Who are we beyond imperfect, imposed ‘Asia’?


In kojā hast? Āsiyāst. This is a transliteration into Latin alphabet of the Persian for ‘Where is this? It’s Asia’. And so it is, or is it? Writing these lines in English, a European tongue patriated in a dystopian Atlantis-like colony, the question of problematising the concept of Asia leads to first problematising the concept of Australia. There are continuing civilisations tens of thousands of years more senior to the modern Europeans who extended their small territories into colonies and outposts around a planet believed to be cube. Driven by a craze for wealth and power, they dedicated their cultural practices to enforcing capitalism, genocide, slavery, monotheistic religion, and heteropatriachal knowledge systems. The sophisticated, ecologically sustainable eel weir aquaculture and stone villages of the Gunditjmara Nation at Budj Bim are just one example of continuing geo-cultural and socio-political practices that significantly predate modern Europeans.

Continental boundaries, Greenwich Mean Time, the International Date Line, and the categorisation of all knowledges, languages and cultures were defined and imposed from a totalising European centrality born of the Enlightenment and imperialism. The island of 250 First Nations, named Australia by many today, is also known by myriad toponyms in contiguous site-based histories. A few are Warrang – Sydney, Meanjin – Brisbane, Garrmalang – Darwin, Boorloo – Perth, Mbantua / Mparntwe – Alice Springs, and Tarnthanyangga – Adelaide. The erasure and denigration of millennial cultural practices in this and nearby parts of the world by European impositions does not go unnoticed and unchallenged. The battle lines between First Nations and settler colonial cultures are active still, as the recent rejection by the Ballarat council of a new suburb being named in the local Wathaurong language attests to.

Naming places, peoples and knowledges from the perspectives of Europeans is a powerful, enduring violence of imperialism. Resisting this by preferring diverse toponyms from the thousands of languages, and perspectives of billions of fellow human beings, is an opportunity to restore and nuance a healthy diversity. Virtually the same word in every large language group on the planet, ‘Asia’ is an imposed, imprecise concept. From a perceived European centre, the Roman then Byzantine region of Asia Minor appeared on maps in what is today called Turkey. The concepts of Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, South East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Levant, the Pacific, Australia, and Australasia are all significant in this endeavour.

To define and name regions in relation to then so-called ‘centre of the known world’ is to serve the ongoing centrality of European knowledge systems everywhere long after the colonies have become politically emancipated. The 2012-13 Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Meanjin Brisbane included artists from ‘West Asia’: Turkey, Kazakhstan, Syria, Armenia, Egypt, and Jordan. The 2014-15 Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art will again include an expansive selection of artists from broadly defined ‘Asia-Pacific’. The ArtAsiaPacific magazine Almanac is a compendium of important visual art activity, organised into country and rising art star profiles. Here, ‘Asia’ reaches from Palestine to Taiwan, and the ‘Pacific’ reaches from East Timor to Sāmoa including Australia. The call-out for submissions to the Griffith Review special edition ‘New Asia Now’ bound ‘Asia’ with India and Aotearoa New Zealand. Clearly, ‘Asia’ is a malleable, shifting geo-cultural zone of competing interests and agendas.

Interestingly, many of the languages of the Moananui a Kiwa, Māori for Kiwa’s Great Ocean, also called by its colonial toponym ‘Pacific’, are related to many Indo-Malayan languages. The ‘Austronesian’ grouping of languages extends from Taiwan to Madagascar, from Hawai’i Nei to Aotearoa New Zealand. There are also distinct groups of languages in these parts of the world, including First Nations languages of ‘Australia’ and ‘New Guinea’. But the ‘Austronesian’ example signifies that ‘Australia’ cannot stake a claim to ‘Asia’ or ‘the Pacific’ in European languages as it is always already connected. The Latin origin of the term auster/australis meaning south, and Greek origin of the term nesos meaning island/s are significant. ‘Austronesia’ and ‘Australia’ ostensibly mean the same thing: south/ern is/land. South of where, for whom? The same European centrality is evident in the way that First Nations communities on country, on homelands, are viewed as ‘remote’ to the ‘known world’ of settler colonial cities spread across ‘Australian’ coasts.

Decolonisation can be defined as the end of intersecting forms of colonial oppression including heteropatriarchy, sexism, capitalism, knowledge systems and race-based hierarchy. In this light, it becomes clear that the shifting borders of imposed concepts ‘Asia’, ‘Pacific’, ‘Australia’, do not protect so much as buffer the interests and agendas of settler colonial governments and corporations. The cultural commentary of HSBC advertisements across the world in recent years is European centrality being asserted in the guise of progressive intercultural engagement. Language is pivotal to our understandings and practices as human beings. The opportunity exists today to enact decolonial approaches to diverse ways of knowing and being that have been marginalised and silenced since at least 1492. This challenge to decolonise our languages, our conceptions, and our practices is a unique chance to redress the colossal weight of continuing intersectional oppressions. Each use of the totalising colonial terms ‘Asia’, ‘Australia’, ‘Pacific’, ‘America’, and ‘Africa’ amongst others contributes to erasing and repressing diverse knowledge systems and practices. And from this conservative political and economic period, this contested settler colonial shore of the Moananui a Kiwa, decolonising and diversifying the mind is a potent individual act of change this is unparalleled elsewhere for now.

Léuli Eshraghi

Author: Léuli Eshraghi

Léuli Eshraghi (Sāmoan and Persian peoples) is an artist, curator and PhD candidate at MADA. His practice is centred on indigeneity, language, body sovereignty, and queer possibility. Léuli holds qualifications in Indigenous Arts Management and Cultural Studies. He is the 2015 Gertrude Contemporary-Next Wave Emerging Curator, editor of the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival's Oceania Now publication and the Tautai Trust's 2015 Artist in Residence. His writing has been published in Overland, Artlink, #500words, Writing From Below, Open Engagement, and Stella Magazine. leulieshraghi.com

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