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Art exhibition to tell the unheard story of the Banaban people

3 March, 2023

Interview by Stella Huggins, adapted by Georgi Stirling

Photo: Canva.

Listen to the full interview

In the mid-20th century, hundreds of Banabans were displaced from Banaba Island to Fiji’s Rabi Island due to the devastating impacts of phosphate mining.

Today, Banabans on Rabi continue to face discrimination as a partially self-governing entity falling between the cracks of Fiji and Kiribati.

Their stories remain largely unheard in Aotearoa, where the benefits of mining allowed the British to advance their colonisation and kickstart New Zealand’s agricultural sector.

Katja Phutaraksa Neef and Erin told Stella Huggins on 95bFM's, The Wire, that the forced displacement of the Banaban community and their ongoing human rights struggles are shown in a new art exhibition titled "Justice for Rabi: The Story of Banaba". 

The exhibition, largely funded by Creative New Zealand, features artwork that aims to raise awareness about the human rights violations the Banaban community have faced since the early 1900s and highlight the key demands of both the Fijian and Kiribati governments. 

Jack, a Banaban delegate, told The Wire that he wanted the exhibition to show citizens of Aotearoa and the rest of the world how phosphate mining and the subsequent relocation of the Banaban people has unfairly impacted their lives for generations.

To ensure that the voices of the Banaban community are amplified, Katja and Erin made sure that they acted as a vessel for their stories to be heard.

Erin explained that their approach involved recording interviews with the people of Rabi and making sure that those recordings were redistributed on each individual interviewee’s terms. 

“We heard from multiple interviewees that they were happy to be interviewed and for it to be recorded on the condition that it is shared with the world.” 

They also brought a delegation of eleven guests from Rabi, which Erin said was not just to share their stories with us in Aotearoa, but to also connect them with key development players and media outlets to help bring their list of demands to the fore. 

Erin pointed out that the best way to engage with the content in the exhibition is to learn the history of our own land and how there came to be such a large settler colonial population here in the first place.

She also stressed the importance of considering climate displacement going forward.

"What it means to be displaced, how to live a life with dignity in new places, and what that actually looks like and what those barriers are.”

Katja added that especially in the face of climate change, more displacement and relocation is inevitable, so it is imperative that the story of Rabi and the story of Banaban is not forgotten.

“We don’t want this to happen in the future where people lose their land, lost their identities and their language due to mining and climate change.”

“We need to make sure that we protect their right to life with dignity on Rabi and also on Banaban.” 

The art exhibition is open at Auckland’s Silo 6, on the corner of Beaumont and Jellicoe street, until 9 March.

Public interest journalism funded through NZ On Air