The light in the darkness
Two years on from the tragedy, Andrew Paul Wood looks at the way artists have responded to the Christchurch mosque attacks.
Art has long held an important role in the way individuals and communities witness, process, record and recover from trauma. Art history is littered with such examples – Goya’s Third of May 1808 (1814, Museo Nacional del Prado), Picasso’s Guernica (1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) or Käthe Kollwitz’s various monuments to the mourning parents of World War II are classic examples. Christchurch has endured a decennium horribilis worthy of commemoration: fires and floods punctuated at one end by the 2010–11 earthquakes and at the other by the 2019 mosque attacks and Covid in 2020–21.
It is the attacks on Al Noor Mosque in the city and the Linwood Islamic Centre in the eastern suburbs that have left the most social and emotional scar tissue in recent times. Christchurch was forced to acknowledge a community that wasn’t previously prominent in the public consciousness, and confront issues around racism and xenophobia in its midst. The city needed time to grieve, the local art world included, and artists have begun to respond.
Darryn George (Ngāpuhi), better known for his rigidly geometric kōwhaiwhai-derived paintings, is Head of Art at Christ’s College, near the Al Noor Mosque. Although not directly about the attacks, George’s Garden of Eden series (2019–20) of works on the theme of innocence happened to coincide with the events of 15 March and assimilated the attacks into the broader message, drawing on a shared Abrahamic tradition, and European and New Zealand modernism.
“I was interested,” says George, “in doing a series of artworks around the topic of innocence. It grew out of watching the news and having a sinking feeling about the brokenness and hurt that is an everyday reality. The vehicle or subject that came to mind was the Garden of Eden, a place of purity before the Fall. To convey this innocence, I decided to draw the garden in a childlike manner.”
“The trees and plants,” he says, “are drawn from memory and the scale of these plants is not accurate, in the same way that a child would render things from memory. There was also a deliberate move to employ children’s drawing tools such as crayons and pastels, and to squirt paint straight out of the tube like toothpaste. I also wanted to give the work a feeling of freedom and so I liberated colour from realism – trees now can be any colour one wants. Colour in this regard becomes a metaphor for perfection and beauty.”
A completely different approach was taken by Grant Takle in After Shock, his first solo exhibition in many years, at PG gallery192 in 2020. This sequence of seven paintings is in line with the punkish, graffiti-like, apocalyptic-bricolage new history painting that emerged from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts at the end of the 1980s. These heroically scaled works try to make sense of the way that for Cantabrians the trauma of the shootings often seems to blend into the residual trauma of the earthquakes.
In a web of silver lines on a black ground are set words plucked from the headlines – “Islamophobia”, “xenophobia”, “echo chamber”, “mercy”, “NRA”, “aroha” and “Lockdown” – made more confrontational by a private code of symbolism, and portraits from the media of victims, the prime minister in a headscarf, and the shooter. Behind the silver lines, the titles of the paintings loom ghostly and luminous, as if spray-painted. They suggest the ambiguous relationship between the mainstream media and the way it mediated our experience of events.
“After Shock responds,” says Takle, “to the calamitous exposure to the emotional and physical trauma violently thrust on and into the psyche of myself, the city, the victims, and society as a whole. As an artist I needed to deal with and process this situation within my art-making. I included imagery from all of the societal filters which we now use when dealing with situations deemed newsworthy.
“I encapsulate the knowledge of these atrocities within the fabric of my actual work, absorbing these responses into my painting practice, creating visual conversations from the plethora of sources, experiences and realities that we all have been surrounded by. This is a complex situation – on the one hand you do not want to cause more pain to those most affected. But on the other hand, your need to say something as an artist, though tempered by the hurt of the victims, does not change. You have an obligation to respond to this experience.”
While Takle addresses the violence directly, other approaches are also valid. In her 2016 book of the same name, Australian art historian Susan Best coined the term ‘reparative aesthetics’. This refers to artists whose approach to witnessing horrific events is indirect, emphasising the artistic form over the subject, to defuse hostility and create a contemplative, discursive space. Art that is overtly political or emotionally charged runs the risk of alienating the audience when what you want is allies. Art can be community therapy at a time when social media seems trapped in a vicious spiral of accusation and opportunism.
Photographer Janneth Gil is completing an MFA at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Originally from Colombia, Gil could draw on her own immigrant experience to engage with Christchurch’s Muslim community. She also lived in the Middle East for a time and was able to gain especially close access to form an intimate collaboration with the families of the victims. Her project Darkness into Light (2019–20) plays on the name Al Noor, “of the light”.
One starting point for Gil is philosopher Howard Stein’s assertion that “the beauty of strangeness lies in the freedom for self-creation, but fears are easily fed by insecurity and a need to become part of the new society and to feel accepted”. Another is María Margarita Malagón-Kurka’s analysis of the work of Colombian women artists responding to that country’s notorious drug wars. Malagón-Kurka views the work of these artists as “indexical presences” that make events “present” for an audience rather than depicting them directly, often through bringing together seemingly contradictory imagery.
Gil combines photojournalism and social documentary with an abstract formal aesthetic. Textiles are an important motif: survivors wearing the niqab, carpets, curtains, children’s clothing, shrouds. Patterns hint ironically at orientalist tropes about Eastern aesthetics. The shuhada (martyrs) are present by their absence. The photographs themselves are part of an ongoing, expanding installation – part monument, part archive. From the flowers of the tributes, Gil extracted a brown dye used to print some of the images in a gum bichromate process, and printed statements from the families on paper made from the cards attached to the flowers. Images of their possessions are engraved on blocks of native mataī.
“The events of March 15,” says Gil, “triggered memories of when I was caught with many other people in crossfire, and the violence due to the war on drugs my fellow Colombians and I endured when I was living in Bogotá in the 1980s and 1990s. I was also reminded of the importance of familial and community support, the significance of the connections we form with others, and how these relationships are imperative for us to be able to confront and rise above adversity.
“With the Darkness into Light project,” she says, “I want to find a way to sustain the support shown towards the people affected by the tragic events, to keep the positive dialogue within public consciousness, to help people to consider their own unconscious biases that perpetuate racism and discrimination, and invite them to take action to create a more inclusive society.”
Viv Kepes is a painter who combines microscopic zoom-ins of nature with political statements. Her previous work magnified the interiors of coral from the Kermadec Islands Rangitāhua as a comment on the impact of global warming on the oceans. In the series Bouquet (2020) she applies a similar strategy to the artificial flowers included in the piles outside the mosques.
The real flowers had to be disposed of as they decomposed, but the artificial ones were collected, with their attached notes, and exhibited at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Kepes photographed the artificial flowers in this display, massively magnifying them in a manner reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe in soft focus, titling them with sentiments from the attached condolence cards. In the Western tradition, flowers form a part of our funerary ritual as a sign of sympathy, a reminder of the fragility and brevity of life, and a symbol of Christian ideas about the afterlife.
“Muslim friends tell me,” says Kepes, “that although they do not give flowers in mourning at funerals they were very touched by the floral tributes. Knowing what they represented really meant a lot to them. Many of the affected community were unable to visit the tributes at the time they were laid by the mosques and on Rolleston Avenue, being too busy supporting one another within their very shaken community. Some stayed at home for a time after the attacks. For some, the first time they were able to appreciate the tributes was during this display at Christchurch Art Gallery. The non-perishable tributes were laid out beautifully, along with many notes and cards and some fresh flower bouquets.”
This is merely a first wave of art-world responses by individuals. The next phase will likely be in the realm of public memorials, a far more contentious prospect in a city sensitive to interventions in charged public spaces. Art is one of the most powerful tools we have for processing the unimaginable and healing. Lest we forget.