Last week I went to an exhibit called Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art at the Harvard Art Museum (tip for residents of Cambridge, you can get in for free with proof of residence like mail). In the introduction to the exhibit, Indigenous Australian Stephen Gilchrist, of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia, wrote that the “concept of Dreaming provides Indigenous Australians with a way to understand and interact with the past, present and the future” and it does not “merely preserve the past” but rather “speaks of eternal becoming.” Gilchrist points out that “for more than a century, Indigenous people have been defined and confined by Western colonial constructions of time” and the purpose of this exhibit was to offer an opportunity to be immersed instead in their sense of time, showing that “Indigenous art and culture do not simply represent the time before time, but in fact awaken us to the fullness of it.”
Walking through the exhibit, I was taken by the visceral immensity of the pieces in physical size and subject matter, as well as the thoughtful descriptions beside them. Their conceptions of time immediately drew me back to assemblage theory and what I had been learning last semester in my political theory class. We had read this book called Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times by Jasbir Puar in which the author lays out a non-linear and non-metric understanding of time. What she meant was that, that way we experience time is at once, not in a straight path from point a to point b, nor does it move at a consistent rate. She used this kind of understanding to view 9/11 and the US response to terrorism globally, how at that moment of immense crisis time stood still and then sped up, how many politicians used that opportunity to amp up our military response and industries because the West is married to this idea of calm without chaos as the best, rational way of conducting politics. So, when an event like 9/11 comes to disrupt their illusion of peace, the only appropriate reaction ironically is to pursue war at all costs in order to supposedly maintain order.
If all that seems confusing, it’s probably because it is. Reimagining time is hard and baffling work. And yet, it is so necessarily after all these centuries of using the same linear, Western understandings of time. Why? Because that conception of it has been violent. Because it is part of our understanding of progress that hinges upon indigenous cultures becoming more and more like the Western colonizers who thought they knew better. Because it justified the brutal, “civilizing” projects that have gone on over the past centuries and continues to go on in the world today. Though formal colonization has seemed to have taken less of a spotlight on the global stage, the spread of Western culture, capital, and values continues to dominate our understanding of progress and advancement today.
It made me think about the relationship between something like Assemblage Theory, the new theory de jour of the academic world, and the idea of the Everywhen which has pervaded indigenous art in Australia throughout their past and into their present and future. It reminded me of the Audre Lorde quote from, “Poetry is not a luxury” where she writes:
Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves, along with the renewed courage to try them out. And we must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions our dreams imply and some of our old ideas disparage.
It made me think of Christianity and how the Bible also plays with our understanding of time. It might be strange to be linking these ideas to Christianity, seeing as how the institution of God has been at the center of so many “civilizing” missions throughout history. How much the organized institution of Christianity has contributed to that linear understanding of progress and civility. That binary understanding of “Christian” or “pagan” that has directly contributed to bloodshed and continues to traumatize.
But still, I find it fascinating that after all this time, churches are still studying the ancient texts of the Bible. If time is linear and we are always meant to be looking forward for civilization, then why spend so much of our time and energy trying to relate to those events and people that existed far before our own time? In a capitalistic world that is always seeking the next, new, thing– to keep coming back to a holy text of sorts, or some older traditions made fresh by new eyes, seems to me to be an act of resistance.
I wondered, considering Australia’s own violent colonial past, what might have happened had Christianity not been practiced the way it was, as a civilizing religion violently forced upon the Indigenous peoples. What might have happened if, instead of viewing these artists and thinkers as savages, Christianity recognized from their practices, their ideas, their art, how far it had come from its radical beginnings. In the study of liberation theology, and feminist theology, and queer theology, I see this yearning, for lack of a better word, the uncivilizing of Christianity. Or rather, an attempt to untangle the ways in which Christianity has been used as a civilizing tool when, upon closer examination, the ideas of the eternal becoming that are shown through the artwork and practices of the artists in this exhibition are actually closer than we could possibly imagine to the conception of the holy in the Christian tradition.