Whatever They Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not might seem like an unusual collection of work to be found in a tiny museum in a small town in South Wales, but David Garner is a somewhat unusual figure in the field of British modern art.
Garner is a socialist whose previous work has dealt with issues such as immigration and Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the miners and South Wales’s mining communities.
In his introduction to this new exhibition, Garner writes that “Islamophobia remains largely unrecognised in today’s society” and that this exhibition “is an attempt to understand this realisation and encourage debate”.
The biggest and most visible component of the exhibition is “B” for Defiance.
This is a recreation of the sign which stood over the gates of Auschwitz with its motto “Arbeit Mach Frei” (Work Shall Set You Free) alongside its imprint in ash. It is almost guaranteed to offend some.
However, Garner’s use of allusions to the Holocaust are not ahistorical attempts to say that Islamophobia is the same as the Nazi’s antisemitism.
Rather it is a way of linking racism with war and imperialism, as well as showing where the logic of racism is capable of leading to.
The exhibition is accompanied by a looped recording of the Muslim call to prayer.
The call is played through a tannoy speaker which has been covered with a lead plate.
This bears an inscription of the novelist Martin Amis’s comment about his “definite urge … to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’”.
The lead mutes the sound of the call. This gives expression to the fact that the voices of Muslims are rarely heard above the prattling of bigots who are given a platform in the media from which to spout their bile – hence the piece’s title, Amplified Intolerance.
Terry Eagleton’s response to Amis is part of the exhibition’s title piece, which features a cage in which a copy of the Qu’ran is precariously balanced over a mound of Muslim hair, another allusion to the Holocaust.
The exhibition also displays a keen sense of humour. Poppycock consists of a US army helmet which had been used in Afghanistan covered in dry poppy pods and stems.
It is a wry comment on the failure of the “war on terror” – in this instance the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan has led to a massive increase in the amount of opium produced in the country.
In Remember Jim Crow we see a stuffed crow in a bird cage with a stuffed dove sitting on top.
On closer examination, you see that the crow is spattered with excrement, presumably from the dove.
This juxtaposition is immediately striking, situating the symbol of peace as the oppressor.
This is a perfect example of the separation between the US ruling class’s rhetoric of peace and democracy and the reality of its commitment to war and repression.
By invoking the racist Jim Crow laws of the US South, Garner draws out the connection between the dehumanising nature of racism against black people and the current Islamophobic tendency to see Muslim lives as being worth less than those of white Westerners.
The crow is not a hopeless figure in this piece.
Its beak is poking out of the cage, a reminder that the oppressed are not passive victims but people eager to free themselves, just like the civil rights movement that ended the Jim Crow racist system.
Typecast presents us with a dictionary that has been covered in nails except for the “Muslim” and “Muslim Brotherhood” entries.
The entries are surrounded by densely packed nails that give the impression of them being surrounded and restricted.
Typecast is visually alarming, the destruction of literature evoking not only the George Bush’s administration’s lack of regard for history and culture but the Nazi’s burning of books.
The work brings out the way in which the state and the media conflate Islam with terrorism as well as the way in which some Muslims are driven to terrorism because of the circumstances they find themselves in.
The entire exhibition is framed by the wonderful Unwanted Decoration, an Iraq campaign medal attached to 50 metres of ribbon.
The ribbon is unevenly arranged and unravelling, as chaotic and seemingly unplanned as the war itself.
The way that the ribbon surrounds the entire exhibition again asserts how central the “war on terror” is to the promotion of Islamophobia and links all the other pieces to the overarching issue of imperialism.
This is an exhibition that deserves a wider audience.
David Garner’s work is at the cutting edge of British modern art and a radical political statement against one of the many injustices of global capitalism.
Whatever They Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not will run until 15 March at the Cynon Valley Museum and Gallery, Aberdare. Opening times are 9am to 4.30pm Monday to Saturday. For details contact the museum on 01685 886729
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