Interview, photography and video by Hoda Afshar
Behrouz Boochani, born in Ilam, Iran (1983) is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist and poet. He is currently detained on Manus Island, an island in Papua New Guinea that is used as a de facto prison for asylum-seekers heading to Australia. Boochani is in his seventh year of imprisonment without charge. He was originally held in Manus Island Detention Centre but, after it was forced to close in 2017 following a ruling that it violated Papua New Guinea’s constitution, he and 600 other asylum-seekers have been left to languish on the island. His memoir, __, won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction in January 2019. The book was tapped out on a mobile phone in a series of single messages over time and translated from Persian to English.
Hoda Afshar’s video work ‘Remain, 2018’ addresses the invisible histories and the human rights of asylum seekers in Australia. Filmed on Manus Island, the work delivers a powerful depiction of the prolonged mistreatment of detainees including Behrouz Boochani.
Hoda Afshar and Behrouz Boochani in conversation
Hoda Afshar: In our different areas, we both make connections between real and fictionalized 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, while the self-image that we present of ourselves or our subjects is constructed in such a way as to avoid oversimplification, so that the reader or viewer does feel straightaway assured that they have grasped the ‘actual’ truth and thus need not search any longer. Incidentally, 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 in 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?
Behrouz Boochani: You have raised a very key point. The issue here is about how one can express a historical reality without reducing it to a realist discourse, and how a series of artworks can contribute to historical discourse. Actually, this is a critique usually aimed at works such as Remain, No Friend but the Mountains and Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. The questions often asked relate to why I did not use realism in order to explain this historical reality, and why I reduced real historical events to a surrealist narrative which 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; history does not recollect every body of work. 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 produce my whole oeuvre by essentially adopting realism I would not have been able to continue – I could never resist being totally engulfed by a surrealist style, there was no escape.
Hoda Afshar / Remain, 2018 (10 minute video excerpt)
In addition, my body of work is multilayered but 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 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 modern 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. For this reason we produce various forms of expression using surreal elements and multilayered features so as to confront those who engage with the work. In sum, everything reinforces the lived experience of imprisonment on Manus and Nauru.
HA: You made an interesting point about the surreal-ness of this reality, and about how hard it is for you to believe that this tragedy is happening to you and those beside you on Manus and Nauru at this point in history. 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’.
The deeper problem is that, for centuries, and now more than ever, these so-called ‘developed’ countries have defended their actions at home and around the world based on their claims to value morality, human rights and equality, and to possess them to a greater degree than other so-called ‘non-developed’ countries; and this sense has made them feel superior as a civilization.
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 works from the inside out, destroying the mind first and then the body – but it is still violence all the same. You cannot look at caged men, women and children committing suicide or self-harm as a result of these policies and say it is not the product of institutional violence. The dizzying part is that a politician’s love affair or something even baser will make the front-page news while this situation continues, more or less, unreported.
Are these the worst times we have lived through? No. Our history contains darker chapters. But what I feel is that it is the current barbarism, and the fact that so many people on all sides of politics and society think that it is necessary in order to preserve our safety, shows not only that we are confused, but 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.
BB: Firstly, in my view only a small section of Australian society – and also the western world – has been shocked by the exile of refugees to Manus and Nauru. Only a relatively small number have been shocked by the fact that Australia and other western democracies have arrived at a period in history where populist politicians like Trump have secured power. We should not have allowed the situation to reach this point. A large part of the problem in Australia pertains to the media. Unfortunately, in today’s globalised world the media has acquired extraordinary powers. This fact on its own is not something positive. I am extremely cynical of the pervasive presence and role of the media. Within the media world, journalism functions superficially and controls society. In Australia the situation is so much worse. 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 could not 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 rest of the world is demonised. This negative image is reinforced in the minds of people with consistency and until the dark periods of liberalism are forgotten; it is as through 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.
HA: Exactly! I think people widely underestimate the power of the media and images in shaping our perception of the world. 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 colonization 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 convince itself of its inherent superiority. The impact of those images persists even now, and the same strategies exist. Today we are seeing national powers maintain control over the minds of their citizens and their borders by keeping us in 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 this sense, that it involves the struggle of an unrecognized group to become seen and heard. Politics, as aesthetics, is a struggle for equal recognition; and this means confronting the sensible order, as Ranciere 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 09/11 attacks. The collapse of the Twin Towers was staged by al-Qaeda as the collapse of the empire, and its magnitude horror was 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 of it.
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; and 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, coming threat: to national security, to the economy, to the existing 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.
BB: You make reference to an essential feature here. Images are important and have always been significant instruments used by structures of power and politics for ingraining a particular paradigm. What I wish to explain here is how the works we have created have dismantled the core of the established paradigm. We have destroyed the colonial imaginary that has abused the concepts of refugee, humanity, human rights, politics, war and also the concept of terrorism. This reinforces our efforts to create a new language with which to combat the language that upholds structures of power. In the context of refugees, we can see how Remain and other works of art – even in the journalism I have published throughout these years – have challenged the view of refugees that is pervasive in west. This perspective does not merely reduce refugees to terrorism, danger or crime, but also includes interpretations that are extremely romantic. Both of these extremes are prevalent in western societies and both views are critiqued in this work.
The language we have created and employed in this work is totally novel. This is a language with which we 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 artwork 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.
HA: Now let’s talk about the tension between the aesthetic and political dimensions in both your book and in my video work, Remain. In them, 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 MCA whether I am worried about this – whether I am guilty of ‘beautifying’ the misery of the men on Manus. My answer to that is ‘no’, and that the choices I have made in making this work – like my earlier series – were 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 his or her 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 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 differently because of the horror that you have experienced there and narrate in the video. 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 it somehow makes sense that you would be there because of your background geography and what we associate with it. This is what we need to break.
BB: 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. In this way, Remain is a masterpiece because we become face to face with humans whose bodies and visages are marked with the suffering from years of exile and torture. Their entire affliction is presented in their movements with great clarity so that we are able to see and understand. 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 are telling us: we are still alive, we want to continue living, we want to live our lives.
The strength of Remain rest with this last point, it shows perfectly well that these humans are using their bare bodies to engage in a form of resistance, and this act also becomes a historical legacy. During a conference I participated in through Skype someone asked me if I have ever laughed during these years on Manus. My answer was short. Obviously, we laugh… we are human. 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 has been 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 beauty and poetic performance, the spectator cries. Beauty is the essential element in art. The human beings in this work tell us that they still love life and living well by singing, sharing poetry and connecting with nature. They state that they want to continue living.
In this work refugees are not depicted as angels or evil beings, rather they are regular human beings who are able to laugh, cry, love and sing. Throughout this work one is confronted with an image that is in total opposition to the picture of refugees solidified in western world; that is, 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.
Translation: Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/University of Sydney
Behrouz Boochani is the co-director, along with Iranian film maker Arash Kamali Sarvestani, of the documentary Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, has published numerous articles in leading media internationally about the plight of refugees held by the Australian government on Manus Island, and has won several awards.
Hoda Afshar was born in Tehran, Iran (1983), and is now based in Melbourne, Australia. She completed a Bachelor degree in Fine Art– Photography in Tehran, and recently submitted her PhD thesis in Creative Arts at Curtin University. Hoda began her career as a documentary photographer in Iran in 2005, and since 2007 she has been living in Australia where she practices as a visual artist and also lectures in photography and fine art. She received the 2015 National Photographic Portrait Prize (2015) and won William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize for her portrait of Behrouz Boochani (2018). Afshar is a member of the eleven collective, a group of contemporary Muslim Australian artists, curators and writers.
Through her art practice, Hoda explores the nature and possibilities of documentary image-making. Working across photography and moving-image, she considers the representation of gender, marginality and displacement. In her work, Hoda employs processes that disrupt traditional image-making practices, play with the presentation of imagery, or merge aspects of conceptual, staged and documentary photography.