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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

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 New Zealand, where the benefits of mining allowed the British to advance their colonisation and kickstart New Zealand’s agricultural sector. On The Wire, Stella speaks to Katja Phutaraksa Neef and Erin about the forced displacement of the Banaban community and their ongoing human rights struggles and a new art exhibition titled "Justice for Rabi: The Story of Banaba". She also speaks to a Banaban delegate, Jack, on the topic.


The exhibition, largely funded by Creative New Zealand, features artworks which aim to raise awareness for the forced displacement of the Banaban community, the human rights violations they have faced since the early 1900s, and also highlight the key demands of both the Fijian and Kiribati governments. 


Jack, one of the Banaban delegates, outlined 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, stating, “we should’ve been the last group of people relocated from our land.” 


The story of Banaban and Rabi is the main focus of the event, and in order 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.” 


She also said that they also brought a delegation of eleven guests from Rabi, 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 points 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 stresses the importance of considering “climate displacement going forward and what it means to be displaced and how to live and how to accommodate living 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, as “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 March 9th.


Public interest journalism funded by New Zealand On Air