The Gold Standard
In the exhibition The Golden Wish, Shwan Dler Qaradaki examines the notion of ‘value’, and brings into sharp relief the political and ethical degradation of human worth. Xenophobia and the flow of refugees in our times create ever starker polarization. The coin is worth its weight in gold, but the value of a human being is not compatible with this system.
Shwan’s starting point is the infamous ‘jewelry-law’ adopted by the Danish Parliament in 2016. It which gives police jurisdiction to confiscate jewelry and valuables worth more than 10.000 Danish crowns from asylum seekers the moment they enter the country, in order to finance their own room and board. The exceptions are wedding bands and objects of great sentimental value, which must be proven by personal stories. It should be noted that no jewelry has been confiscated from refugees since the law was adopted, just some sums of cash and one car. Nevertheless, criticism rained down on the Danish government, among others from Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who calls for more compassion in immigration politics. The jewelry-law stands out as crude pontification in its purest form. The strong reactions were rooted in our relationship to jewelry and gold, and to the deeply private heirlooms that tell us who we are and where we belong. Such belongings are loaded with symbolism, humanity and cultural values.
Shwan recently visited Iraq and met refugees in two major refugee camps. The largest one has 25.000 inhabitants, most of them Syrians and Yezidis who are living in horrible conditions. Here, he discovered that people sold their private belongings and valuables to finance their own escape. Shwan purchased gold jewelry such as rings, necklaces and ear lobes from private individuals, local dealers, and goldsmiths in Arbat and Suleimani, where most refugees reside. This gold, altogether 320 grams of 12 karat, was later melted down to gold plate, cut and welded into letters forming the sentence “Everything will be OK”. The process is documented in a video. The seemingly soothing words echo what adults typically would say to comfort children, especially in a desperate situation where the future is uncertain.
We are reminded of the British artist Martin Creeds and his text installation Work No. 203: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, where the words occur in neon lights across the façade of a building. The original building, from 1825, housed the London Orphan Asylum and was later taken over by the Salvation Army. In this context, we are presented with the abandoned children, collective Christian salvation, followed by the state of decay and empty rooms. Creed’s motto may, as Shwan’s sentence, be read as sincere or as ironic. The phrase is inherently ambiguous, by its embrace both of a dim cliché and necessary hope.
The Golden Wish features children in five monumental portraits in the format of 150x230 cm. They show three boys and two girls from the refugee camp in Arbat. They have strong gazes and are very frontal, the size providing further authority. They are rendered in grey tones against a golden background, which is indirectly reflected in their features. The gold seems to be rubbing off on them. Some have gold dust in their eyes, squinting in the intense sunlight, barely covered by a hat or a cap. The portraits are a visualization project, lifting the kids from a shapeless mass onto an imaginary throne.
The classical icons were understood as luminous, ritual images, where the gold reflected the sky. The gold in Shwan’s exhibition does not presume to be sacred, but rather plays with the notion that something tangible may have an exalted value. The gold acts as a spotlight on the skewed distribution of goods, not at least in a panorama of the view from Shwan’s own view towards Romsås and Groruddalen, often described by sensation-seeking journalists as a place with ‘ghetto-like’ crime rates. The cartoon aesthetic, the graphic clarity, and the gold all contribute to a decorative and simplified effect. The sun radiates as an archaic symbol. The composition both invokes and opposes the sociological term golden ghettos (‘gated’ communities), extended residential areas where the privileged cluster together. Stereotypical expectations of behavior within a given social class don’t always fit the complex mosaics of reality.
The quest for gold sparkles and blinds. But what does the gold really represent, this noble metal so often balanced against human dignity? Those who, at any given time, have the power to decide this, must be subject to critical and sober examination. Let us remember King Midas, from the Greek myth, whose touch miraculously turned everything into gold – a rock, a twig, a rose. From the first euphoric intoxication of unbelievable wealth, the gold soon turned to a threat to life, as the food and drink also turned to solid gold. A golden thread weaves this exhibition together, and Shwan nudges his alternative icons into established notions of what things and people are worth – in a world where ever more people are forced into motion.
by Line UleKleiv