The history of Banaba, an island of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, is the focus of a new exhibition at MTG Hawke’s Bay opening next Saturday 30 March.
Project Banaba, by Banaban scholar and artist Katerina Teaiwa, explores how Banaba was destroyed by phosphate mining during the 20th century, leading to the total relocation of its people on 15 December 1945.
Co-curated by MTG’s Art Curator Jess Mio, and independent curator Yuki Kihara, this exhibition brings together rare historical archives and new work that sheds light on this little-known era of New Zealand’s history and its ongoing impact on communities here and across the Pacific.
The British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC), a company owned collectively by the governments of Australia, New Zealand and Britain, mined Banaba from 1900 to 1980. The rock from the island was manufactured into superphosphate fertiliser and applied to farms across Australia, NZ and globally. As a result of the extensive mining operations, the island was rendered uninhabitable and the Banabans relocated to the island of Rabi in Fiji.
Teaiwa describes Project Banaba as a conceptually layered, multimedia exhibition.
“It interweaves rare textual, film and photographic records alongside personal narratives including the political injustice endured by generations of my family, and how the rock of Banaba, te aba, the body of the land, and the body of the people, was viewed and transformed by powerful imperial interests.”
Kihara says the exhibition aims to highlight this period of New Zealand’s imperial legacy in the Pacific, specifically in relation to Banaba.
“For me, it also resonates with the rich history of industrial agriculture in Aotearoa which benefited from superphosphate fertiliser, but raises the question of where did the phosphate come from?”
For most of the 20th century, phosphate was a matter of national and food security.
The land of Banaba was first identified as containing valuable phosphate rock by NZ phosphate prospector Albert Ellis in 1899 while working for John T. Arundel and Co. Arundel had partnered with Henderson & MacFarlane and Lord Stanmore – Sir Arthur Gordon, former Governor of Fiji – to create the Pacific Islands Company with widespread trading interests across the region.
After the lucrative phosphate was found on Banaba, it became the Pacific Phosphate Company, based in London, Sydney and Auckland, and was later bought out by BPC. Rights were secured to mine Nauru in 1907. The rock from both islands was manufactured into superphosphate fertiliser and applied to farms across Australasia, resulting in a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity in those countries.
The value of the minerals on Banaba also made the island a target for Japanese occupation during World War II and many Banabans and Pacific Island or ‘kanaka’ mining workers were killed during this period. In the 1970s young Banabans were sent back to occupy the island and since then a population of between 300-400 have lived there as caretakers, representing both Kiribati and Rabi interests.
During her research for the exhibition, Teaiwa identified hundreds of government files associated with BPC in the National Archives of Australia, some of which have only recently been declassified. A selection of these rare archives together with those from Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and MTG feature in the exhibition.
Project Banaba was initially commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney, in 2017 and is now touring countries with historical ties to phosphate mining in Banaba. An artist talk will take place at 11am on Saturday 30 March.
Photo: As aerial topdressing spread vast quantities of fertiliser over New Zealand soil, phosphate mining rendered the island of Banaba uninhabitable.
Photo: Eric Lee-Johnson, 1957; Banaban artist and scholar Katerina Teaiwa, pictured, first presented Project Banaba in Sydney.
Posted: 22 March 2019