Are we ever to learn the lessons of history? Sanjay Theodore's new exhibition Crusader, as the title suggests, asks that we ponder such questions. The work Replacement Theory is key. Two letters, their texts etched into A4-sized plates of brass along with a moving image with voice-over played from a cellphone, are presented elegantly on a narrow shelf. One letter is from Gandhi to Hitler, dated 23/7/39, which puts the case for peace. Hitler's reply, dated 25/12/39 (!), cites our very own Richard Seddon who felt apparently, that "the Asiatic hordes" (including Gandhi's "Hindoos") "will push us all into the sea". Between the letters is a video of Canterbury captured from a plane, with the soundtrack a roll call of the dead from Christchurch's Mosque shooting –as recorded one year on during the Memorial to that horrible event. The young female voice is strong, dignified and unequivocal. And the work is equally powerful – a compelling echo of tragedy and death.
Sometimes it feels easier to be with stupid – as Sanjay acknowledges in the work of that title. But casting a blind eye (which one could to the found landscape annotated by Theodore in this work) risks ignorance and far worse. For many months before the Mosque shootings, the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand made repeated representations to government about the growing number of white supremacist and misogynist threats to which they felt subject in our community. However, the NZSIS ignored their evidence. Sadly, we continue to live with the consequences today.
Even in mirth there is threat. I was brought up watching Hogan's Heroes. In Fascist Death Party, the distinctive soundtrack of that television programme (which culminated with all listeners being "dismissed" by Colonel Klink), accompanies a short loop of Theodore's own profile being horse-whipped into place. The look is provocative, like the profiling of a criminal's mugshot, but with the audio it feels light-hearted. And racism can look like this too.
How do we look now at the photo (a component of the work Roast Chickens) of two youngsters playing "bang, bang" with a toy gun on the streets of Mumbai? It is, as it has always been I think, that the process of looking at art is nuanced, layered and complex. And in the same way, we must look with equal empathy at ourselves. Always.
Press release courtesy Jonathan Smart Gallery.