Sunday, February 04, 2007

An occupied land in Africa

To the Honduras Street Gallery off Old Street for an exhibition of Saharawi art. It's entirely forgiveable if you have no clue what this is, though you'd have to be quite etymologically-challenged not to have a decent guess.

I'll put you out of your misery - and into someone else's - and tell you what it is, via a quick geo-political tutorial. Stick with me - you'll be grateful. To your right, ladies and gentleman, is a map of north-west Africa, with the country of Western Sahara (hence Saharawi, the native inhabitants) highlit.

Morocco (to the north) took over Western Sahara in 1975 and since then has oppressed the people, dividing the entire country with a wall (the Berm) which is as long as the distance between London and Moscow and is visible from space. Imagine Palestine without the publicity.

The Saharawi, who are trapped to the east of the Berm, either live in their native land and are beset by thousands of landmines or they are stuck in refugee camps in Algeria (a mere 200,000 of them).

The problem of landmines (the perversion of homeland into hostile land) is so serious that art about the Saharawi cannot avoid confronting it. It does, though, mean that some of the pieces on display here risk being bald political statements with an aesthetic aspect, rather than art for its own sake. Simon Thorpe's portraits of Saharawi men and women almost fall into this trap: the subjects - who have all lost limbs to mines - are there to express the terror of life in Western Sahara. It's not a subtle point he is making.

However, the photos are redeemed by their undeliberate deception and their beauty. When you first look at them, you pick out the desert landscapes of graceful blues and yellows and the bright robes of the subjects, not the disability, making it more shocking when you do see it. The contrast is very telling, suitable for such an important point.

If these are rather posed, the candid photos taken by several refugees in the Algerian camps are generally anything but. The pictures of a reunion of families divided by the Berm were so genuine, shot from among the crush of people at the very moment of reconnection. These make the same point as Thorpe's photos but with much greater poignancy because of their spontaneity and lack of pose.

The show was organised by Sand Blast, which raises awareness of the Western Saharan cause through Saharawi art. This is the first part of its assault on the popular consciousness via the medium of art, with a three-day festival planned for the autumn. If it can continue to bring these voices to our attention - and if we can see them not just as victims of politics but as artists in their own right - we should be grateful.

To see examples of Saharawi work, click on the Sand Blast link above and go to Gallery.

No comments: