Behrouz Boochani is translated from Farsi by Dr. Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/ University of Sydney.
In our different areas, we both make connections between real and fictionalised events, partly in order to question through art-making how certain narrative-truths are constructed. History and poetry, documentary and staged images, combine in our works and disrupt each other. We also present the audience with images of ourselves or our subjects as we/they are seen through the eyes of an outsider. The self-image that we present of ourselves and our subjects is constructed to avoid oversimplification, so that the reader or viewer feels straightaway assured that they have grasped the ‘actual’ truth and thus need not search any longer. Incidentally, this is what I see as a fault of traditional documentary practices or art-making that pretends to simulate a certain experience of exclusion for the audience. By confronting us with the alternative reality, it just makes us feel at ease in the comfort that we now ‘know’.
Now, these strategies also affect the way that different times—past, present and future are ordered and superimposed on our works. This is a major part of the way that you portray life in the Manus prison. For example, the play between the unending present, your memories of the past and the hoped-for future. To explore these contradictions, you often move between reporting and imaginative reflection. How do you personally conceive these connections in your work? And what do you say about the ability of this strategy to stay ‘true’ to the history that you are recounting?
You have raised a very key point. The questions often asked of No Friend but the Mountains (2018) and Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (2017) relate to why I did not use realism to explain the historical reality of Manus prison, and why I reduced real historical events to a surrealist narrative that involves multilayered meanings. My response to this critique is quite simple. In these instances, it is better that one return to art. I acknowledge, first and foremost, that art has a unique value and I believe that a body of artwork has greater potential for standing the test of time. It is important not to forget that history has no mercy whatsoever. In fact, I did not employ a realist discourse on purpose. I believe that creating a work by mainly using realism means that it is less likely to experience longevity.
Another point I would like to add is that the issue of exiling refugees to Manus and Nauru is a phenomenon that is essentially surreal. For someone who has been incarcerated on this island for six years, the experience is incomprehensible; I still find it hard to understand why Australia would exile me to this island when I have not committed any crime. It remains unbelievable that the Australian people are still indifferent towards this issue. In this context, the island itself can be interpreted as an abstract concept, even though it exists in reality. Even if I tried to rebuke my whole oeuvre by essentially adopting realism, I would not be able to continue. I could never resist being totally engulfed by a surrealist style. There is no escape.
In addition, while my body of work is multilayered, it is driven and characterised by a coherent theoretical foundation. Essentially, the reality of the prisons on Manus and Nauru is a complex multifaceted phenomenon and is conditioned by historical, philosophical, political and ideological factors. However, it is also a lived experience, a life full of tragedy, and this has the potential to impose itself on interpretations of these other factors.
Manus prison has manifested itself in many ways throughout history. These camps are modern examples of a model that has appeared in different times and places during Australian history and has deprived many people of wellbeing and livelihood. In fact, the model is a construct that emerged in the West during the modern period. This body of work is a witness to time and place and asserts that the violent reality we refer to can appear again — it can be replicated at any other moment and in any other location. In sum, everything reinforces the lived experience of imprisonment on Manus and Nauru.
It is also difficult for many of us who are standing outside of your situation to digest the cruelty of this system, and to understand how this can be ignored by the majority of citizens who pride themselves on living in ‘the land of the fair go'.
But what we see with border policies and so on is that the West is equally capable of violence. To be sure, it prefers a different kind of violence than that found elsewhere—it is more surgical, bureaucratic, hidden, and it works from the inside out, destroying the mind first and then the body—but it is violence all the same. You cannot look at caged men, women and children committing suicide or self-harm and say it is not the product of policies of institutional violence.
Are these the worst times we have lived through? No. Our history contains darker chapters. But this current barbarism, and the fact that so many people on all sides of politics and society think that it is necessary to preserve Australia’s safety, shows not only that we are confused, but also that we are watching the curtain fall. What were once spoken of as universal human rights are now turning out to be something more parochial—the rights of certain citizens. That is a dangerous situation to be facing.
A large part of the problem in Australia pertains to the media. Unfortunately, in today’s globalised world, the media has acquired extraordinary powers. Most Australian media organisations are under the influence of Rupert Murdoch. They condition the way people think and learn so that they are focused on what the media dictates. I truly believe that if Australia was not subject to this form of systematic censorship, this government would not have been able to continue its barbaric policy for six years.
Also, these media organisations function as the levers for liberalism; they create a sanitised, humane and beautiful image of the Western world while the rest of the world is demonised. This negative image is reinforced in the minds of people with consistency until the dark periods of liberalism are forgotten. It is as though every evil and injustice in the world only pertains to the other part of the world and everything that is beautiful and humane pertains to Western liberal democracies.
Exactly! On the one hand, images and writing have been used by different powers to influence and control how we see the world and different groups in it—especially the excluded, poor, marginal or outsiders. If we look back at the history of colonisation, for example, we can see that images played a key role in the invention of a ‘barbaric other’ that needed to be variously contained or educated by the West. This allowed it to enslave its subjects, to plunder their land and in the process to convince itself of its inherent superiority. The impact of those images persists even now, and the same strategies exist. Today we see national powers maintain control over the minds of their citizens and their borders by keeping up the constant fear of an outside threat. These strategies now operate in more invisible and complex ways – and through new forms of image- distribution—but they are the same.
So, our struggle is to undo these images, since it is such representations that legitimate this violence. But on the other hand, we are dealing with images—with the sensible in another way. Let me refer here to what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière says about political struggle. For Rancière, politics itself is always an aesthetic phenomenon, in the sense that it involves the struggle of an unrecognised group to become seen and heard. Politics, as aesthetics, is a struggle for equal recognition, and this means confronting the sensible order, as Rancière puts it, which determines what is sayable or visible.
This is different from the usual sense in which we say that politics uses images, even in extreme cases like the pictures that were born out of the Nine Eleven attacks. The collapse of the Twin Towers was staged by al-Qaeda and designed for the camera. The attackers succeeded in creating an image that would afterwards shape how we see the world and think and act in it. But, of course, those images were in turn used in the aftermath of the attacks to inflict more violence on the Middle East and those who would have to flee as a result.
We can directly trace the effect of the War on Terror and the images associated with it to a shift in the way that we see and think about non-Western geographies—especially Islamic ones. What you and others on Manus and Nauru have been suffering through is connected to the lingering horror that those images have carved into the psyche of the world, especially in the West. But more and more, this link is exploited simply for convenience. For many citizens of this country, you represent a vague, ever-encroaching threat: to national security, to the economy, to the existing values of the culture, to the safety that seems to belong to the past.
What I am deeply interested in as an artist is how we can disrupt this process by changing how we see the world—by modifying the relationship between the circulation of images and how they are used to maintain a certain unequal distribution of rights and power.
You make reference to an essential feature here. What I wish to explain is how the works we have created dismantle the core of the established paradigm. We have destroyed the colonial imaginary that abuses the concepts of refugee, humanity, human rights, politics, war and also the concept of terrorism. In the context of refugees, we can see how Remain (2018) and other works of art—even in the journalism I have published throughout these years—challenge the view of refugees that is pervasive in the West and that reduces them to terrorism, danger or crime, or romanticises them extremely. Both of these extremes are prevalent in Western societies and both views are critiqued in our work.
The language we create and employ is totally novel and can challenge governments and their propaganda. We are also able to critique the superficial and reductive representations of refugees in other art works and spaces. Unfortunately, most artworks about refugees is against the government propaganda but only in a superficial way. They do nothing to initiate any change whatsoever. They do nothing but consolidate power.
Now, let’s talk about the tension between the aesthetic and political dimensions in both your book and in my video work, Remain. In both there’s a tension between the beauty of the images created and the horror embedded in the narratives that we convey. I have been asked many times since the launch of Remain at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) whether I am worried about this, whether I am guilty of beautifying the misery of the men on Manus Island. My answer to that is ‘no’, and that the choices I made in this work—like in my earlier series—are entirely informed by the ethics of working with marginal subjects.
For me, the problem here is not related to the use of a certain aesthetic, as such. Rather, it is related to the approach of the image- maker towards the subject matter, and the hierarchical relationship that the camera creates between them. The idea that an image- maker should go out of her way to highlight the miserable position of a refugee, for example, actually creates just as many problems as it aims to solve. For one thing, it somehow confirms in our minds the image of the refugee’s inferiority. We sympathise, but in a way our sympathy reproduces the same sensible order.
My aim with Remain was to avoid this sort of approach by working with you guys to create something that was more incongruent with our usual expectations so that the audience would have to pause to confront what they think they know. There is already the disjunction between your surroundings, which seem to us like a tropical paradise but which you obviously see and narrate differently in the video because of the horror that you have experienced there. But we do not confront that horror directly or see the situation neatly laid out in linear fashion. Instead, what we get through your testimony is this brief glimpse into your world and its brute circularity—the cycle of death, trauma, boredom, anticipation—but in a way that resists our understanding. Finally, as living actors re-enacting your own narratives through performance, you cease to be merely passive subjects in the process of storytelling. This is important because, while the image of you as a mere refugee—identity-less—may garner sympathy, it does not help us to see you as an equal. The only reason that society would accept these camps is because, to them, it somehow makes sense that you would be there because of your geographical background and what we associate with it. This is what we need to break.
What is important about Remain is that refugees are not represented as something beyond human; rather, they are introduced as regular human beings like everyone else. In Remain we witness humans who express their essential human qualities. They are refugees who perform in ways that are undoubtedly beautiful and poetic. However, this does not mean that violence, anguish and tragedy are not present. They are gazing into the camera and, at the same time, creating art. In this way, they are presenting the spectator with the deepest features of the disaster they find themselves in. Remain is a masterpiece because we come face-to-face with humans whose bodies and visages are marked with the suffering of years of exile and torture. But these human beings also tell us that they still love life and living well. They sing, they recite poetry and they wander through the jungle. They tell us: we are still alive, we want to continue living, we want to live our lives.
The strength of Remain rests with this last point. It shows perfectly that these humans are using their bare bodies to engage in a form of resistance, and this act also becomes a historical legacy. Sometimes, when faced with tragedy, one has no choice but to laugh. Laughter is beautiful, even if it is in the darkest places one can imagine. This expression of humanity is exactly what is expressed in Remain, the book No Friend but the Mountains and the film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. What is important is that in the face of tragedy we have drawn inspiration from aesthetic elements in order to cope with the intensity of this humanitarian crisis.
Remain is extremely beautiful. However, it is a beauty that sends the spectator into thought. Confronted with this beautiful and poetic performance, the spectator cries. Beauty is the essential element in art. Throughout Remain, one is confronted with an image that is in total opposition to the picture of refugees solidified in the Western world. That is, either a romantic and angelic image, or one that equates refugees with violence, terrorism and horror. This work does well to breakdown these two unrealistic images. Yes, Remain is extremely beautiful. But it is equally disturbing.
Hoda Afshar was born in Tehran, Iran, and is now based in Naarm (Melbourne). Hoda’s practice explores the nature and possibilities of documentary image-making. Her work has been widely exhibited both locally and internationally. She’s also a member of eleven collective.
Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, human rights defender, poet and film producer. He was born in western Iran and has been held in the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre since 2013.