Being the Other
Saskia Fernando Gallery- Colombo, Sri Lanka,
How do we speak about something we cannot see? Fabienne Francotte’s Being the Other is concerned with giving this question form. This body of work maps junctures of shared trauma communicated through wordless intimacies experienced by the artist as she was invited into working with a community of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the five day drawing project. Arranged in three non-linear parts, the show speaks to the many ways in which latent trauma is carried precariously between the need to cope, to acknowledge and to persevere.
The series of prayer mats laden with traces of their owners, explore the tangled interactions between the Rohingya men and their relationship to the divine. Treasured and carried with them over the course of their migration, Francotte captures these mats as they become emblems upon which both dispossession and hope are located.
In these paintings, the feet of men, meet patterned fabric in a ritual embrace of solace and of longing. Together they observe a spirituality informed by displacement, their devotion: a sign to their community. Signs and symbols however by their very constitution cannot be devoid of agenda.
This spirituality may solely be practice of consecration, or is it perhaps a way for the men to leverage a lost power previously enjoyed, over their lives and their community? Upon facing Francotte’s series of larger paintings, these questions feel beside the point. The works seem to be speaking about us, as much as they speak about this community. Following traces of bodies once whole, now violently contorted, Francotte inquires about what responsibility we have toward the visible or even the partially visible.
In these works, lines that contour the bodies at moments disappear into their surroundings while elements like the face of a Burmese soldier, a dress once worn, a bottle of perfume, or a pair of shoes, emerge authoritatively on the canvas. All of them as stand-ins for a history that cannot be fully known.
The empty backgrounds holding these isolated figures implicate the viewer in a kind of involvement. They ask us to consider how we maneuver questions of responsibility when we are confronted with the experiences of others.
Another set of pieces, feature a collection of portraits stitched together; a reconstructed composite of selfies taken by the young girls and boys in the community. Rendered on brightly adorned plastic table cloths, these pieces reflect on the intimacies of friendship and the politics of solidarity as potentially powerful forces of resistance.
The faces overlap each other, at times obscuring and at some points revealing, as if to say “stand behind me I will protect you”, or “if you can’t speak, I will speak!”. Together they form a community of balance and support. Adorned in make-up and posing for selfies they hold each other while looking firmly forward.
Ariella Azoulay in her book The Civil Contract of Photography (2008) focuses on what to do when we encounter images of pain and suffering. She speaks to the questions that have long dominated the field of documentary: Who is allowed to speak about stories of pain, and how do we navigate the intricate web of privilege, empathy, and power dynamics as both makers and viewers? These questions feel pertinent to many practices in our contemporary moment. While quite distant from the documentary format, Being the Other should not be exempt from this inquiry.
In her book Azoulay suggests a starting point to these considerations when she asks if we can “fight something that is inaccessible to the gaze?” Francotte’s works by virtue of being displayed in an exhibition provides the opportunity for this gaze to be exercised.
A skimmed viewing of the pieces may risk engendering associations of loneliness, abuse, and suffering. The artist encourages sustained looking instead, particularly toward the images that a viewer may find hard to take in.
Here, the layers to Azoulay’s question become clearer: The gaze is violent if it stands removed from the fight. Azoulay clarifies to us that we have a responsibility toward what has been made visible. A responsibility that in Francotte’s words, looks “to not just see the drama of the surface, but move beyond it into the container of the soul.”
Perhaps these are the first steps in a path to action where to ‘be the other’ is not to compare pain, but instead to mutually recognize it in ourselves. To recognize the ways in which the mechanics of our lives are entangled in that of the other. Not to be mistaken merely as a call to empathy, this sense of mutuality is perhaps better understood in the words of Judith Butler (Undoing Gender 2004, p34) when she suggests that, “We must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are.»