Light in the Darkness: Transforming tragedy through creativity

An article by Andrew Paul Wood, Art and culture writer based in Te Waipounamu, that looks at the how Raising Sakinah | Finding Peace, with its roots in community, embodies an authentic and artistic process of healing for 15 March survivors.

It has become a meme, even a cliché, to be cynical about anyone espousing “thoughts and prayers” in a crisis. Yes, it can be insufficient where there is immediate material need, but to many with a spiritual dimension to their lives it is also a necessity. The official and institutional response to the events of 2019, even under exceptional circumstances, was secular society at its best, but it was limited in its understanding of the priorities of a community of faith.

Several years on, the attacks have become something else. Christchurch’s Muslim community is trying to heal and move on. The rest of Aotearoa has processed it in its own way. Yet the rest of the word has failed to absorb the lesson and instead of a symbol of hope, “Christchurch” has become an archetype of white supremacist terrorism, re-traumatising survivors. For social media activists the attack has become a separate entity from the people it affects.

The discourse around the 2019 attack has largely been driven by agendas external to the Muslim community, and for all the talk of unity risks othering them further. It centres the terrorists and not the people attacked. It creates simplified political narratives and ignores the complexity of a community not necessarily defined by ethnicity, immigration, socioeconomic status or difference. Pākehā and Māori converts were among the congregation, so they were already “us” (whatever that is really supposed to mean) even before it became the official line.

Artists are, perhaps, better attuned to the neglected abstract needs the community needs to heal. Art offers a more indirect and flexible kind of therapy that can respond more easily to the complexities and realities of a community in crisis that views events from its own perspectives. Artist and photographer Janneth Gil’s Raising Sakinah, undertaken in collaboration with a team of helpers and contributors as part of her Master of Fine Arts project at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, is a response to that need.

“Shakinah” (سكينة) is the peace and consolation of the divine presence. In 2022 Gil asked those affected by the tragic events of March 15 to participate in workshops responding to this concept, giving importance to the related ideas of peace, calm, tranquillity, tolerance, acceptance and unity within a healthy society. This was a reminder that Christchurch’s diverse Muslim community was connected to other communities and family including non-Muslims.

In these workshops participants were guided through various art processes including photography and printmaking to produce their own artworks. Time and space was provided to facilitate prayer for the participants and their privacy and spiritual needs. The artistic context allowed for a neutral and safe environment for participants to contemplate their feelings about home, community, culture and faith.

The floral tributes that amassed at Christchurch Botanic Gardens and outside Al Noor Mosque provided raw materials. The ash from the burned flowers provided black, the burned wrapping paper made grey, and even the copper florist wire provided an intense blue-green.

Participants could withdraw at any time they wished, and although the end goal was a curated public exhibition, there was no pressure on workshop participants to have their work included. All documentation was strictly by consent. This was an acknowledgement that the process and the therapeutic value was most important aspect of the experience and avoid any possible feeling of exploitation.

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