming, time is cyclical and circular, it relies heavily on “encounters with both the ancestral and natural worlds”.17 As Aileen Moreton-Robinson iterates, “indigenous people’s sense of belonging is derived from an ontological relationship

Tathra Difinubun (she/her) is an Indonesian-Australian writer and moving image artist, living and creating on Stolen Gadigal land. Her practice concern's major themes of decolonisation, cultural identity and self-hood. Difinubun's recent creative projects explore the politics of looking and being looked at, of hearing and being heard, and of being and un-being. In seeking out alternative or deviant ways of seeing under the Euro-centric and colonial gaze — Difinubun attempts to navigate the 'self' and the non-white settler positionality through her practice.


1 Melanie Hamet, “Rebecca Belmore”, Aware, 2013, https://awarewomenartists.com/en/artiste/rebecca- belmore/

2 Sue Derald Wing, The Invisible Whiteness of Being: Whiteness, White Supremacy, White Privilege, and Racism, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2006), 15-30

3 Jennifer Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. (NYU Press, 2016), 1–28

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 11.

6 Melinda Meng, “Bloody Blockades: The Legacy of the Oka Crisis”, Harvard International Review, June 30 2020, https://hir.harvard.edu/bloody-blockades-the-legacy-of-the-oka-crisis/

7 Melinda Meng, “Bloody Blockades: The Legacy of the Oka Crisis”, Harvard International Review, June 30 2020, https://hir.harvard.edu/bloody-blockades-the-legacy-of-the-oka-crisis/

8 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 54 9 Ibid, 12

10 Ibid, 26

11 Ibid, 12

12 Ibid, p.54

13 Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

14 Rebecca Belmore, “Speaking to Their Mother”, Rebecca Belmore, n.d.,

15 Rebecca Belmore, “Biography”, Rebecca Belmore, n.d., https://www.rebeccabelmore.com/bio/

16 Stephen Gilchrist, Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, (Yale University Press, 2016), 4

17 Ibid.