I was perhaps 11 years old when on my photographer fathers’ bookshelves I found a publication entitled The Family of Man. I was instantly enthralled and many images within it remain embedded in my memory over 60 years later. Two come to mind immediately-the wonder of new life-a visceral, glistening image of a baby being delivered, a symbol of hope and renewal and probably my first exposure to this. The other, a gaunt faced young mother, possibly from the Appalachians, elbow on table, hand to cheek gazes through strained eyes into the unknown, two small, raggedly dressed children bury their heads on her shoulders, a depiction of abject poverty and despair.
I now know The Family of Man was conceived as a photography exhibition, hailed as the most successful ever assembled and opened at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) in January 1955. It then toured the world for eight years to record-breaking audience numbers. The exhibition was curated by noted photographer and Director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, Edward Steichen and the book is a permanent embodiment of this monumental exhibition. It reproduces all the 503 images by 273 photographic artists and is a celebration of the universality of the human experience, a declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II and the Cold War. Poet Carl Sandburg wrote the eloquent prologue and the book’s title is lifted from one of his poems.
Amongst many other things of significance to me, I retained this precious book after my father’s death at the age of 100 years. Its striking cover made its way into my work, an installation piece, exhibited in 2011, Memento Mori: Tree of Life, Artspace Mackay and beyond.
It is interesting to reflect upon one’s life, to recognize how early are laid down the building blocks which come to later define us. I see a photograph of myself aged three, bending down to touch and rejoice in the fragrance of a flower; mountain walking at Mt Buffalo between my mother and a friend who grasp my little hands; digging in the sand at a Melbourne beach; or lovingly embracing my first cat. It appears I am already a nature, plant and animal lover.
In my parents’ home, the radio was always tuned to the ABC, classical music filled the house and I was taken to concerts and art galleries. As refugees who fled Vienna in 1938 escaping Nazi persecution, human rights and social justice were of great import to them. The legacy this bestowed upon me was to be vigilant in the face of intolerance, oppression and persecution and my work as an artist since the ‘90’s has addressed these concerns. To remain silent is to be complicit.
And so, to where this ramble started. I recently joined a zoom event hosted by Grandmothers for Refugees. One refugee and two asylum seekers, both still in detention after seven years, spoke movingly and eloquently. At the close of the event, a poem was read and this is what I would like to share with you. It was written by a Warsan Shire, a prolific young poet and activist born in Kenya of Somalian parents who lives in London.
The poem is titled Home and I hope you will find it as moving as I do, for it is the task of artists and others to keep at bay the destructive forces of bigotry and fear. To quote John Donne:
Any man’s death diminishes me because
I am involved in Mankinde
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a
truck feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in
run away from me now
I don’t know what I’ve become
but I know that anywhere
is safer than here
Copyright Warsan Shire, 2015
Reference:2019 Christine Cummins, Dignity in a Teacup-True Stories of Courage and Sacrifice from Christmas Island, ARCADIA