Oceans as Archives

August 14, 2021

The Oceans as Archives symposium(May 6-7, 2021) brought together scholars, poets, artists, and activists to share new work that centres the ocean as a source of knowledge, and a method for thinking and writing about the historical and persistent violence of settler colonialism and capitalism, and anti-colonial resistance.

The plenary panel featured Indigenous scholars and teachers including actor, writer, and director Quelemia Sparrow, acclaimed author Lee Maracle (University of Toronto), and award-winning historians, Dr. David Aiona Chang (University of Minnesota) and Dr. Vicente M. Diaz (University of Minnesota). Speakers opened up rich discussions on oceans and islands and the interrelations between land, sky, and more-than-human ecologies that are central to Indigenous/ Pacific cosmologies.

What does it mean to think of the Ocean not as a space in-between continents, but as a foundational domain where colonial conquest, violence, resistance, survival, and subversion take shape?

Funded in part by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, participants explored the critical traditions of Black (diaspora) studies, Pacific Islander studies, Critical Indigenous studies, Caribbean philosophy, postcolonial theory, and decolonial and anticolonial critique.

Organizers were overwhelmed by the interest and enthusiasm for this event. Over 400 people registered, including students, faculty, artists, and community members from Canada, USA, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere around the world.

Organizers and speakers insisted on strong ties to place: to the unceded ancestral territories of the Musqueam peoples where UBC stands, the Salish Seas, and to wider Pacific worlds. Quelemia Sparrow (Musqueam) and Lee Maracle (Sto;lo) reflected on the ocean as a living being. Sparrow discussed her experiences as an ocean defender participating in Indigenous ceremonies to heal the sea, which was made ill by tankers, and emphasized the richness of local Indigenous stories as an archive of oceanic knowledge. Maracle highlighted the role of ocean and marine animals — crabs and whales, in particular – as knowledge bearers and scientists that communicate with humans to warn us of ecological disasters. Chang positioned oceans as archives against the traditional archives of history and asked us to think of who the archivists of these oceans are and also to reflect on how oceans queer our categories. Diaz discussed the inter-relationality between land/ sea/ sky and asked participants to think sensorially and corporeally. For Diaz, seafaring is central to oceanic archives.

The presentations, held over two days and across six panels, followed various formats (academic papers, video installations, photographs and art) to make visible the historic and contemporary oceanic connections across space and time, to defy efforts to break up the world’s oceans into regions, and to emphasize their porous borders.

Rhunhattan (Tearoom) 2015, Beatrice Glow

Organizers highlighted two examples of these rich discussions. Beatrice Glow, an artist/ researcher, shared the ways she uses art to explore violent histories of colonial rule in the former Dutch colonies of Rhun, the Banda Islands, and New Amsterdam (Manhattan). In a powerful installation titled Tearoom, Glow created a Delftware tea set emblazoned with colonial motifs including ships and nutmeg painted in a blood red that referenced Indigenous genocides. May Joseph (Pratt Institute) also explored the entangled histories of the former Dutch colonies Cochin, Kaap Staad (Cape Town) and New Amsterdam (Manhattan). Bringing this history to the present, Joseph connected colonization, climate change, and environmental destruction in the low-lying cities colonized by the Dutch on opposite sides of the globe.

The scholarly and creative works showcased in the symposium will be published in an edited volume and a follow-up symposium is planned at the University of Amsterdam in 2022.

For more information, visit the Oceans as Archives website.

The Oceans as Archives Symposium was organized by:
Dr. Kristie Flannery, Research Fellow, Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University
Dr. Renisa Mawani, Professor, Department of Sociology and 2015 Wall Scholar, University of British Columbia
Dr. Mikki Stelder, Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Amsterdam and Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia