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Casey Carsel

One year ago, Quishile made a promise to her aaji and amma: She would weave their knowledge of craft into her own. All the embroidery, the dyeing, the sewing, tatting, crochet, appliqué, quilting—Quishile, her aaji’s namesake, would learn, and indeed earn, these skills and inherit them. The video, clothesline, and embroidered textile that Quishile has chosen to present at West Space, Yálla-birr-ang, form a small sample of the maker’s work towards keeping this promise to become the living archive of her family’s hands. 

The colonial sugar industry has shaped Quishile’s family story since the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain in 1833 and the beginnings of Fiji Girmit (an Indentured labouring system) in 1879.The latest textile in her studies of her family’s labours for this sweet and sinister empire is Burning Ganna Khet (Sugarcane Farm)—a large embroidered piece that took over a year of conceptualising, testing, and execution to complete. 

Quishile’s family continues to grow and harvest sugarcane in Nadi, which is known as the “burning west” for its dry heat. Every six months, in preparation for cutting the stalks—the first step in the process of making sugar—her family burns the plants to get rid of their leaves and evacuate the nesting hornets. Later, after the cane is cut, what remains is burnt again to support new growth. The textile on display depicts this event, the leaves dancing with meticulously embroidered flames.

The image of the burning sugarcane is a sight that each of Quishile’s family members knows very well. She reproduces it in thread at West Space in order to honour women’s participation in the harvest, their support of other labourers as caregivers, and their craft work, emphasising the inter-connectedness of these activities in the weave of daily life. 

Sugar is a common staple of kitchens in many places around the world, but only a small fraction of people who use it know anything about the hands that gather the raw ingredients, how they move and are moved by the industry. These hands also wash clothes, cook for their families, and embroider beauty into every textile that surrounds them. 

Quishile says that the way she creates her textiles, and the narratives held therein “is so grounded in my elders, my knowledge-holders. I often think of how their techniques arrive from generations of exchange. One thread holds all the women who came before me. Through a single movement of that thread, we are all connected—those who have passed and those to come.” 

The influence of this part of Quishile’s community is held close in Ghar Par Lovo—Lovo at home. The six-minute video depicts an approach to the dyeing process that an elder in Savusavu shared with her—a method based around steaming the fabric through preparing a lovo (a traditional Fijian cooking technique that uses heated rocks in an underground earth oven to steam food). 

Quishile is a constant presence in Ghar Par Lovo—digging the pit, watching the fire, tying the textiles together with the natural materials whose pigments they will absorb—but other figures float in and out of view as well. These individuals are part of Quishile’s chosen family, and are a core part of her approach to making.

  The pieces at West Space are each wrapped up in memories of and loving moments with these family members. Quishile’s chosen family is everywhere in her work; they are there, tagging along on a trip to collect hibiscus flowers for dyeing or sitting in the garage keeping her company while she tends to her dye pots. They are also there recording the whole process: Matavai Taulangau, Quishile’s partner, is co-credited for the production of Ghar Par Lovo; this text, too, reflects my last five years of conversation and collaboration with Quishile, and the deep well of love and respect we hold for each other. 

Matavai’s mother, Anaseini, helped Quishile finish Burning Ganna Khet. She and Quishile together cut the hessian sacks that form the border of the textile, and Ana wove the edges. The pattern Ana used, traditionally a Tongan basket weave, is here a decorative design. This collaboration, for Quishile, was a particularly special one for the way that it brought together intergenerational and cultural exchange, and communal relationship-building through craft.

Ghar Par Lovo emerged in 2021 from Quishile’s many experiments with the dyeing process. In other trials, she has worked with different materials, temperatures, and timings, studying the change in colour and saturation that each variation can produce. The outcomes of a number of these experiments are also on view at West Space. 

These dye samples have found a moment of stillness in this gallery. Later, they will be used as the materials for a pieced quilt that will be kept in living spaces. The quilt is Quishile’s next step in learning everything her aaji can make. I will support her in this work with the quilting knowledge I have gathered from my own explorations of the form. In the process, family and chosen family will both leave traces of our presence on this quilt. 

We pool our knowledge and build upon our intersections in moments when our elders cannot themselves physically pass all their knowledge on. Together, we will sew the fabrics into a form that will be huddled under, slept with, loved, darned as needed, and eventually made into something new again. 

Quishile’s promise to her aaji is founded on her love for her community, her elders, the strong women that have shaped her life and path, and her belief in the act of remembering and sharing memories as one of defiance necessary to both survive and thrive under neocolonial conditions. 

Quishile tells me that, as she gets older, as she becomes the living memory of her ancestors’ craft techniques, she gets closer to the work becoming something that she lives and breathes, just as it was for her elders and ancestors. This is a difficult process in the West; within that tension, prioritising cultural ways of making offers a significant form of resistance. 

Quishile’s ancestors have gifted her the knowledge and material to forge carefully crafted objects that are acts of love in their creation and use. The process of inheriting this knowledge takes time, and it takes the love of the living as well. The exhibition of these works is secondary; first and foremost, Quishile uses these skills to build a home that she fills with her chosen family and the memories and skills that have sustained her community for generations.

  1. For more information on the colonial sugar industry and its far-reaching implications, see Esha Pillay & Quishile Charan, “Coolie Cut Cane: The Sugar Empire of the South Pacific,” Bad Fiji Gyals, 2021. For further context, see Quishile Charan, “She Cut Me from Ganna,” Auckland University of Technology Master of Visual Arts thesis exegesis (Auckland: Tuwhera, 2019).

Casey Carsel (caseycarsel.com) is a New Zealand-born writer, artist, and editor based between Auckland and Chicago most of the time. In text and textile, they seek to untangle the ways in which communal narratives are constructed and passed down through generations and across the world, and how these stories shape identities and make connections. What is most cherished? What is forgotten? What is lost in translation? Their texts and textiles have been presented by Co-Prosperity, Chicago; Auckland Art Fair; and Bus Projects, Melbourne; amongst other platforms. Between 2021 and 2022 Carsel was a Fulbright grantee in Ukraine, and they are currently a fellow at the New York Public Library.