Auckland gallery under scrutiny for ‘People of Colour’ exhibition

By Jessica Tyson

Auckland gallery Mercy Pictures is under fire for not apologising for a recent exhibition featuring neo-Nazi flags alongside Māori flags.

The People of Colour exhibition, which closed on November 7, was comprised of over 400 flags, symbols and logos from around the world and different political spheres.  

An open letter condemning the exhibition, written by Quishile Charan, Jasmin Singh and Anevili, has been circulating online, calling for the gallery facilitators to apologise.

In a statement to Te Ao, the writers said, “as people who face direct and continuous harm by white supremacy, ignoring this exhibition is not an option ... We also recognise the disrespectful and malicious intent of those who would position such hateful imagery next to Māori flags and symbols for tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. These treasured flags were displayed alongside white supremacist, colonial and fascist symbols - symbols that have been weaponised against Indigenous and oppressed peoples across the world.”

Charan, Singh and Anevili said the art also included the Rising Sun flag which has been critiqued by communities in Southeast Asia as a symbol of Japan’s historic imperialism.

“It included the neo-Nazi Black Sun symbol which was emblazoned on the Christchurch shooter's rucksack as he was committing acts of terrorism last year,” Charan, Singh and Anevili said.

Image/Supplied

The intention of the exhibition

The people responsible for the show are the directors of Mercy Pictures, Teghan Burt, Jerome Ngan-Kee and Jonny Prasad.

Burt and Prasad said in a statement to Te Ao, “Mercy Pictures believes extremist movements of any kind are malevolent and evil. We oppose these kinds of groups vigorously, not least because they put the lives of the people we love at risk. Mercy Pictures and the wider Mercy Pictures family is predominantly made up of queer people and people of colour. As such, any suggestion that we are alt-right, neo-Nazi, queerphobes, homophobes, xenophobes, and white-supremacists is offensive and untrue." 

They said their intention for the exhibition was to explore the dangers of political and tribal identities.

“This is an ongoing and dynamic conversation we wish to be a part of and in some way foster. We were asking questions like ‘What does it mean to identify with a flag?’ and ‘What are we to do when a flag means different things to different people?”

But Charan, Singh and Anevili don’t accept their justification.

“We hold the stance that freedom of speech and provocation are not the same as intentionally encouraging, endorsing and taking part in white supremacy and racial violence. To unabashedly display symbols which have been used in state violence and genocide and continue to be used by terrorists, mass murderers, fascists, white supremacists, anti-semites, homophobes, and transphobes, goes further than provocation. It says to the viewers that this violence is okay and tolerable.”

People of Colour exhibition / Source: Mercy Pictures

Harmful and distasteful

Charan, Singh and Anevili described the exhibition as “harmful and distasteful.”

“There is nothing provocative or artistic about the show - it is intentional violence. By positioning flags and symbols of liberation next to those of oppression, it undermines and diminishes the struggles and movements of Indigenous and oppressed peoples, while also attempting to re-package hateful rhetoric.”

The open letter by Charan, Singh and Anevili includes a list of demands, including three by the Anti Fascist Action and five additional demands. 

The demands include a Request for Mercy Pictures to apologise to Ngāi Tūhoe and tangata whenua for displaying their flags without permission.

"This can only be read as an act of disrespect. Tangata whenua are still actively fighting against state violence and these flags are a symbol of that," the open letter says.

People of Colour exhibition / Source: Mercy Pictures

No apology from Mercy Pictures

The statement from Mercy Pictures did not include an apology from the gallery facilitators.   

"They have stood by their exhibition and do not show any remorse for the harm that they have caused and their support of fascism and white supremacy,” Charan, Singh and Anevili said.

 Jerome Ngan-Kee did make a personal apology in a post on the Mercy Pictures Instagram post but it was removed almost immediately.

In the post, Ngan-Kee wrote, “I would like to sincerely apologise for the harm and re-traumatisation bought about the exhibition I played a part in putting together through my position as co-facilitator at Mercy Pictures.

“Even though the exhibition has now ended I deeply regret the way Mercy Pictures has responded to criticism and the pain that this show has bought about. It was irresponsible of me to assume these symbols and our action in displaying could deny their meanings and histories to extended communities.”

Despite not making a formal apology, Mercy Pictures facilitators say they are in the process of reaching out to groups that may have been affected by the exhibition.

“We believe that art has an integral part to play in the maintenance of a free, peaceful, and loving society, and we look forward to engaging in discussions with people and groups who have common objectives.”