Pekka Niskanen & Mohamed Sleiman Labat
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Two artists from two different backgrounds and contexts meet up for a casual conversation one day and end up with an idea for an artistic research project connecting two different aspects of one story affecting their lives: phosphate.
Pekka Niskanen is a Finnish doctor of fine arts, a media artist and a video- and filmmaker. Mohamed Sleiman Labat is a poet and visual artist living and working in the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Hamada Desert. Over the course of one year of communication between Niskanen in Helsinki and Sleiman Labat in the desert, the artists started to develop the project. Both are keen conversationalists, heavily influenced by their surroundings and respective contexts. Sleiman Labat, for example, comes from a nomadic community where the oral tradition and spoken poetry have strong presence in everyday life.
The artists received a grant from Kone Foundation to the develop a project in the form of an artist residency, which allowed Sleiman Labat to come to Finland to work closely with Niskanen for four months. The project deals with phosphate and its effects on two vastly different environments: the Baltic Sea and Western Sahara. It explores the various layers of the issue through a number of artistic practices, drawing from Socially Engaged Arts, artistic research and field experience to gather information.
The Sahrawi tribal nomadic community inhabits Western Sahara, which is a major source of phosphate. In 1975 Morocco took control of the region, including its vital phosphate mines and coastline, thus launching a 16-year war between Morocco and the Sahrawi. Morocco built a 2,700-kilometre wall around the phosphate mines and other economically crucial areas; the wall was fortified with seven million antipersonnel landmines. Thousands of Sahrawi families were forced to escape and seek refuge in neighbouring Algeria. The wall and its landmines prevent the nomadic Sahrawi community from moving freely across the desert as they have done for millennia, and it has divided the land and its people, with many members caught on both sides of the wall, unable to reunite.
During the war, the Sahrawi settled in camps near Tindouf, Algeria. Sleiman Labat’s parents met in these camps, and that’s where he was born; he still lives and works there. A new generation is being born in the camps with little connection to their homeland and roots. However, Sleiman Labat and many other youths have gone to schools and universities and returned to the camps to support the community. Initiatives within the camps, spanning from arts and culture to engineering and family gardens, are changing life in the camps for the better.
Phosphate from Western Sahara has ended up in the Baltic Sea: various past shipments have made their way to Lithuania, Norway and Russia, but most of the Western Sahara phosphate is now shipped to North America, Australia, New Zealand and India. These mass phosphate extractions and exports are done without the consent of the Sahrawi people, the indigenous people of the Western Sahara. Furthermore, it prolongs the displacement of the Saharawi, now living in the refugee camps far from their homeland.
The processing of phosphate for fertilizers to be used by the farms in the Baltic Region as led to eutrophication of ocean waters, initiated when phosphorus reaches the sea in great amounts. As a result of both the pollution and climate change, blue algae has formed on the surface in recent years.
Sleiman Labat and Niskanen are using the residency to develop their art practice through a number of activities. They meet almost every day to discuss and develop a research paper they aim to submit in early October; the paper is one of a three they hope to write, and the current work in progress addresses the current lives of and situation the Saharawi face in the Hamada desert, as well as the need for a new narrative: What practices—social, artistic and ecological—are taking place in the camps? How much is the intergenerational dialogue affecting the Saharawi community’s identity and the cultural practices of its past and present—and even its future?
The articles we are authoring will address phosphate and its effects on the Baltic Sea and the desert. Among other question to address are, “How much of the phosphate is coming from the desert, and how ethical is modern food production?”
Sleiman Labat brought a nomadic tent from the Hamada desert, designed and hand-sewn by the women in the Samara camp. The tent serves as a space to interact with people from time to time. It’s somewhat challenging to adapt a Sahrawi tent to the Helsinki weather, however: it hardly rains in the desert, so that’s not much of a concern back home, but it is here. Sleiman Labat and Niskanen experimented with the tent at different events, using it as a moving sculpture and a space for people to discuss and share stories and poems as well as to simply experience the tent, a typical home of Sleiman Labat and his people. A Sahrawi tea ceremony, performed at different times in the tent, allowed people to witness the pace and rhythm of desert life. The discussion it creates has enriched the research, making the tent and tea ceremony effective tools for engaging people in discussion to and invite interaction around topics related to phosphate, food, the Baltic Sea and the desert.
The researchers reached out to different institutions and organization from the Finnish art and scientific community for collaboration, and a series of meetings, presentations and activities took place 19–20 August, together with eight other artists and researchers. Sleiman Labat and Niskanen joined BioArt Society for a micro residency, sailing on the catamaran Godzilla as a floating research platform. It was the first time Sleiman Labat had ever sailed. The micro residency was also an opportunity to film and record under water, a unique opportunity to gather material for a future video art installation.
Meeting with the environmental institutions and organizations was an excellent opportunity to merge different disciplines of art and research. Scientists from Finnish environmental institute SYKE talked about dead zones at the bottom of the Baltic Sea—a desert under water. Sleiman Labat could not help but think about the poetics of the juxtaposition: a sea whose bottom is turning into a desert, and a desert deprived of its own phosphate yet blooming with thousands of family gardens planted by a community that never settled down to farm.
PhosFATE seeks to unfold the story of this precious mineral through such interconnected layers, evoking understanding of ecological practices, social change through community efforts, world politics and economics, the very food on our tables, and the everyday stories we tell.
MOHAMED SLEIMAN LABAT & PEKKA NISKANEN
Where: Te Tuhi Gallery Project Wall, Aukland, NZ
When: 22.2 – 22.5. 2022
Curator: Andrew Kennedy
Te Tuhi’s Project Wall features the pairing of projects by Matthew Galloway and Mohamed Sleiman Labat. In different ways, Endless and Desert Strawberries both shed light on Aotearoa’s reliance on phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara.
From his house on Otago Harbour in Ōtepoti Dunedin, Galloway sees the same view every evening. Across the water, a plume of smoke rises from the chimney of the Ravensdown Factory as the sun sets. This factory processes phosphate rock into the fertiliser used to make our agriculture industry more productive. However, in order to make this crucial product, Aotearoa is currently reliant on imports of phosphate rock from occupied Western Sahara. By purchasing this rock, we are helping fund Morocco’s brutal occupation of this territory, where those indigenous to Western Sahara are either heavily persecuted within the occupied zone, or live in Algerian refugee camps.
Endless seeks to recreate Galloway’s evening view. Semi-opaque flags are hung over the windows, transforming the transitional space of Te Tuhi’s foyer into a state of permanent dusk, while a looped video shows the chimney stack in a state of endless production. But in this instance the chimney appears again, this time reflected on a second screen. A divergence is created, as the smoke and many gulls gliding on the wind shoot in opposite directions.
Additionally, Galloway has worked with Mohamed Sleiman Labat—a visual artist and poet based in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps—to adapt elements of his film Desert Strawberries into a sound work that fills the Te Tuhi foyer. This work features a recording of Sleiman Labat’s father speaking in Hassanya, dispersing memories of nomadic life in Western Sahara before the Moroccan invasion (1975) amongst contemporary descriptions of the ‘family gardens’ now being grown in the Sahrawi Refugee camps where they live. These gardens are the initiative of Mohamed’s generation, many of whom have studied abroad and returned with new knowledge and techniques, enabling the establishment of vegetable gardens in the arid conditions of the camps. These gardens are giving Sahrawi more agency over food production, and lessening their reliance on food provided through humanitarian aid.
Sleiman Labat and Galloway first met in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps in 2016, and have had an ongoing correspondence in the years since. The chance to present Endless and Desert Strawberries together aims to deepen the dialogue between their respective practices, while also pointing to the entangled nature of their stories. Two forms of food production are presented here, one operating on a global, industrial scale; the other familial and intimate. Together, the state of false permanence at play in this installation aims to question whether our current systems of trade, production and economics—which operate at the cost of the basic human rights of others—are truly inevitable.
The desert is big and vast.
And when you see it.
You think there is nothing in it.
It’s just sand and rocks.
But there is life in the desert.
The Sahrawi people were nomads before colonisation. If one is only used to movement and travelling like us, settling down is not easily done. Sometimes, back in Western Sahara, we would grow wheat after rainfall. But the life of the Sahrawi has always been dominated by goat and camel hearding. We’ve never grown vegetables or fruits, we never even knew about them. Our food came from the cattle we raised, we drank its milk and ate its meat, and we didn’t have any problems.
When we came to the Refugee Camps, we started to eat the food distributed to us through humanitarian aid. Much of this food was very foreign to us, we only became aware of it here in the camps.
Over the last few years some of our youth who have received education have begun to grow different kinds of vegetables. They started to feed their families, and showed others how to start a garden. Family gardens utilise any small pieces of land belonging to a family where they can grow vegetables and eat what they produce. They grow what they can, the gardens are nearby the family. Now people can see something green close to them, and enjoy its taste, and its smell.
In this harsh environment, with the everyday challenges of the Hamada Desert, family gardens can lessen the difficulties faced, creating something beautiful in a harsh environment. People solve their problems using what they can find. Every piece of metal, every stick and rope can support, fasten or hold something. People try to protect their gardens with anything they can.
In the Hamada Desert, people managed to grow tomatoes, onion and pepper, lettuce and cucumber, coriander and mint, basil and fig, and many other fruits we were not aware of before. In Hassanya, we call plants Rebiy, from the word for Spring, perhaps because we used to see a lot of plants when Spring comes. The small green spots in the gardens remind us of the wild plants, and bring back their colours and smells.
There are many challenges and difficulties that make farming difficult in the Refugee Camps; the sun is hot, and the hot wind can burn the plants. But the biggest problem is water scarcity—water is very limited in the Camps, it is distributed by shares amongst the families. In summer, nobody can grow anything, it’s too hot, people just try to survive. People learnt many solutions in the family gardens—dripping irrigation and hydroponics with water scarcity—green houses and shade houses provide shelter for the plants, and animal manure makes good fertiliser, providing the soil with enough organic matter. Family gardens are teaching us many things we didn’t know about. People now talk about soil and seeds; farming seasons, irrigation methods, and ways to protect plants from the elements in such difficult conditions.
The canned food distributed through humanitarian aid here over so many years has caused anaemia and other health issues. Therefore, an alternative has to be thought about in order to improve the food in the Camps. People’s diet has been improving, thanks to the vegetables complementing the meals. It feels really good to eat what you have grown with your own hands—it gives plants a special taste and smell, and you feel you have made something important; you’ve contributed to the growth of people, plants and the soil.
The desert is not just some brown sand; sand particles travel across the seas and oceans. When you see it, it simply looks like some dust falling on plants. But that brown dust is the secret to the greenery. We don’t know how it works, but they say the dust carries phosphorus particles, and it fertilises the forests and plains where it falls. Everything has a role in this life, no matter how small and dusty, even when it feels frustrating at times like this brown sand and the dust particles. It is an important role; one that the trees in the forest are waiting for, as well as the green plains.
They say the desert used to be green in the past.
A green desert now may seem like a mirage.
But it will grow green gradually.
“Drop by drop, the river runs” as the Sahrawi say.
When you sit down next to a plant, it looks motionless and still.
But come back later and you’ll find it bigger.
So, plants also move, they just move slowly, and grow in silence.
Plants are also nomads, they travel upwardly.
Motion and stillness are indeed part of life’s great secrets.
About the artists
Matthew Galloway lives and works in Ōtepoti Dunedin. His research-based practice employs the tools and methodologies of design in an editorial way, and often within a gallery context. This way of working emphasises design and publishing as an inherently political exercise and involves an interdisciplinary approach to producing publications and art objects.
Mohamed Sleiman Labat
Mohamed Sleiman Labat is a Sahrawi visual artist and a poet based in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algerian territory. He was born and raised in these camps. In 2016, after graduating from Batna University, Algeria with a degree in English literature, Sleiman Labat went back to his community. As well as having a rich, multidisciplinary practice that spans visual art, photography, poetry and translation, Sleiman Labat has built a multipurpose community and artist studio space called Motif Art Studio in the Samara camp. The studio itself is built from discarded materials that Sleiman Labat has collected.