Stemming from a 2003 human security research visit to Sierra Leone just one year after a decade-long civil war, Sandra Bromley’s FIRE exhibition carries with it a certain weight in years and reflection. Processing through the years it takes to first hear the stories, live with them and then to try and understand how to exist with them, FIRE is first and foremost Bromley’s story of the boys and girls she visited who have already led lives as child soldiers and bush wives, and who held the right to share them with her.
Respectful of ethical issues surrounding estheticizing trauma in post-war countries, Bromley is unique in not cradling the subject matter in clouds of morality. Unlike many stories that divide the world into those who do good and those who do evil, there is no hint whatsoever of victimization in this exhibition, nor are there flavours of blame or notions of good and evil in dealing with child soldiers. There are simply the faces, bodies and stories captured that do not align with existing Western categorizations of war victims and perpetrators.
Image credit: / Sandra Bromley
In the front room, eight elongated and illuminated photography portraits of children lean and exist in equilibrium amidst a chain of deactivated rifles. They stand in restricted poses contained by the concept of the picture frame, harbouring layers of meaning from the difficulty in representing individuals out of context to restricting their likeness to reflect the barriers the real individuals live and work with every day. The austere atmosphere of the room exists in a delicate balance between the human subjects and the guns that exist between them, appearing as markers of time in anchoring the living present in direct relation with a formidable past.
Much like The Gun Sculpture, Bromley’s collaboration with Wallis Kendal, the very presence of these weapons that have been used to commit human atrocities contribute a layer of experience that immediately pulls you in, and at the same time exists as physical barriers to how we negotiate our experience of this visual information. In doing so, Bromley complicates the issue of representation in the aftermath of war, specifically the notion of bearing witness to human suffering.
Passing through this first room, which serves as an independent gateway into the second room within a room, viewers are then confronted with choices on how to engage, and how deeply to invest. Standing as a bare framed structure with four sides each bearing a door, viewers are aware that there are four videos playing behind each door. The choice whether to open a door and enter the structure, which then activates the sound of each video, is entirely up to the viewer. Be it hesitation or curiosity, the choice is preceded by a photo transfer of four women: Kadeer, Mohamed, Kamara and Celia, each with her own door and video that remains not translated, speaking then to the viewer with one less filter of comprehension.
Existing in early incarnations as photographs on a door with an accompanying video, now the door assumes the position of yet another gateway into the stories of the women whose image they bear, and in leaving the choice up to the viewer, Bromley makes a very conscious effort to not preach or lecture, but to intricately present her findings to those who actively pursue them.
*First published in Vue Weekly