2002 – 2006 / chromogenice prints (some pin-pricked)
THE POLITICS OF REFUSAL / by Nandita Sharma
Writer Derrick Jensen has observed that ‘for us to maintain our way of living, we must…tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves…The lies act as barriers to truth. The barriers…are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities’. We live in a world of many ‘deplorable acts’ among constant rattle of untruths. The lies work to conceal the reality of unprecedented levels of impoverishment, displacement and ecological devastation. Perhaps the most powerful (and therefore most popular) of the lies is captured by ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s old campaign slogan that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalist ‘development’.
Many of us have come to be seduced by the lie that there exists only One way of living on this planet, only One way of imagining community and only One way of organizing our relationships with each other. And so it comes to constitute the official story of how life is. We need all-powerful leaders to ensure democracy. We need the capitalist Market for prosperity and progress. We need unending growth to ensure environmental sustainability. We need our ‘civilization’ imposed on all other forms of social organizations. We need to destroy their self-sufficiency to ensure their agreement. We need war to make peace.
Acceptance of this One account of ‘what is’ is necessary for the ongoing destruction of the Many, actually-existing and radically diverse ways that people organize their lives. As a result, ways of organizing societies that value interconnectivity rather than lines drawn in the sand, that value organic subsistence rather than capitalist expansion, and that value complex arrangements over either/or ultimatums are not seen for what they are but through a lens intent on reproducing the power of One over the Many. Acquiescence to this singular story of destruction represents the colonization of our imaginations. The idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to what we’ve been bequeathed is what, in the end, maintains the ongoing theft of people’s land and self-determination.
Gaye Chan’s photo exhibition, entitled Flagrante Delicto, partially reproduced in this program and currently showing at The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, demonstrates the power of the politics of refusal: the refusal to maintain the lies that keep us enthralled to that which keep us oppressed. Chan’s images based on found negatives from the 1940s to 1970s shot in Hawai’i unsettle our imagi(nations) by revealing the terrible menace that is the everyday operation of power. Seemingly banal events caught in family photos also expose how we continuously made deals with this horrifying and highly effective period of US imperialism. The disorientation caused by Chan’s work reveals how fragile our sensibility of ‘what really happened’ is. It potentially opens up a space to question the continued acceptance of authoritative acts of thefts. Chan’s photos re-place the official story of Hawai’i, indeed of the project of making America itself, with new accounts of the singular gaze of abusive power.
At times, Chan’s images capture ‘red handed’ the routine acts of colonizing agents, the dreary demands of the powerful, and how much is continuously taken. There can be no transcending of the colonizing acts remembered in Chan’s work through the easy seductive notions of a common humanity. Instead, we are asked to acknowledge our multiple and conflicting places within the power grid. The tragic absurdity (and even more catastrophic acceptance) of ‘the light’ that colonizers brought to Hawaiians alerts us to how continued control over Indigenous peoples relies upon reducing the radical diversity of their lives to a single, tamed otherness.
Chan therefore helps us to decolonize our imaginations. By (literally) poking holes in the false separation between the colonization of landscapes and mindscapes, she alerts us to the urgency of changing both our everyday lived realities and how we imagine these to be. By refusing the official frame, Chan challenges our current immobilization for making radical change. Her work is not that of an outsider that searches for an inside view. Rather, she demands of us the recognition that there is no longer a place that is outside of the banal operation of power. And there is no place left where the Many cannot resist the power of the One. By refusing to be incorporated into the lie of the One over the Many, Chan offers assistance to the radical project of wearing away authoritative and seemingly self-evident imaginings of ‘what happened’ and what can be.