Andrew Paul Wood essay on ‘Darkness into light’ by Janneth Gil

With the horrific events in Christchurch of 15 March 2019, a diverse, primarily immigrant Muslim community united by faith was suddenly pushed into public awareness. Some parts of this community are intensely private, particularly those women left isolated and vulnerable if their only point of contact with the broader world was one of the victims.

Janneth Gil, originally from Colombia, has made the journey of bridging the distance between her New Zealand identity and her Colombian identity the subject of much of her work. Gil was able to draw on her experiences as an immigrant and being both on the outside and inside of Christchurch to engage with the broader Muslim community, negotiating the public and private with her camera as an act of witnessing.
Artists have long stood as witnesses of atrocity for the public memory. Writers certainly, but in the visual arts we can look to the examples of Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Goya’s Disasters of War (1810-1820), and the methodologies of Holocaust museums, the memorials to the killing fields in Cambodia, and the many projects dealing with crimes against humanity in Latin America, the Balkans, and around Africa.

Gil already had a certain amount of familiarity with Middle Eastern culture, having lived in Middle East for a time. With patience and openness, she was able to bypass the pain and fear to form intimate relationships with the families, gaining unprecedented access, and engaging with the ethical considerations of such a complex project. There are multiple theoretical underpinnings to this body of work: One starting point is US 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”. Gil explores the inherent transculturalism and identity construction all immigrant communities must go through, especially in a diasporic context where the dominant culture is unfamiliar and not necessarily always welcoming or accommodating.
Reference is made to Susan Best’s concept of “reparative aesthetics”, particularly applied to artists of the “global south”, where photographers find indirect ways of introducing controversial or emotionally charged subjects by placing the emphasis on the formal aesthetics of the work – the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Best takes a psycho-therapeutic view that this is a less alienating and more accessible bridge to understanding than aggressively paranoid-critical protest art. Another touchstone is Maria Margarita Malagón’s analysis of the work of Colombian artists Beatriz González, Oscar Muñoz and Doris Salcedo depicting the pronounced violence in that country in the 1990s. Malagón 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’s photographs occupy a liminal place between documentary photojournalism and aesthetic statement, combining strong formal shapes with decorative pattern, often textile, which may unconsciously allude to the ironies of certain orientalist tropes. The photography draws on several genres depicting the victims’ families, possessions, and mosques. They are strongly present by their absence. The striking portraits of Muslim women in their homes convey a sense of distance and isolation as they are often viewed from behind or in silhouette. An interior of a mosque prayer room is viewed through a net
curtain. Other images are less direct, recording the flowers piled up in front of the mosques. The remaining shadow of a bloodstain, not quite scrubbed away, from various oblique angles seems almost an abstraction.

The project is a collaborative one, working closely with the families of the victims and other involved professionals. The community engagement is important. Of this Gil says, “This way of working is what helps create meaningful and inclusive work, where people’s beliefs and feelings are acknowledged and communicated in an authentic voice and my position within the work is openly acknowledged.”

These photographs are only one component of a larger installation-as-archive. Materiality is important. From dried and processed flowers from the impromptu tributes left in front of the mosques, Gil extracts a brown dye. This is used to print some of the images with a gum bichromate process, but also to print the words of the widows and other family members of these Shuhada (Martyrs). Some of this is printed on paper made from the written messages left with the flowers or white cotton given a wash of the flower ink. As Gil says, “The photographs of people and their words engraved in the tribute’s paper donated after the attacks, emphasize their intense feelings of grief, their vulnerability, their strength, and the immense price paid to empower our society to start a serious
conversation about some of the systemic problems we have.”
Other messages are printed on fabric. Fabric is a reoccurring motif in these works, a reflection of Islamic interiors and robes, and shrouds. The text is often faint and difficult to read unless the viewer gets up close to it, not unlike the way the attacks brought the rest of Christchurch into acknowledgment of a community they otherwise tended to ignore. In some cases, the text is written on the donated clothes of the victims. In other cases, their possessions are engraved on blocks of native matai wood.

he creation of this environment as archive is an ongoing process. It continues to evolve as events unfold, as the phases of anger and grief slowly develop into resolution and healing. “With Darkness into Light,” says Gil, “I wanted to make a contribution to our community by helping people through art and photography to consider their own unconscious biases that perpetuate racism and discrimination. The project also aimed at finding a way to sustain the support shown towards the people affected by the tragic events of March 15 th , to keep up the positive dialogue within our public consciousness, and to challenge certain negative perspectives that inevitably linger.”

Andrew Paul Wood