Swastikas as part of exhibition

November 13, 2020 by Elana Bowman
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A recent The People of Colour exhibition which ran at Auckland’s Mercy Pictures from October 16 to November 7, featured swastika flags.

Flags exhibition Photo: Supplied

The exhibition also featured the tino rangatiratanga flag (stands for Maori sovereignty) and Ngāi Tūhoe’s flag (neither of which they had permission to use according to local community criticism online).

The exhibition has been criticised for using imagery that is “offensive … deeply traumatising and threatening” to members of different communities.

Banners displaying “It’s Okay to be white” and  “White pride world wide” were also on display. 

The art included the Rising Sun flag which has been critiqued by communities in Southeast Asia as a symbol of Japan’s historic imperialism.

An open letter condemning the exhibition, written by Quishile Charan (an emerging artist living and working in Aotearoa, New Zealand of Indo-Fijian heritage, Jasmin Singh, and Anevili, has been circulating online, calling for the gallery facilitators to apologise.

“It included the neo-Nazi Black Sun symbol which was emblazoned on the Christchurch shooter’s rucksack as he was committing acts of terrorism last year,” Charan, Singh, and Anevili said.

The letter has been met with an “outpouring” from different communities. It has had more than 1200 responses since being posted late last week.

Race Relations Commissioner of New Zealand Meng Foon said many people would find the juxtaposition of the Nazi swastika with flags of tangata whenua to be “insulting and disrespectful”, saying the swastika “represents the worst of humanity”.

“Acts like displaying Nazi symbols are detrimental to creating a safe space for all. It should not have a place in New Zealand culture.

“I call on New Zealanders to reject such symbols of hate.”

Juliet Moses, a spokeswoman for the New Zealand Jewish Council, said neo-Nazi imagery “represents a clear meaning and ideology that certain groups of people have no place in this world and are targets, which can leave them feeling vulnerable”.

Jerome Ngan-Kee (one of the directors of Mercy Pictures) did make a personal apology in a post on the Mercy Pictures Instagram account, but it was removed almost immediately.

In the post, Ngan-Kee wrote, “I would like to sincerely apologise for the harm and re-traumatisation bought about the exhibition I played a part in putting together through my position as co-facilitator at Mercy Pictures.

“Even though the exhibition has now ended I deeply regret the way Mercy Pictures has responded to criticism and the pain that this show has bought about. It was irresponsible of me to assume these symbols and our action in displaying could deny their meanings and histories to extended communities.”

In a statement, the organisation said: Mercy Pictures believes extremist movements of any kind are malevolent and evil. We oppose these kinds of groups vigorously, not least because they put the lives of the people we love at risk. Mercy Pictures and the wider Mercy Pictures family is predominantly made up of queer people and people of colour. As such, any suggestion that we are alt-right, neo-Nazi, queerphobes, homophobes, xenophobes, and white-supremacists is offensive and untrue.

The artwork is comprised of over 400 flags: national flags, political flags, religious flags, fictional flags, and flags from the internet. Our intention with the exhibition was to explore the dangers of political and tribal identities. This is an ongoing and dynamic conversation we wish to be a part of and in some way foster. We were asking questions like ‘What does it mean to identify with a flag?’ and ‘What are we to do when a flag means different things to different people?’”

We recognise that balancing artistic freedom and community safety is a difficult task. In retrospect one thing we could have been better at is providing some more context to the show, to guide viewers that the exhibition is about the complexity of these symbols.

The directors of Mercy Pictures, Teghan Burt, Jerome Ngan-Kee, and Jonny Prasad told Jessica Tyson of Te Ao Māori News they are in the process of reaching out to groups that may have been affected by the exhibition.

Some of the flags displayed. People of Colour exhibition / Source: Mercy Pictures.

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