Melanie Oliver – 28 August, 2013
The strength of Refugee is the manner in which it slips between art, activism, educational tool and museum display, operating in the grey areas of indeterminacy. There is an overt message, but this doesn't overshadow the photographs as a complex and compelling documentary archive. Pataka is not strictly a gallery space, with an adjoining library and community areas, and this project makes the most of the interdisciplinary institution.
29 June - 15 September 2013
Based on a collection of photographic portraits found at an abandoned refugee detention centre in the central desert of Iran, the exhibition Refugee is an archive of sorts. Around 1,000 small snapshots gleaned by Murdoch Stephens while travelling in the region in 2009 are presented in a museum display case, a partial record of the detainees who were once processed at the centre. The photographs have also been reproduced at a slightly larger scale, covering a circular wall that wraps around the gallery space, lit from behind to allow the full detail of each face to be observed.
This understated treatment of the original material is fitting given the potentially controversial ethics of exhibiting the images without permission or acknowledgements. Despite the pared back, restrained approach, the portraits of these families and individuals are somewhat overwhelming. Not physically as they are smaller than life size, or by capacity since there is a limited number, but for the proposition that is being made: why are we doing so little to improve the plight of refugees?
Their collective gaze is directed towards the viewer, or more accurately the position the photographer would have occupied; all eyes trained towards the gallery seating provided to encourage lingering reflection on the subjects, their origins and stories. These portraits capture the subtle yet palpable apprehension of their situation that is easily discernible in many of the faces. Their future is obviously uncertain. And potentially this is where the element of discomfort arises; they are a strikingly humanised reminder of inequality, of the many groups for whom agency, democracy and power are foreign ideas - even within this country.
For the exhibition is unapologetically political. The accompanying information has the statistics of the current New Zealand refugee quota compared to that of other countries, and points out that even though we believe we are a generous nation and doing our bit for refugees, Australia accepts five times more refugees per capita. Double the quota is the simple campaign that runs alongside Refugee and it is refreshing to see such a clear political message in the gallery context, the necessity of which is reinforced by the images themselves.
All of the photographs are pierced through with a staple at the corner, an indication that accompanying documents were once attached. Separated at some time, now the staples alone puncture each photograph. Sometimes unusually placed, there is a sense of the rough violence with which they were applied, a further reminder of the processes one expects in such a situation. The images also recall Roland Barthes’ notion of punctum from Camera Lucida. Throughout the collection there are touching details that establish personal relationships with the viewer; a certain nostalgic haircut, unusually raised eyebrow, or wary smile. A sense of empathy is created and there is no overlooking that they are people before they are statistics.
Although there is an abundance of facts and figures that are offered around the space, on the website that accompanies the exhibition and in the education section at the entrance, I found myself wanting to know more. What has become of these particular individuals? The provocation to find and trace the story of even just one of these families seems intentional and brings the issue into a tangible, measurable form for the casual gallery visitor. Entering through the education room is rather clumsy, but also offers connections to the surrounding community with interviews from local refugees and comment boards. Clearly, this exhibition is itself an exercise in education.
The strength of Refugee is the manner in which it slips between art, activism, educational tool and museum display, operating in the grey areas of indeterminacy. There is an overt message, but this doesn’t overshadow the photographs as a complex and compelling documentary archive. Pataka is not strictly a gallery space, with an adjoining library and community areas, and this project makes the most of the interdisciplinary institution. It will likely not only be evaluated for visitor numbers, reviews and public responses, but also on its ability to make political change.
The term ‘gallery’ is used to describe a place for observation in the political arena as well as an exhibition site, and here it acts as both. On Sunday 1 September there will be a public forum to discuss the issue of raising the refugee quota in New Zealand, actively bringing politics in to the gallery space. If only art did this a little more often.