Unwelcome at our place
Mark Amery on a powerful art museum experience in Porirua.
* * *
Hundreds of faces stare out at us, strangely devoid of expression. There’s none of the forced smiles or mugging for camera usually associated with family photographs. Eyes wide, they seem stunned frozen, alienated in an in-between state. In their presentation the black and white photographs are shuffled together in no discernible pattern. Staples, violating the subjects’ bodies like piercings, punctuate the scanned enlarged photographic prints as small pointed violent charges. And yet for all this, lit gently from behind on an elegant curving lightbox at Pataka, this magnetic group of black and white prints feel united, cared for - a patchwork blanket embodying the promise of warmth from humanity. The images are, as their collector Murdoch Stephen’s told the Dominion Post’s Tom Cardy, beautiful.
These are just a selection of 1000s of images Stephens found several years ago of Afghan refugees in an abandoned detention centre in the middle of the Iranian desert. The people remain unidentified, unaware they are on a wall in Porirua, Wellington. This only adds to this brave and unusual exhibit’s disturbance. It reminded me of the fraught history portrait photography has had with Maori.
Disturbing, yet at the same time this sensitively arranged installation exudes a sense of care. If a museum is now defined by the Te Papa moniker ‘our place’ here the complimentary concept of hospitality is realised - that this might be the best way the spirit of these strangers be looked after. The photographs, reproduced after discussion with local Afghan refugees, are the centrepiece of a small exhibition about refugees today.
The rest is fairly prosaic and unremarkable, but provides the visitor with a key information preamble to the experience. It is refreshingly, pointedly political: we are not being hospitable. New Zealand’s current intake of refugees is pitiful by international standards. Per capita we take five times less than Australia every year. We haven’t met the quota we’ve set ourselves once since National came to power, and that quota hasn’t made any allowance for population increases for decades. Hundreds of eyes on the walls gently bore into you.
Is this art you might ask? As usual the question doesn’t lead anywhere - everything lies in the strength of the experience, however you label it. Here, alongside beauty, there are all the ethical and presentational complexities you might hope to find in a truly powerful visual experience that changes you in some way. And its one that questions the role of the museum in only presenting those things that we have illustrated we treasure and care about. This exhibition points the way for art institutions to engage and raise questions in far more vital political ways with visual culture as independent public spaces.
The current Pataka set of exhibitions is a bit of a hotchpotch, but does illustrate how the museum thinks outside the contemporary orthodoxy in presenting significant work of relevance to its community, rather than simply flavour of the year on the art museum circuit. Refugee is complimented nicely by Tiffany Singh’s national project Fly Me Up to Where You Are, which sees local school children asked to think of their hopes and dreams for the future and from this make Tibetan prayer flags containing symbolic representations of their wishes.
The installation here is disappointing – these visions should fly high in public space, rather than be crammed into a low ceiling-ed side gallery – but the project’s power mainly lies in the space it gives students for expression in the classroom. It’s nice to see in this regard (if too briefly) the project accompanied by the documentary work of photographer Mikel Taylor and filmmaker Helen Donnelly. Donnelly’s interest in recent migrants and refugees sees her camera train on some of these young people in the Porirua area. Bringing ethnic and demographic diversity of our people and their concerns into the public space through contemporary art should be encouraged.
- Refugee, Pataka Museum until 15 September, Pataka Art and Museum, Porirua
A stunning, beautifully curated exhibit of the cream of contemporary Maori ceramics over the last 27 years. It illustrates how strong and innovative this area has been, yet how under-represented in the mainstream public consciousness.
- Uku Rere, until 27 October, Pataka Art and Museum, Porirua