April 01, 2016

Friday Round Up - 1st April, 2016

This week it’s all about books – three books are reviewed Erika Diettes’ Memento Mori: Testament to Life; Tanya Habjouqa’s Occupied Pleasures and Olof Jalbro’s Refuge.

Erika Diettes – Memento Mori: Testament to Life

Imagine your husband, child, lover, wife, or best friend abducted without warning or cause, tortured and murdered simple for being in the wrong place at the wrong time during a political conflict that no one really understands. Then imagine having no way to honour this person or their life because their body has either been mutilated beyond recognition or dumped where you cannot go.

This horror is what thousands of people live with everyday in Colombia where the armed conflict between the government, the guerillas and the drug lords have claimed over a quarter of a million people this past fifty years.

Colombian artist and anthropologist Erika Diettes has made it her life’s work to honour the victims creating four elaborate bodies of work that come together in Memento Mori: Testament to Life, an exquisite double volume with slipcase that does justice to this phenomenal collection.

I first interviewed Diettes in 2013 about her body of work Shrouds/Sudarios, which features haunting portraits of women as they remember watching loved ones tortured in front of them. These portraits are printed on a grand scale on linen to resemble shrouds. I remember seeing this exhibition hanging from the high ceiling of the Mining Exchange in Ballarat (for the Ballarat International Foto Biennale) and walking between the portraits that swayed in the breeze, the light fabric wrapping itself gently around my shoulders and sending shivers down my spine. I saw it again the following year in a church in Sydney (for Head On Photo Festival) and this time felt it was even more moving given the venue, the hushed tones of visitors, the candles lit in sympathy. 

Above: Shrouds/Sudarios

Diettes has continued to work on this project creating additional bodies of work that fit together to tell an extraordinary story that is at once politically and socially relevant, but also deeply personal – Diettes has spent many hours interviewing each of these women. This is a story beyond the horrors of conflict. It is a story of humanity, of loss and of love, a story that is underpinned by Diettes’ commitment to give voice to the victims.

“My work is inspired by the extremely complex social, political, and cultural situation that exists in Colombia, along with theoretical questions raised by my reaction to the unrelenting violence that my country has experienced for decades. I have decided to bear witness to that violence, and to give the victims – both those murdered and disappeared and their survivors – voice through my art," she says.

“Because the work originates in the direct testimonies of the families of the victims as well as in objects belonging to them, it assumes a significance that transcends aesthetic considerations. I create a physical and emotional space within both the images and their installations that is recognizable to the mourners as a memorial and that is also accessible to other viewers, allowing them to go beyond the idea of a violent event and to identify with the humanity of the people affected.”
In Drifting Away/Rio Abajo, images of artifacts of the disappeared – a shirt, shoe, pair of reading glasses – are photographed in water and then suspended in glass. In Relics/Relicarios personal effects are embedded in blocks of polymer resin that resemble tombstones. These two bodies of work are joined by Shrouds/Sudarios in one volume of Memento Mori: Testament to Life. In the other volume is the final body of work that brings all three together in photographs of these memorials displayed in cathedrals and churches around the world, lit with the candles of mourners and visitors. 

Above: Relics/Relicarios

Above: Drifting Away/Rio Abajo

This is an amazing body of work and I am honoured to have Memento Mori: Testament to Life in my collection.

Publisher: George F. Thompson Publishing
Artist Website: Erika Diettes

Tanya Habjouqa – Occupied Pleasures

Over four million Palestinians live in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The inhabitants of this region have lived with conflict for decades and there is a well-entrenched narrative around life here.

But in Occupied Pleasures, published by FotoEvidence, photographer Tanya Habjouqa, who has Circassian and Jordanian roots and grew up in the US in Texas, takes an unconventional approach to capturing the daily lives of those Palestinians living in the shadow of conflict.

Here we see women practising yoga on a mountainside; men pumping iron; a woman traversing the tunnels to attend a party, carrying flowers for the hostess; a family picnicking on the beach; a young girl surfing. In these pictures are humour and irony, laughter and sorrow, stories told through Habjouqa's unique insight; it is obvious she has a background in anthropology. She is also a founding member of Rawiya photo collective, founded by five female photographers from the Middle East.

All images (C) Tanya Habjouqa

Having worked as a war photojournalist, Habjouqa says with Occupied Pleasures she was looking for a new way to tell the Palestinian story that didn’t traverse the familiar “hackneyed tropes”.

"I am always grappling for an angle to shake up what so sadly are dogmatic, reductive views of this place…every story I have done was from an angle of bringing a fresh analysis, or new gateway into this place...having covered some dark events in the Region, Palestinians continue to amaze me, how they keep their humanity."

Habjouqa says Occupied Pleasures was a departure, "something far more intimate than anything I have ever done before. I had something to say in what I was documenting, a personal stake. It was for my children, a push back against misrepresentation. A move from traditional documentary to what is being called new documentary, and an attempt to say something different".

Occupied Pleasures is like a breath of fresh air in the rhetoric on conflict in the Middle East and is another title from FotoEvidence that pushes beyond the stereotypical boundaries to bring new insights.

Published by FotoEvidence

Olof Jarlbro - Refuge

One of the true pleasures of writing this blog is the opportunity to review books from around the globe. Often a publisher will write to me having discovered my work online and offer to send me a book that ordinarily I might not have seen. That was the case with Refuge by Swedish photographer Olof Jarlbro, which came to my attention quite unexpectedly.

Refuge documents those who have fled Syria and find themselves confined now to the refugee camps in Bulgaria. Why Bulgaria? Jarlbro says his choice was premised on the fact that this destination was one of the cheapest offered by smugglers.

“There were no wealthy Syrians who fled to Bulgaria. The refugees there were already economically fragile and from different minorities, that is why their stories felt important to me.”

Refuge begins with a story of Aleppo, the shattered lives of its inhabitants, as well as the shattered buildings. Jarlbro focuses on the people and their environs. In the quietness of these strong black and white images, many of which evoke thoughts of a ghost town, Jarlbro tells the story of what is lost juxtaposed against the strangeness of what has become daily life; a woman queues up to buy bread, a soldier calls to a stray cat, a man sits texting with his weapon over his shoulder, a child holds a gun in his open hand.

The second part of Refuge takes us into Bulgaria where refugees spend days, weeks, months on end faced with uncertainty. Housed in rough accommodation, the boredom and frustration is clear, but life goes on; a baby is fed, washing is hung on barren trees, tablets and mobile phones keep people connected, children sleep, mothers prepare meals, men play cards.

All images (C) Olof Jarlbro

Refuge follows Jarlbro’s book Syria: The War Within, which he shot in 2012 after entering the country illegally. He says, “During my first hours in Aleppo, we drove towards the bombs, the smoke, the frontline. Instinctively I wanted to go the opposite way – toward safety and security…I imagined war as entering the gates of Hell, but adding madness and the unthinkable to it”.

He says that experience gave him some inkling of what those fleeing were running from. But he also knew what they were leaving behind – full lives, homes, friends, family - a torment beyond understanding. Jarlbro says travelling to Bulgaria completed the picture allowing him to also document what the refugees were fleeing towards…an uncertain future, in a foreign country with little means or support, but a future that could still offer hope.

These aren’t easy photographs to look at, but then the situation isn’t easy either and in a small way through the act of looking we can connect and understand what these people face; for they are people first and foremost before the label refugee is given and here Jarlbro has given them the opportunity to be heard.

Publisher: Rough Dog Press

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