Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of New Zealand

"With privilege comes great responsibility." Tracey Barnett speaks about her drive to tell refugee stories ahead of the upcoming exhibition Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of New Zealand

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“With privilege comes responsibility” is the mantra by which journalist Tracey Barnett steers her life. Moved beyond her professional capacity as a journalist when reporting about refugees from the Thai-Burma border, she has become a huge advocate for changing the narrative around how we portray former refugees who have settled in New Zealand. Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of New Zealand is 10-day refugee ‘talking space’ at The New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington that includes an arresting collection of two meter tall portraits by photographer Alistair Guthrie, with a host of speakers, young refugee voices and even a ‘Human Library’.

“If you are lucky, very lucky, there are moments in your life when your reporting allows you just a few snatches of a kind of strange grace.” says Tracey when describing the personal journey that has cemented her commitment to working alongside refugees. “I remember losing it professionally during an interview with a Burmese man in his 20’s. He told me the story of being tortured as a 12-year-old. His crime? Handing out leaflets. It isn’t the narrative of pain that moves you most. It is the contrast when you hold up your life to his that changes you. It allows you to see-- just for a short moment--your utter riches, the almost obscene amount of choices in your own life. The one small thing I can do as a journalist is to help tell these stories.”

Transplanted is an exhibition that offers a different perspective on how we portray refugees. The two metre high portraits taken by Alistair Guthrie bring these individuals so close that one cannot help but engage with the stories that are written into their faces and life portrayed through their gaze. “There is something quite arresting when you see a face many times larger than your own looking back at you,” Tracey explains. “You see the pores of the skin, the shine on their irises, you feel the expression of the sittee with an intimacy that connects you.” The combination of the portraits sitting alongside events that offer opportunities for visitors to listen to and meet former refugees and experts in the field provides a wider lens on the individuals involved acknowledging the life that exists before and after becoming a refugee.

This perspective comes at a direct challenge to the way that refugees continue to be portrayed in the media where the standard narrative is to tell the story as if time has stopped for those who have fled their countries. “Yes, these stories are humbling and sometimes extraordinary,” explains Tracey, “but what the media doesn’t show is the regenerated life; the kindergarten kid in her first school uniform, the law student, the carpenter, or marketing manager, or pharmacist—all now Kiwis who once wore a different label.”

“Prejudices, even misinformation, runs deep. But if we are lucky enough to even have begun to melt away a label-- that’s my idea of an important step in the right direction.”

Considering the word ‘refugee’ for a moment, Tracey believes that it is best defined as a transitive verb than a noun. When applied as a noun, ‘refugee’ becomes a label which someone wears for the rest of their life that is heavily laden with the connotations, prejudices and fear that are inherently connected to the conflicts within their home nations. Applied as a transitive verb, the word instead indicates a period of time in someone’s life - yes, irrevocably life-changing - but a chapter that has a beginning and an end. It honours the fullness of life that exists before having to flee from violence, and after resettlement when life is rebuilt.

“Wouldn’t it be effective if every time someone wrote an op-ed column about refugees the page editor didn’t put a photo of refugees running from bombs, but put an image of a resettled and contributing new Kiwi instead?” asks Tracey. “We don’t have the image in our head of a doctor scrubbing up for surgery, or an executive negotiating a contract at a boardroom table, or a landscaper, or teacher—but any of these scenarios are the reality for some former refugees in New Zealand too.”

The common narrative of the refugee stems from both a sensationalism on the part of the media and a political tool on the part of governments. There is no doubting that the plight of the refugee is heartbreakingly caught up in the larger political agendas at play on the global scale. Often, it is unhelpful for governments to portray the positive social, cultural and financial benefits of refugees when that sits at odds with current government policy. This is particularly marked in the United States and Australia, but New Zealand plays its part.

“New Zealand has chosen to remain quiet about the modern-day gulags Australia has created in our own backyard. Our silence has become complicity.  It continues to this day.”

Like many others who are committed to supporting the plight of refugees, Tracey challenges the New Zealand government to do more when it comes to the global refugee crisis. Per capita, New Zealand is ranked 95th worst in the world for the total number of refugees and asylum seekers that we open our doors. Measure that by our GDP and we slide to 121st worst in the world. When you couple that with our silence around the brutal Australian refugee policies and their treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Islands, we quickly stop looking like the hospitable and fair little country at the bottom of the South Pacific.

It is a little known fact that 45% of those who arrive as part of New Zealand’s refugee quota come here as children. They have their whole lives ahead of them. “They become Kiwis in every sense of the word. John Key and Nicky Hager were both children of a former refugee. Vogel’s bread was brought to us by a former refugee.  Refugees enrich us, both financially and culturally, but that’s never a narrative we get to see--especially if it doesn’t fit into a government’s politics.”

Throughout the 10 days of the exhibition there are many opportunities to expand this narrative. Young refugee voices make up a significant part of the event offering insight into their perspectives and stories. There will also be a Human Library where visitors can sit down with former refugees, ask questions, learn and connect. These Tracey believes are the most important offerings she can make. “There is nothing I can say or do that compares with two or three people just sitting down in chairs across from each other and simply talking together.  There is a personal connection that happens when they exchange views, share stories, or laugh about their first taste of Vegemite, or trying to figure out a rugby scrum.” 

Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of New Zealand runs from October 28 - November 5th at the New Zealand Portrat Gallery, 11 Customhouse Quay.

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

25 Oct 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.

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