Art is a Salve

From the Springbok Tour, to the Vietnam War, to the occupation of Palestine, Matariki Williams delves into how the arts have been, and can be, used to express solidarity and protest.

As Nadia Abu-Shanab writes, solidarity is a verb, and over the past couple of months, I’ve come to know that artists are really good at the doing. Art has the ability to communicate huge kōrero with immediacy, compel curiosity, and ask questions of audiences and readers. Art has the ability to connect us to the horrifying in a way that acknowledges the humanity in us. Sometimes we can’t absorb what is said with words and we need it in brushstrokes, woven through materials, carved into wood, or mediated melodically.

We’ve all seen the images and heard the pain, the immense loss of Palestinian whānau, generations and generations killed during the ongoing genocide by Israel. This loss has been unbearable to watch, feeling helpless as our leaders take too long to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. How can we grapple with communicating what is happening to those who aren’t seeing it, who are not online or are too young to fully comprehend it?

Palestinian art has blown like seeds on the wind, ērā kākano hei kawe i ngā hōhonutanga o te aroha o rātou ki a rātou ake, ki ō rātou whenua hoki. Whakatōngia i kōnei, whakatōngia.

During the past 100+ days, one of these seeds was shared in the form of Khaled Juma’s ‘Oh Rascal Children of Gaza’ and I imagined the children I had seen on my Instagram feed living as children should. As readers, we are taken to the streets of Gaza as it has been before, with the freedom of children so easily envisioned, their cheekiness and audacity so innocently captured. Further on, the reality drastically hits and Juma ends with:

Come back –

And scream as you want,

And break all the vases,

Steal all the flowers,

Come back,

Just come back…

Juma wrote this in 2014. It’s ten years later, and many of those children will still be children. I hope they are okay, but know they won’t be. The desperation of Juma’s final line captures the bereft atmosphere of the time and the horror that we are witnessing now.

Children also feature in Noor Hindi’s ‘Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying’. Again, this is a poem I had assumed was written in response to the 2023 Israeli aggression, which is foolish really, considering there are 75 years of aggression to choose from. Hindi writes:

Colonizers write about flowers.

I tell you about children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks

seconds before becoming daisies.

Exposition, as exists in so much creative expression, is obliterated here. How can we care about something as meaningless as discussing our creative praxis when Palestinians are dying? Will that save lives? It’s tough to grapple with, especially for writers, whose vocation is crafting with words.

In Mahmoud Darwish’s poem from 2008 titled ‘I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theater’, the narrator and another commentator bicker over who is the author of the theatre show they’re watching. Through their argument, we come to realise that there is no such thing as an impartial bystander in the theatre of war:

He says: No spectators at chasm’s door … and no

one is neutral here. And you must choose

your part in the end

Darwish was an open critic of Hamas, as he was of the occupying state of Israel, though always adamant that he was not antisemitic, once stating: “I am not a lover of Israel, of course. I have no reason to be. But I don’t hate Jews.” Aside from Arabic, he spoke three other languages including Hebrew, and at one point it was suggested that his poetry be included in the Israeli school curriculum. At his death in 2008, three days of mourning were declared in Palestine.

While these are all examples of Palestinian poets who have produced works to communicate their realities to readers, I want to share ways in which art has been enacted as a means of solidarity, the doing that I mentioned earlier. In Aotearoa, another of Hindi’s poems and Juma’s above were translated into te reo Māori along with those of other Palestinian poets, an expression of aroha from Māori creatives, including Aperahama Hurihanganui, Sian Montgomery-Neutze and Abby Hauraki. So many incredible artworks have been created and donated for fundraisers. Artists and art workers are consciously raising the visibility of the genocide, calling on institutions to take a stance, writing open letters, and sharing the work of Palestinian artists. We do this to show the people of Palestine they are not alone, to let our friends and whānau who are also marching know that they are not alone, and so that anyone who sees these actions might learn, and join us.

Raising visibility through art is not new in Aotearoa, there have been many civil and human rights causes shared via art. I think of Hone Tuwhare (Ngāpuhi) writing ‘O Africa!’:

On bloody acts, that make less human, mankind’s brighter sun, let revulsion rise!

I think of Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri) taking these words and laying them across the flag of apartheid-era South Africa for his work Untitled (1981). In a mix of his idiosyncratic scrawl and favoured stencil font, the middle of the flag is dominated by a large spray-painted X.

These works take the actions that happened on the streets and at rugby games during the 1981 Springbok tour into gallery spaces, into books and thus libraries. It is impossible to turn away if the messages are everywhere. The Hamilton game of the tour was broadcast live in South Africa and when it was eventually abandoned due to the protest action, Nelson Mandela, who was then imprisoned on Robben Island, is quoted as having said it was “as if the sun had come out.”

Lily Aitui Laita, who recently passed, and was of Sāmoan and Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga whakapapa, painted Pari‘aka in 1989, which highlighted the connection between the Mau independence movement in Sāmoa and the people of Parihaka. Laita recalled that, when the high-ranking chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III was arrested and imprisoned in Mount Eden Prison in 1929 for his refusal to pay taxes to the New Zealand Government, he was visited by people from Parihaka. Tā Māui Pōmare, who was from Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Toa, and whose parents were followers of Te Whiti o Rongomai, was the likely visitor. Pōmare lamented the imprisonment of Tamasese, stating in a letter printed in the New Zealand Samoan Guardian: “I thought, and asked myself this question. What have we – New Zealand – done? … This man was deprived of liberty, hereditary titles, degraded, deported and imprisoned. Yet those titles will continue till the last drop of Tamasese blood ceases to flow.”

While these two examples are of artworks that are now situated in collections (the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Te Papa Tongarewa, respectively), more ephemeral modes of art are also ubiquitous at protests. During the Vietnam War (1959–75) there was a proliferation of banners, placards and posters created in response to the announcement of our first military deployment in 1965. These protests drew people from all walks of life, from students and teachers to unions, churches, the Labour Party, Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers.

One of the most visible posters at this time featured a photograph by United States Army photographer Ron Haeberle. The image shows the dead bodies of women and children, some clothed, some not, all of whom were victims of the US Army war crime committed in their village of My Lai. This image was then appropriated for use in a poster titled Q. And babies? A. And babies., produced by the Art Workers’ Coalition (of which Len Lye was a member) and overlaid with kupu from an interview with a former soldier who participated in the massacre.

In the interview, the soldier (who I won’t name, as the women and children don’t get to be named), was asked by journalist Mike Wallace about his actions:

Q. And you killed how many? At that time?

A. Well, I fired them automatic, so you can’t – You just spray the area on them and so you can’t know how many you killed ‘cause they were going fast. So I might have killed ten or fifteen of them.

Q. Men, women, and children?

A. Men, women, and children.

Q. And babies?

A. And babies.

Fifty thousand posters were printed by the Coalition and distributed for free, some making their way around the world, which highlighted the power of art as an effective communicator, especially through the medium of mobile taonga such as posters – which are cheap to produce, and easy to distribute.

While artists and art workers have undertaken solidarity action against atrocities and for peace, more recent actions have resulted in curators leaving their roles, artists being removed from shows by institutions or removing themselves, and arts workers either resigning or being fired. We have seen the inaugural Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Wanda Nanibush, leaving her role in what many have interpreted as her being pushed out due to her vocal support of Palestine. The Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, Taqralik Partridge, has since also resigned. Though it is unclear whether these resignations are related, what is clear is that the AGO no longer has a curator on staff working with and for Indigenous collections and artists. We have seen a show from Ai Weiwei be cancelled by the exhibiting gallery; the firing of the Artforum editor due to his publishing of a letter of solidarity from artists, prompting the resignation of several editors and a petition from writers in solidarity; the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine resigning due to her inability to work for the “warmongering” publication; the search team for the next curator of Documenta resigning due to the political climate in the exhibiting country of Germany rendering the ability for diverse and discursive artistic expression impossible; also in Germany, Laurie Anderson has withdrawn from her professorship at the Folkwang University of the Arts after the university learned that the artist had signed a pro-Palestine letter in 2021. As part of the announcement, the university astonishingly said that art, culture and science are places “where contentious issues are kept in check”.

In Aotearoa, of course, we have not been immune. Late last year, Kūwao Space, an independent artists’ space in Tauranga, was pressured to remove Palestinian artworks from the window space by the real estate agency administering its tenancy, and subsequently decided to end their lease, stating: “Art is political. Decolonisation is political. Kūwao is political. We will never water down anything we do.”

Auckland Museum’s decision to light the building blue in solidarity with Israel faced immediate backlash. Documents released under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 reveal concerns raised by staff who did not support the decision to light the museum with Israel’s colours, and the determined voice of ‘Manager 1’, who astonishingly invoked the Me Too movement and the Dawn Raids to justify advising the leadership to proceed with the lighting.

And yet, and yet, and yet. Amongst all of this hopelessness, the tired feet and the ragged voices, placards growing tatty and fingers stiff from typing yet more imploring emails and petitions to immovable politicians; amongst the catharsis of pouring our pain into poetry, of tense and tough conversations with loved ones and strangers online, the constant barrage of imagery coming out of Gazan desperation that we know is nothing compared to what it is to experience it; amongst the fundraisers and the infographics, the difficult work of condensing complex information for the masses, the artworks created to show us the importance of the olive tree, the explainers of keffiyeh symbolism, the solidarity remains.

Art is a salve, art gets to the heart of a matter, revealing visceral truths; art speaks when we are out of words or out of energy or out of hope. Art tells us we are not alone, that the heartbreak we feel is felt by others too. Art draws eyes to histories of subjugation, oppression and marginalisation. As Nina Simone asks, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” Keep making, keep sharing.

I will end with words written by poet Refaat Alareer, penned days before his death in an airstrike by the Israeli army on 6 December 2023.

If I must die,

you must live

to tell my story

to sell my things

to buy a piece of cloth

and some strings,

(make it white with a long tail)

so that a child, somewhere in Gaza

while looking heaven in the eye

awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—

and bid no one farewell

not even to his flesh

not even to himself—

sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above

and thinks for a moment an angel is there

bringing back love

If I must die

let it bring hope

let it be a tale

Editorial note:

The creative works in this essay have been reproduced in good faith and with the hope that by including extracts, we will prompt readers to further engage with work from these and other Palestinian poets, makers, artists, creatives. We do not own these works. Our intention is to amplify Palestinian voices and to help raise awareness of the atrocities being committed against Palestinians now, and for the past 75+ years.

Further analysis of Noor Hindi’s poem ‘Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying’ is in episode 117 of the poetry podcast Close Talking.

Further analysis of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theatre’ is provided here.

Fundraiser patches for Palestine in header image made by Jordan Davey-Emms (Pākehā)

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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