Highlighting the injustices experienced by the Banaban diaspora, and New Zealand’s role in their creation.
On March 2, an art exhibition, performance, and market was held at Silo 6, as part of the exhibition, Justice for Rabi: The Story of Banaba. Several actors came together to design and create the exhibition, including the Banaban Women’s Organisation (BWO), the International Centre for Advocates Against Discrimination (ICAAD), as well as the Banaban community in Auckland and Fiji’s Rabi island.
The exhibition explores the history of the forced displacement of Banabans from Banaba Island to Rabi Island, a result of phosphate mining in the mid 20th century, which affected 90% of the landscape. New Zealand has a prominent role in these activities, which to this day have left Banabans in a precarious state. Under British rule, Colonial New Zealand was able to advance through phosphate mining on Banaba Island as the precious mineral kickstarted the New Zealand agricultural industry, and it continues to benefit from those activities today. Phosphate holds a quarter of the nutrients needed for the growth and development of plants. It is considered an essential component to fertilisers. Consequently, Banabans located on Rabi Island are in an insecure space that is partially self-governing, while also being under the jurisdictions of Fiji and Kiribati.
The exhibition features works from Banaban storytellers and artists from Rabi Island and Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland. It includes intergenerational handicrafts and other commissioned works by the Banaban Women’s Organisation, allowing women to assume their significant roles in maintaining and transmitting traditional customs. Justice for Rabi: The Story of Banaba highlights a history that is little-known in Aotearoa New Zealand. The actions of colonial New Zealand brought consequences for both the New Zealand economy and the Banaban community. However, actions that were beneficial were only experienced by the former.
The exhibition uses art and storytelling to shine a light on the stories of the Banaban diaspora. Through art and storytelling, the capacity to build connections across borders and cultures is strengthened. Thus, the exhibition was designed to raise awareness and to build solidarity. There is also significance in Silo 6 being chosen as the site of the exhibition. The six silos, which are located on reclaimed land in Wynyard Quarter, represent New Zealand’s industrialisation and extractive industries in both a metaphorical and physical sense. Core organisers of the exhibition, ICAAD’s director and change facilitator, Erin Thomas, and ICAAD’s artivist, Katja Phutaraksa Neef, express that “walking through [the exhibition] evokes a walk through time, with old and new stories from Rabi and the Banaban juxtaposed side-by-side”.
When I arrived on site people were not gathered in distinctive groups, but rather sharing the space, creating a warm sense of community. I wandered through the silos, taking my time to gain an understanding of the story of the Banabans. Photography, both historical and contemporary, portrayed emotion and the history of a peoples displaced because of land theft.
Each silo had a variety of photography, historical newspapers, oil paintings, handcrafts, traditional dress, and installations, including a tent and a large mat art piece which had been hoisted in the air of one of the silos. Just like how I felt, I could tell that the patrons were captivated by the beauty of the exhibition, while also being dismayed when learning about the experiences of the Banaban people caused by the British Phosphate Company and other colonial practices, such as forced migration.
When the time came for the event to properly take place, the crowd congregated outside Silo 6, where there were benches set up, as well as tables with kai that was already being enjoyed by many. The visitors of the exhibition were welcomed by Banaban elders. Following this, Banaban youth leaders, Tatu Touakin and Mikari Rusana Joanna, spoke about their experiences of growing up in a displaced community. They shared narratives of connection to land through cultural practices and worldview, and how this was shattered by the British. Elders who had passed on and were buried on Banaba Island were mined along with the phosphate, which was then exported to New Zealand for its use in the agricultural sector. This uprooted not only the resting place of those who passed on, but also displaced them. Youth leader Mikari shared that Banabans who relocated to Rabi through forced migration were disconnected to their elders, and this disconnection to the land resulted in issues of identity and cultural belonging.
Rae Bainteiti, a local change maker on Rabi, shared with ICAAD’s director and change facilitator, through a virtual discussion, that “[t]his exhibit not only highlights what went wrong with the Banaban story of displacement, but more important how policymakers, legislators, politicians, and advocates can use the story of my people to craft future policies and laws that actually work for climate-induced displaced communities of the future”. Justice for Rabi: The Story of Banaba can be described as a step in the right direction in terms of highlighting New Zealand’s role in the Pacific region, which has left Banabans with persistent challenges in protecting their human rights, and a deep experience of grief and loss. Following the youth leaders sharing their experience Golriz Ghahraman, an MP for the Green Party, shared some words. Relating to the experiences of the Banabans, Ghahraman shared her journey as a refugee who experienced an identity crisis, while navigating new cultural and environmental contexts.
The Banaban dancers then put on a performance that portrayed the story of their people. The performance had never been performed elsewhere, and it was choreographed for the exhibition in particular. For the most part of an hour, the Banaban dancers exerted energy to share with the audience a non-verbal showcase, which had not been put on display in Aotearoa New Zealand. The dancers became storytellers, using their bodies as a means of communication.
The exhibition coincides with the release of a policy brief by ICAAD, who have been working with the Banaban community and advocating for them in Fiji and Kiribati. The policy brief calls for integrity in the face of environmental and historical injustice. In particular, the brief recommends that governments involved in the displacement of Banabans be held accountable, pay reparations in the form of loss and damage funds, while also providing Banabans with citizenship of the nation states they reside in.
The exhibition was an eye-opening experience, where stories of displacement and resilience were shown through performance, photography, and other creative arts. It was hopeful to see communities come together to highlight a story, which until then, had a veil drawn over it. Through media recognition that the exhibition received, as well as the acknowledgement by members of parliament, the story of Banabans, and their experiences of injustice may be further brought to light.