Criticism Now

The Morning After - Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, The Somali Peace Band and Disarm

Explore three amazing visual art exhibitions: Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, by the award-winning American photographer, The Somali Peace Band, a remarkable chronicle of a musical collaboration that reaches across the Indian Ocean, presented by Australian artist Royce Ng, and Disarm, Pedro Reyes’ uplifting vision of a world free from weapons and full of music.

Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald

For more than forty years, Wendy Ewald has been making art with children, families and teachers in countries across the world, from the US and Colombia to India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia. Both artist and educator, Ewald embraces the principles of experiential learning. Using pictures to teach children and teaching children to take pictures, she combines their astonishing images with her own, and adds their rich, colourful and often poignant stories of coming to terms with situations of social conflict and rapid change.

Melbourne Festival is thrilled to present Ewald’s work in Australia for the very first time with an extensive photographic survey that spans four decades and four continents. In this remarkable and utterly unique body of work, we see how Ewald has learned to recognise what other people see, the questions their visions ask of the world and, finally, how to allow their perceptions to surface with her own.

The Somali Peace Band

Australian artist Royce Ng presents a remarkable chronicle of a musical collaboration that reaches across the Indian Ocean, bridging continents and cultures.

The Somali Peace Band was a music group forged in adversity. Formed in Kenya by Somali refugees, it enjoyed brief success until the band’s founder Abdi Mohammed Abdi was accepted by Australia’s refugee program. The other band members remained behind in Nairobi, where they live in constant fear of reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists while awaiting the outcome of their applications for asylum in Australia.

Somali Peace Band is an immersive three-channel video installation of footage shot by artist Royce Ng, captured during his sojourn to Kenya as he tracks down Abdi’s former bandmates to begin work on a new Somali Peace Band album – one recorded and produced both in Nairobi and Australia.

Timely and poignant, Ng’s work captures the precarious dislocation of asylum seekers, and provides a window onto a rich Somali culture enduring beyond the conflicts that have devastated their nation.

Disarm

Forging tools of death into instruments of life, Pedro Reyes provides an uplifting vision of a world free from weapons and full of music.

Disarm is Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’s socio-political critique on contemporary society and our responsibility towards it. Using parts from thousands of weapons confiscated by the Mexican government, Reyes has worked with local artisans to create an ensemble of 47 ingenious instruments – electric guitars fashioned from assault weapons, drum sets from pistols, flutes from shotguns, a harmonica carved from a handgun. Disarm is an inspired model of symbolic transformation, and a bold declaration: make art not war!

But Reyes’s creations are much more than art objects: each is a unique, functioning musical instrument, and Melbourne Festival has invited the city’s most diverse and talented musicians to improvise with them in the NGV’s Federation Court as part of the Disarm exhibition.

The Morning After: Making Models, Somali Peace Band and Disarm. Our post-mortem discussion panel featured perspectives from writers Chloe Hooper and Amanda Lohrey, critic Dylan Rainforth and host Simon Abrahams. (The audience may have included a Festival director or curator, or so…)

Excerpt from the three channel video installation, ‘Somali Peace Band’, by Royce Ng.

Somali Peace Band (excerpt)

Somali Peace Band (excerpt) from Royce on Vimeo.

Pedro Reyes' Disarm, profiled by The Creators Project

Turning Weapons Into Instruments | Pedro Reyes 'Disarm'

Melbourne musicians perform with instruments from Pedro Reyes' Disarm project at the National Gallery of Victoria, October 2013.

Pedro Reyes - Disarm

Responses

Chloe Hooper on Three Visual Art Exhibitions

By Chloe Hooper

How often do you hold a gun to your mouth to make music? There’s a dark humour running through the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes’ Disarm. Using a haul of assault weapons confiscated by the Mexican government, he has worked with music craftsmen to fashion 47 different instruments, including a pan flute welded out of various shotgun barrels: to play a tune on a gun’s muzzle, just put the cold steel to your mouth and blow.

For the duration of the Melbourne Festival, Reyes’ various instruments lay on trestle tables in the foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria like the excavated remnants of some post-apocalyptic band. Three different musical groups gave concerts using the collection, including Reyes’ xylophone of shotgun barrels; his guitars, with triggers replicating the usual curving wooden body; pistols for drumsticks; and a harmonica carved from a handgun. (In an earlier work, Imagine, Reyes also mechanised his instruments to play the John Lennon anthem — picture a band of ghosts performing — but I would have liked to have been at the concert, viewable on YouTube, of live musicians using these converted instruments to play Rage Against the Machine’s Bullet In Your Head.)

Although the exhibition’s political message obviously has different resonances outside its North American context, in this country it’s a nice subversion of our own recent political glorification of war. At a moment when war memorials seem set once again to be made ideological battlegrounds, Reyes’ brutal dismantling, melting, smelting, welding and recasting turns the accoutrements of war not only into instruments but also absurdist folk art; revealing the latent kitsch of such glamorised and sentimentalised objects.

Guns appear in a number of pictures in the Centre For Contemporary Photography’s Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald, which is hardly surprising given Ewald’s project over the last 40-plus years has been to capture the inner lives of children, their hopes and their fears.

In Christian Alberto Lopez Medina’s A Man Killing his Enemy (created during Ewald’s time working with the Tzotil Indians in Chiapas, Mexico in 1991), there are two children: one, wearing a grotesque mask of a man’s face, holds a gun while another falls theatrically to the ground. Catharine Berry’s My Brother, with the guns from Johannesburg in 1992, shows a boy at night squatting down holding toy guns in imaginary mid-battle; and Sandro Synehof, a refugee in the Netherlands in 1996, has produced You won’t live anymore, a portrait of a wide-eyed boy (possibly Synehof himself) holding a pistol, his fingers on the trigger. The gun is pointed straight at the viewer.

Ewald mines a rich vein. The photographer positions herself as an advocate for and educator of children, immersing herself in their communities and producing work with and alongside them. The resulting pictures are part art, part documentary and part juvenilia.

Ewald sees herself working in the tradition of Walker Evans and James Agee — combining activism with a narrative element — but, walking through the gallery, the photographer who came to mind was Diane Arbus. The more Ewald’s voyeurism is disguised, the more pronounced it starts to feel. Although many of these photographs are fascinating and revealing, around each new corner seemed to be more marginalised children from the slums of India, or the Middle East, and it was hard not to feel disquieted by her attraction to the exotic — and by the power dynamics inherent in her art practise.

An interesting counterpoint to Ewald is the avowedly anthropological work of the Chinese-Australian artist Royce Ng. At Gertrude Street Gallery, past a shop front of explication, one enters a dark tent-like space, and, when one’s eyes adjust, finds cushions on the Persian carpeted floor, and three channels of video installation. This is the Somalia Peace Band project, born from a meeting between Ng and the Somalian musician Abdi Mohamed Abdi. Abdi escaped his homeland’s civil war and subsequently spent 16 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where alongside the younger musician Daacad Rashid, he formed The Somali Peace Band. Ng learned Abdi’s bandmate was still living in Nairobi awaiting asylum in Australia. He travelled there with recording equipment and met in secret with Rashid — who could have faced persecution for cooperating — so as to record him singing and telling his story.

Ng had hoped to get the band back together — subverting the flow of government money used to keep refugees out of Australia by inviting one of them to the Melbourne Festival — but immigration lawyers suggested Rashid’s participation could have jeopardised his chances of being granted protection. Instead the only way these two men can now play together is virtually, and Ng has animated a series of scenes in which the two men appear, and Rashid’s haunting melodies play over the installation. The extent to which the exhibition ‘works’ very much depends on how far you’re prepared to engage with this story. (Strikingly, if one saw these Festival shows together, DISARM, back at the NGV, takes on added resonance as one considers these men fleeing a brutal civil war.)

In Gertrude Street’s gallery notes, it is declared: ‘The Somali Peace Band project questions the limits of activism and advocacy within the context of art.’ All three of the creators of these exhibitions are making politically charged work, advocating in turn for gun control, children’s rights, and the humanitarian treatment of asylum seekers. One might say the limits of art activism in the early 21st century are disappointingly obvious, yet that rather misses the point. Isn’t an artist’s role to explore, and reflect back in surprising, even anarchic ways, the issues of our day? What’s wrong with preaching to the converted? Don’t we sometimes need instruction too?

Shane Maloney on Three Visual Arts Exhibitions

By Shane Maloney

Thirty-odd years ago, there was a phenomenon called Community Arts. Its underlying principle was the idea of artists working in collaboration with grass-roots organisations – everything from migrant welfare groups to public housing residents’ associations – to produce work which reflected and responded to the situation of a specific community.

In general, the ‘real’ art world turned its nose up at the idea, regarding it as an exercise in paint-by-numbers murals and primary-school lantern parades. The fact that it operated outside the market only served to confirm this view. Before long, it was back to the easel and the singular vision. Yet, lo and behold, the ghost of community arts has slipped into the Visual Arts component of the Melbourne Festival, albeit in mufti.

The Somali Peace Band at Gertrude Contemporary is not actually a band. Describing itself as ‘an immersive three-channel video installation’, it consists of a darkened room with cushions on the floor, some screens on the wall showing a loop of blurry footage of the musician Abdi Mohammed Abdi, a ‘traditional’ double bed and some Somali government magazines from the 1970s, a period of lost promise when the country was ruled by the modernising dictator Siad Barre.

The actual Somali Peace Band was originally formed in a refugee camp in Kenya. Its founder now lives in Melbourne and his story is a moving and uplifting affirmation of the power of music. Over the course of the festival, the exhibition anchored a range of Somali community events involving food, poetry and beat-making. I hope they got their shilling’s worth. While I applaud the worthiness of intention, all I could see was a scattered collection of bits and bobs unsuccessfully glued together with a lot of curator-speak about exploring the context of social agency.
Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald at the Centre for Contemporary Photography displays 40 years of the work of somebody who has never had a problem reconciling the idea of community collaboration with the singular vision of the artist. From Labrador to Saudi Arabia, Gujarat to Appalachia, she has drawn children and families into the process of making images of themselves in ways that eliminate, or at least confuse, the boundary between subject and photographer. Some of the pictures are chaotic, candid and personal, like a forgotten collection of family photos found in a shoe box under the bed. Others are poignant and unforgettable, such as the portraits of two Indian children who talk about their lives while staring at the lens.

It’s an engaging show but necessarily low-key. Not much bang for a festival event.

There’s not much bang in Disarm (Pedro Reyes) at the NGV, either, considering the amount of firepower involved. Using parts from confiscated weapons, the Mexican artist has constructed 47 instruments - gun-barrel flutes, guitars made of assault rifle magazines, pistols wrought into a harmonica and so forth. On four occasions during the festival, music of sorts was extracted from these ugly objects by various ensembles of musicians. The rest of the time, they sat in the foyer behind a barrier, patrolled to make sure that nobody touched them. Because you must never touch art - even if it consists of the smashed-up carcase of what used to be a revolver attached by steel cable to a plastic bucket.

There were also a couple of screens showing footage of the federales driving a tank over huge piles of weaponry, then crushing, grinding, welding and chopping the remnants into the raw material that were then sculpted into the simulacra of musical instruments.

The message here was the old familiar swords into ploughshares, jacked up into a ‘bold declaration’: make art not war. It was a declaration visitors to the NGV were expected to absorb in reverent silence. Reyes’ instruments are not pretty and not very useful and to feel their lump ugliness in your hand is an argument in itself. Forbidding the public to handle them wasted an opportunity. Too much risk of noise, I expect. Noise has no place in art galleries. It belongs in libraries.

‘Dreamplay at Work’: Malcolm Knox on Three Visual Art Exhibitions

By Malcolm Knox

My experience with visual art is mercurial. Sometimes a meeting of mood, receptivity and the artwork create the unforgettable lightning strike. But it has the quality of an accident; it can’t be forced. Pedro Reyes’s Disarm, in the naturally lit entrance atrium of the NGV, is a simple idea. Swords were once beaten into ploughshares; Reyes has beaten firearms confiscated from the Mexican drug wars into musical instruments. We do not see the instruments played, and to a degree that is unnecessary. The point is made, for instance, by a brace of six revolvers welded together to make a pan pipe, the player’s mouth fitting over the ends of the barrels. It is confronting and true and easily recounted, but for me as a work of art it has a single dimension, strong but not complex.

More affecting is Wendy Ewald’s first survey show, after a 40-year career, at the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Ewald decided decades ago to put the camera in her subjects’ hands. The theory behind the idea is straightforward, but the practice, as anyone knows who has done that wedding exercise of putting an instamatic on every table, is often an anticlimax. How Ewald managed to gain the trust of her subjects in Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Israel, India, South Africa and the Netherlands is a project at the intersection of art and journalism. Her success is there in black and white.

I was moved by the photographs. Some of these were places I had been before, but not really: skating by shanty-towns, saddened by their exterior squalor, but quickly on my way. Ewald’s commitment has peeled back the walls to reveal not only the interiors of her subjects’ homes but the interiors of their minds, with a repeated motif that of children photographing each other at play, making believe, representing their dreams and nightmares. They are not ‘subjects’ anyway, when it is they who are taking the photos, choosing them with Ewald, and even in some cases being allowed to play with the negatives, scratching their black skins white and inking their white skins black. There is a powerful dreamplay at work, but also a melancholy. What happened to these child-photographers later? How do they remember their photographs now? Where has life led them? They have, in some way, vanished back into their existences. The insertion of text into some of the pieces, through storytelling and simple accounts of daily life, deepens this feeling of a humanity captured by photography but not imprisoned by it.

The ongoing drama of the life of refugees is the meat in the Somali Peace Band, an installation by Royce Ng about the Somali musicians Abdi Mohammed Abdi and Daacad Rashid. The band was formed while they lived in a Kenyan refugee camp. Abdi now lives in Melbourne while Daacad remains an applicant for asylum. In the absence of a real reunited band we have a simulacrum, a mix of video and animation projected onto three screens in a room darkened and pillowed-out to resemble a desert tent. The absence of living musicians, and to some extent the absence of music itself, leaves the viewer hollow, which I assume is the point of it.

Amanda Lohrey on Three Visual Art Exhibitions

By Amanda Lohrey

Disarm. Pedro Reyes (Mexico)

NGV, Federation Court: weapons confiscated from Mexican drug cartels are smashed up by the Mexican Army and made available to an artist who fashions them into musical instruments.

My response to this exhibition was one of indifference. I walked into the Federation Court area and saw a jumble of ugly objects on a circular table that resembled one of those stalls at a market where old men sell second-hand tools. After I had spent 45 minutes looking at the weapons-become-musical instruments I decided that there was a problem with the context of this exhibition. First of all, its presiding idea is a one-minute wonder: it would be a better world if weapons were turned into musical instruments. The impact of this idea depends not on its inherent complexity or originality but on its relationship to its environment, which is where context comes in. Unlike Australia, Mexico has a violent gun culture; since 2006, there have been 60,000 deaths as a result of its drug wars. But there’s a deeper context than this; historically its culture has been influenced by a meld of Mesoamerican influences with Spanish Catholicism, both of which share a common preoccupation with themes of blood and death and a rich iconography of same. I imagine, then, that for most Mexicans this exhibition would have a resonant meaning and a visual impact that it lacked for me. Would I have felt differently if I had been able to hear one of the scheduled performances in which local musicians played these instruments? Perhaps. It might also have helped if Reyes’ work had been given its own room along with the explanatory videos that were so easy to miss (many people did).

These works have been described as bricolage (the use of discarded materials) and I think that bricolage demands more context than most artworks. Think of Australian artist Rosalie Gascoigne, who collected much of her raw material from rubbish tips. Her assemblages of rusted wood, old lino, chipped enamel-ware, traffic signs, etc have a special resonance for the Australian observer, so evocative are they are of our landscape, fused with elements of worn domesticity of a peculiarly Australian character. Hers is an Australian version of the Japanese wabi sabi aesthetic, but would it have the same resonance for a Mexican observer? One could argue that Reyes’ perspective is a pacifist one that transcends cultural boundaries, that it challenges us to see that technology is merely a tool, that it has no necessary function and that anything can be transformed into something else. We need not be the captives of any form or function. I find this a legitimate argument but still think there is a differential involved here. If you live in a society where the individual is likely to go home every night to a house with a shotgun in the cupboard and a pistol under the pillow (see North America) then Reyes’ work is likely to have more of a charge for you than it had for me.

Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald

Centre for Contemporary Photography, Fitzroy

In this exhibition the US photographer and educator, Wendy Ewald exhibits a number of photographs, taken by her and by children she has lived among and worked with in several places, including Gujerat, Kentucky, Colombia and Israel.

Once again I had a problem with context. In purely aesthetic terms the photos struck me as unexceptional. In addition, they are exhibited with minimal explanation. If I knew the children and could interpret their pics and their response to Ewald’s project within their own cultural context I would have been more engaged. Without that context I found them no more or less interesting than an album of family snaps belonging to a family I’ve never met, though some had interest as mere exotica. This was my first, my visual response, but I pressed on with exploring whatever context was available to me.

Claims are made on various websites for Ewald’s project as ‘literacy through photography’ but the terms are invariably woolly. Here is an extract from the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University. Literacy Through Photography Blog: “Ewald herself often makes photographs within the communities she works with and has the children mark or write on her negatives, thereby challenging the concept of who actually makes the image, who is the photographer, who the subject, who is the observer and who the observed. In blurring the distinction of individual authorship and throwing into doubt the artist’s intentions, power and identity, Ewald creates opportunities to look at the meaning and use of photographic images in our lives with fresh perceptions.” This struck me as a statement of intention, not of accomplishment, at least not on the basis of what I saw at the CCP. What I saw there was a fairly random display of mostly small, mostly black and white snaps that had little coherence and, in artistic terms, suffered from a documentary obviousness. A news photographer from an agency could have taken more interesting photographs of the same subjects. I could see little sign of a method of teaching ‘visual literacy’, i.e. the ability to code and decode visual languages. As for the assertion that allowing children to scratch Ewald’s negatives is a form of co-authorship, this is precious in the extreme.

Wikipedia says of Ewald: ‘Her work is directed toward “helping children to see”. What does this mean in real terms? How does giving a child a camera empower that child? In her books, Ewald talks of the importance of ‘positive visual stimulation’ for children and I can see how that might be valid. Working with a child on how to frame or crop a shot in order to capture meaning is obviously going to involve a major exercise in conceptualisation and aesthetic judgement but there was no indication within the exhibition that those processes had taken place. Why not display several versions of the one shot, accompanied by an account of any discussion Ewald might have had with the children on what criteria they/she used to make a final selection?

Some of Ewald’s books are available at the gallery. I read several pages of I Wanna Take Me a Picture, Teaching Photography and Writing to Children, co-authored by Alexandra Lightfoot, and was intrigued by the exercise Ewald suggests of asking children to photograph their dreams, presumably in order to encourage them to imagine and represent another dimension of the real other than that of literal surfaces. It’s a terrific idea but which of the photographs on display relate to this request? I looked around. I couldn’t tell. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to have grouped these, both by subject matter (dreams) and by culture? How do Gujerati children differ from Colombian children in their dreams, or at least in the images they produce in response to Ewald’s prompt? The answers are potentially fascinating but you won’t find them here.

On the noticeboard at the gallery a talk is advertised: ‘Everybody is an Artist: Photography and Selfhood in the work of Wendy Ewald’. There is no meditation on ‘selfhood’ in this exhibition; it’s too random.

It seemed to me that the discourse that surrounds Ewald, online and off, is full of an official piety in relation to the claims it makes for having educational value and for developing an egalitarian practice in which Ewald and her subjects allegedly reverse roles, or use the camera on a level playing field. Within this discourse the words ‘community’ and ‘collaboration’ become mantras that through sheer repetition are meant to acquire power and convince the onlooker. It’s all about good intentions that we are expected to accept at face value.

Somali Peace Band

Gertrude Contemporary in partnership with Nadia Faragaab of the Somali cultural organization Burji Arts.

In Sydney in the later 80s and early 90s you could enjoy Carnivale, an annual festival that featured arts events drawn from Australia’s recent and not so recent immigrant cultures. Since then the view has prevailed, rightly, that such events should be integrated into mainstream arts festivals. The constellation of community events around the theme of the Somali Peace Band is a case in point.

The founder of the band, Abdi Mohammed Abdi, was given asylum in Australia after 16 years of living in a Kenyan refugee camp. The rest of the band live in Nairobi where they are in danger of persecution and the original idea behind this exhibition was to invite its lead singer Daacad Rashid to Australia for the Melbourne Arts Festival. Unhappily, the festival organisers were given legal advice to the effect that Rashid would constitute a flight risk and since then his application for asylum in Australia has been rejected by the Department of Immigration. Undaunted, the Gertrude Gallery has mounted a series of events in concert with Melbourne’s Somali community, including a dance night and poetry reading, along with the current exhibition of Chinese Australian artist Royce Ng’s video installation, an impressionistic work that attempts to capture the poetry of the Peace Band in its original cultural context.

A number of questions are raised by this exhibition, not least whether there should be a special category of asylum for individuals like Rashid who occupy a significant place as artists within their own culture. It’s not about privileging the persecution of the artist over the sufferings of others, but about the role that individual might play in boosting the morale of immigrant communities already established here, as well as the contribution he or she might make to the cultural richness of the wider Australian community.

Reviews

Disarm (Pedro Reyes): Disarming. #melbfest

At the Melbourne Festival, Pedro Reyes' Disarm finds a better use for weapons - instruments that make music. At NGV pic.twitter.com/jhL1Tnf551

Mexican-born artist Pedro Reyes’ latest installation, Disarm, is as endearing and whimsical as it is stark and scary.

Is it she, the photographer, or her students who are altering the negatives and creating something new? We have to ask ourselves, who is the artist and who is the subject?

This is precisely why this current Australian Premiere of her work is titled Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald; it is collaboration at it’s most meaningful level.

The event was called “DisArm,” for reasons that soon became obvious … As you might expect, the “music” produced on the ingenious instruments was anything but harmonious. It was loud, cacophonous and disturbing, like the lethal impact of the weapons themselves.

I like free art things. Just heard Wendy Ewald talk about her work at CCP as part of @MelbFestival. Many thoughts.

Amazing exhibition … musical instruments made out of weapons confiscated in Mexico. Here’s one: ow.ly/i/3pqSU #melbfest #Disarm

There are two portraits on the far wall at CCP by Wendy Ewald with stories that will break your heart & put it back together. #melbfest

My best mate from my primary school days is presenting at the Melbourne Festival. Well worth checking out: melbournefestival.com.au…

Love love love this, showing at the NGV, must see! fb.me/2ERQpo9fW

Somali peace band, inspiring story and work, drop by #gertrudecontemporary #melbfest

Loved it! RT @CCP_Australia: Our Wendy Ewald exhibition features in @GuardianAus‘ top ten @melbournefestival picks! theguardian.com…

Few artists have been as selfless as Wendy Ewald. Her photographic practice is about people other than herself: not just other people as subject matter but other people as photographer. Instead of taking images of other people, she helps other people take images of themselves.

#wendyewald at #melbfest is not to be missed, amazing photos representing voices that would never have a chance to be heard at #ccp

Such a pleasure to perform on @_pedroreyes instruments for his exhib Disarm part of @MelbFestival @phjk @Max_Delany pic.twitter.com…

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