Taloi Havini works at lively intersections. While her studio is in Brisbane, Australia, her roots reach back to Buka Island, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Born into the Nakas tribe, Havini creates art that is steeped in ancestral locality. The Hakö culture and community often appear as her artistic subjects and collaborators.
But then the artist herself is swept up in the global traffic of contemporary art, its placelessness and worldings. Havini has exhibited at major biennials across the globe: to name a few, Sharjah in 2017, Venice in 2021, Gwangju in 2023. Most recently, last January, she traveled to Wales to receive the 10th Artes Mundi Prize, a sought-after international arts award in the UK.
To add to all these transoceanic leaps, since March 2023, Havini has been represented by Silverlens Galleries, which is now organizing her presentation at Art Fair Philippines.
There is a documentary quality to her 2020 video work on exhibit, “Dengung Hyena (Hyena Resounding),” while part of its aims is to “resist anthropological tendencies.” The single-channel work, along with most of her past projects, can be seen in light of a larger universe of contemporary arts practice that takes culture as its subject.
In the latter part of the last century, scholars rightly voiced their misgivings about the tendency of artists to act like ethnographers of communities (back in the ’90s, critic Hal Foster famously called it “ethnographer-envy”). The challenge of each culture-oriented project is how to immerse, at the same time how to step back; that is, how to resist the ethnographic urge of condensing culture into hardened knowledge.
Havini’s work has dealt with ecologies from mines to coasts. She has reflected on indigenous knowledge, Bougainville’s colonial history and the struggle for land, through a contemporary language that makes use of photography, installation, video and sound art. At the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021, the voices, ancestral chants, instruments, birdsongs and oceanic sounds that have long echoed through the islands of Buka resounded in a circle of 22 speakers.
Havini makes art to understand her place of origin.
“Dengung Hyena” reflects on a ritual that takes place along the coasts of Buka. The ritual honors the synchronicity between the full moon rising and the corals underwater releasing new life.
“Our people have been witnessing the coral spawning for a very long time,” says Havini. “The first time (I saw the ritual) was very special. I can’t quite remember when exactly, but I had my camera ready, not knowing that it was going to be so dark! That is why some of the footage is so abstract.”
The Hyena ritual is a joyous occasion. “For people living along the coast, this time of year brings a lot of excitement. Families take lanterns to the beach and wait for the natural wonder to happen,” says Havini.
A Banyuwangi gamelan set is heard with the moving image through Michael Toisuta’s sound design. Working together, Havini and Toisuta wanted to explore the “non-linear textures through a (meditative) state (generated by) Banyuwangi music and the cycle of life in an underwater phenomenon.”
Havini thinks as an artist; her father, meanwhile, lived as a political leader and activist. Moses Havini was chief of the Nakas clan who held positions in Parliament and strongly advocated for Bougainville’s independence from Papua New Guinea. Her Australian-born mother, Marilyn Havini, was an artist who designed the Bougainville flag. “Both my parents have a strong belief of social justice,” recalls Havini, who happens to be their youngest child. As her parents’ political efforts landed them in a perilous position, the family relocated to Australia in 1990.
There are no art galleries where Havini’s clan is from. Her mobility—the relative freedom of movement afforded by contemporary art and its global institutions—allows her to bring in materials that prompt discussions among her community.
Once, for a project called “Habitat,” Havini gained access to the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia, where she unearthed a pro-mining propaganda film and footage of Australian presence in Bougainville. She brought back the archives to her hometown and initiated several screenings and conversations in the village.
The sharing of thought and resource, the collaboration between sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles is an integral part of Havini’s practice, and it seems to share in this larger desire of resisting the one-way, extractive urges of ethnography. Some of her strongest works emerge from community involvement and ancestral knowledge. It is a communal imagination: “I also belong to a strong cultural group and many of the ideas that I am curious about involve more than myself; historical issues like, for example, the man-made events that have shaped our natural environment and changed the way we live,” says Havini.
“Dengung Hyena” is an entry point into this evolving body of work. As she shows more projects in Manila, it’s interesting to see how Havini’s world will resonate on these shores, with the Philippines’ own history of vanishing traditions, contested seas, and the loss of land.
“I would say that choosing this path of being an artist has brought me closer to my cultural roots and my ancestral land,” says Havini. Where circumstances led to their family’s flight from Bougainville, the artist always finds a way of returning.
* * *
Taloi Havini’s “Dengung Hyena” will be showing at ArtFairPH/Projects space, Feb. 16-18.