We Are Never Never Other, Aram Han Sifuentes
We Are Never Never Other, Aram Han Sifuentes, 2018
Last week, a large-scale banner by Aram Han Sifuentes was installed on the façade of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Missouri. The banner reads ‘WE ARE NEVER NEVER OTHER.’ Like much of Sifuentes’ practice, the piece fuses her personal experience as an immigrant with shared experience, examining issues of citizenship, race and immigration. The use of ‘we’ to represent the voice of the disenfranchised, adds strength to a very deliberate act of defiance - standing against the act of Othering.
The banner serves as an extension to her ongoing project ‘The Protest Banner Lending Library.’ In 2016, devastated by the result of the US presidential election, Sifuentes began making banners as a form of resistance. What began as a personal means of expression, grew into banner making sessions with friends, then into workshops for the public. As a non-citizen, Sifuentes didn’t always feel safe attending protests, hence the workshops became a safe space in which people could come together in solidarity through making. As Sifuentes explains, ‘making is, in and of itself, a form of resistance.’ The collaborative, inclusive nature of the workshops plays into Sifuentes intent to claim spaces for immigrant and disenfranchised communities. The sewing circles she facilitated become places of empowerment and protest – a space where the voice of the marginalised is heard.
What results from the workshops is a library of banners. They are made, used in protest and returned to the library where they can be borrowed by someone else for another protest. With time the banners acquire a history, carrying the anger, resistance, strength and solidarity of a community.
The term ‘Othering’ describes the prejudicial act of relegating someone to a subordinate social category. Contributors to Othering include (yet are not limited to) religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation and skin tone. The ‘other’ is excluded, pushed to the margins of society where social norms are deemed to not apply. Othering, is a dangerous tool often propagated by the media and political opportunists to provoke fear, advance agendas and accumulate power. It bides a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, positioning ‘them’ as a threat which facilitates fear and mistrust and consequently fosters hostility towards the unfamiliar or unknown.
We are living in a time of rapid migration. Immigration policy and border politics consume governments around the world. According to The UN Refugee Agency there are upwards of 65 million people currently forcibly displaced from their homes. The result of this is a change in demographics. This change is causing anxiety. Anxiety is natural response. Othering is not. Othering is socially and culturally constructed.
In discussing immigration policy in 2013 Barack Obama reminded Americans that ‘it is easy for the discussion to take on a feeling of us vs them. And when that happens a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.’ Sadly, this argument has since been overshadowed by Donald Trump. Trump normalises Othering, marginalising minorities and implementing xenophobic policies such as the suspension of all Muslims from entering the US and his intent to build a big ol’ wall along the United States –Mexican border to keep out ‘criminals and rapists.’
Closer to home, Australia is seen to epitomise the harshening contemporary migration policy evident in modern capitalist societies. Last week marked five years since the offshore processing policy was reintroduced by the Rudd government and today Nauru and Manus Island house more than 1600 asylum seekers. I believe offshore detention is Othering to its core. Othering in its intent, Othering in its physical detachment, Othering in its geographical remoteness – Othering in that the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is over 3000 km of big blue.
Whilst the geographical remoteness contributes heavily to the detachment many of us feel towards the crisis, the lack of media access to the islands further isolates the problem in that there is little visibility. Consider the recent example of the young soccer team trapped in the cave in Thailand. I was heavily invested, many of us were – because we could be. I knew that the youngest boy, eleven-year-old Chanin Viboonrungruang wanted to be taken for fried chicken when he was rescued. I knew that tech mogul Elon Musk personally delivered a mini, child size submarine to the cave. I knew all this because their rescue was played out on the world stage, with live updates posted on media platforms worldwide.
I am sincerely hoping this is the reality as opposed to my ignorance, but I am going to argue I saw more imagery from the three-week rescue mission in Thailand than I have in five years of Nauru. These two examples are not comparable and I by no means wish to belittle the rescue, it was a horrific misadventure, in which the life of former Navy SEAL officer Saman Kuna was tragically lost. However, seeing the generosity of strangers - experts, governments and individuals alike - around the world made me smile. It was one of those moments where humanity shines, that despite all the inequality, violence and nonsense humans still band together and help those in need.
As I have mentioned before I am, as I know many are, a visual learner. The entire premise of this blog is to use visual imagery to educate and inspire. Visual language is so powerful because of its immediacy, its ability to humanise and to elicit feelings of sympathy and understanding.
The lack of media access to Australia’s offshore detention facilities means we have a very narrow, constructed understanding of what our taxpayer money is funding. In 2016 The Guardian published the Nauru Files, which were instrumental in exposing gross violations of basic human rights. The leaked incident reports written by staff highlighted cases of sexual assault, self-harm, child abuse and inhumane living conditions in the government sanctioned facilities.
All We Can’t See is an initiative whereby artists illustrate the Nauru Files, using art to express what cannot be otherwise seen. Each piece responds to an individual file, individualising and humanising the bureaucratic language of the incident reports. From 31st July to 11 August the ‘All We Can’t See’ exhibition will be shown at Fortyfivedownstairs as part of Melbourne Art Week. The exhibition showcases the artworks of 30 prominent Australian artists including Janet Laurence, Ben Quilty and Abdul Abdulla. So much of this narrative has been hidden, go and see what hasn’t been seen.
TO DO LIST
****Warning the content of the files and artworks may distress and confront
2. Check out Aram Han Sifuentes' Lending Library Protest Banners project