For a long time – in the days when we used film cameras and juggled light values with squinting eyes – I had a covert ambition to be a National Geographic photographer. Not the bugs, so much, but the astonishing, vividly colourful, distinctive-but-congruent ethnic communities tucked into every corner of the globe but especially Africa and the Middle East.
The diversity of facial structures and fabrics, feast, dance and habitats were often the shards of unknowable histories from Tunisia to Baghdad to the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan. They all seemed unimaginably exotic, their distinctive cultures still visible in tiny, nomadic communities as diverse as Darwin’s Galapagos wildlife.
Friends travelled and brought back photos and rugs amassed in the back of their own nomadic Landrover during an overland return from the UK that included Tibet.
We ourselves stopped at St Helena, the South Atlantic island where sailing ships stopped before heading for the roaring forties. It was the rock bones of an island where goats – released for fresh meat for ships’ provisions – had eaten every slope bare for centuries. In its tiny community, the faces that looked back at us seemed assembled from every imaginable race – all speaking with an archaic Bristol accent distilled from its polyglot seaport history.
Brazil’s northern port of Bahia was even more of a vibrant melting pot, vast baroque churches towering over markets heaped with fruit and cobbled streets alive at night with cachaça and dancing.
In the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal, we had taken horses out to a niche under a cliff where exquisite ancient bushman paintings of non-human beings, hunters, and half-human half-animal hybrids in red ochre etched themselves indelibly in our memories.
I’d never deny that my generation had some pretty spectacular privileges but perhaps the greatest was the sense of being part of an astonishing shared humanity and that, individually and collectively as a race, we are endlessly innovative, caring, social and generous.
None of this makes the current state of the world at all comfortable.
World news makes it obvious that most of the world’s refugees have been driven out of their homes and cultures and stripped of human status by the cumulative effects of globalized oil politics, local warlords with modern weaponry on demand and a global financial hegemony that has poisoned politics and that can trump democratic safeguards at will.
Myanmar’s fleeing Rohingya refugees have added half a million people to the world’s 65 million displaced people. News shots of bedraggled and burdened families show sheets of beautiful waterways and distant hills with rising smoke that should have been cooking fires but is actually a total disestablishment of their existence.
As contemporary artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei says the west has profited from the 40 years of globalisation but refuses to bear its responsibilities toward displaced people, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system.
“We have forsaken our belief in shared humanity.”
Change, says Weiwei, will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world. How they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies.
Our refugee crisis is not about refugees but about ourselves and our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life, he says. Our support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal rights has been sacrificed for “shortsighted cowardice and greed”.
“How do we think the poor, displaced or occupied can exist when their societies are destroyed? Should they simply disappear? Can we recognize that their continued existence is an essential part of our shared humanity?
“If we fail to recognize this, how can we speak of ‘civilised’ development?” he says. – Liz Waters
Note: Ai Weiwei’s epic film journey
Human Flow captures the global refugee crisis – the greatest human displacement since World War II. It was screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival.