Reframing gang culture: humanising the inhuman?

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There has been a lot of hype and controversy over the commercial photographer Jono Rotman’s latest body of work which opened last week at Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery. Rotman spent 7 years photographing and unpacking narratives of Mongrel Mob members. The results are eight, white framed, life-sized photographic portraits in which predominantly Māori men have been photographed wearing their gang patches, SS helmets and other Nazi paraphernalia and leathers.

It is hard to escape or avoid the reading of Jono Rotman’s work as effectively glamorizing and romanticising gang culture. As Ruth Money from Sensible Sentencing Trust said “I think it is glorifying gang culture and completely offensive to their victims, and the members of the public and society who live a socially acceptable and tolerated life.” Rotman certainly has presented a sanitised portrayal of gang members.

There has been a lot of praise for Rotman’s work, for example; he won the prestigious Marti Friedlander Photographic Award for his photographs of Mongrel Mob members. However, like many other artists making art about other sub-cultures or cultures, Rotman’s work clings to a central narrative of a ‘fringe group’ while documenting the ‘other’ and focuses on male leadership. For all the hype over this work there is nothing particularly interesting about what he has done. As Dr Paul Moon, who lecturers in History at Auckand’s AUT, said when I interviewed him ‘His emphasis on the lurid “other” no doubt has an appeal for some viewers, but at the same time, the echoes with 19th century propaganda art which aimed at denigrating Maori are deafeningly loud.’

Rotman’s series creates an artistic platform which apparently attempts to remind us of the history and humanity of people who are often perceived as inhuman. These gang members come from a sub-culture which is widely known to use the dealing of drugs, violence, intimidation and gang rape for gang initiation, control and power. Anyone who commits crimes like this are arguably monsters.  In light of the atrocities perpetuated by gangs and gang culture, Rotman’s attempts at portraying a human side to these men can be read instead as romanticising this gang culture.  As Rotman states,

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“In a wider historical scope this work explores the idea that a predominantly Maori fraternity can be considered a logical and brutal result of the colonial process. Both as tribal orphans and as vessels of post-colonial trauma. Now many generations deep, the Mongrel Mob is an established identity with a complex and arcane lore, and a legacy that extends from the abhorrent to the redemptive.”

Rotman speaks of “the redemptive” but offers no proof of the redemptive in his work. Each man depicted in his photographs still wears their gang patches; they have not left gang life and there is nothing that tells the viewer these men are reformed. I understand Rotman wants to challenge stereotypes of gang members by showing us a “more human side” but at the very same time he perpetuates the colonial stereotype of “the violent savage”, seriously undermining and contradicting the works stated aim. If Rotman was feeling some residual guilt about living in Aotearoa rent free or wanted to address the sins of colonisation, the last thing he should be doing as Dr Moon suggested, is resurrecting iconography applied in the early 19th century and replicating it.  Dr Moon had this to say when I spoke to him,

“Rotman is undoubtedly an accomplished photographer. His potent mix of lighting, composition and perspective produce a striking visual narrative that is hard to dislodge from the memory. But in some of his portraits, he has nudged the representation of Maori backwards – reverting from the passivity of the painter Goldie [Charles Frederick Goldie] to the earlier implication of Māori as a violent race.”

What is both interesting and disturbing about Jono Rotman’s photographic series is each picture, depending on the series purchased, is selling for between $18,000k and $30,000k. The Photographs of predominantly Māori men which are being sold as high art have been taken by a white privileged man and are most likely going to be bought by white Europeans. After all, the high art market can only be afforded by the privileged and rich. As Peter Sykes, head of the Mangere East Family Service Centre, said “The fact is, lots of families from South Auckland won’t be going to see an exhibition in central Auckland.”

When I talked to the Gow Langsford Marketing director I asked if the artworks had been purchased by predominantly white Europeans to which she declined to answer, saying “I do not think I can tell you that information.”

As the people who purchased these photographs, go about their daily domestic business they can gaze upon—from a safe distance—the ‘violent black person’ and think about how well spent their money has been. Isn’t this perverse cultural voyeurism? Do the buyers of these photographs get some titillation from viewing an artwork that captures predominately tattooed Māori mobsters, which perpetuates damaging stereotypes that are inherit from our colonial period? I guess those rich folks buying these photographs can have a sense of absolution knowing most of their money has gone to a children’s charity though? As Dr. Moon said,

“it [Rotman’s work] reinforces those stereotypes of the ‘other’ in some senses it revives the idea of the barbaric savage, which was really the subject of mid 19 century art… and this in a sense revives that approach and it reinforces that lingering feeling that some people have about Maori; that inheritance we have from our colonial period when somehow they [Maori] were barbaric, needing to be civilised and this cuts across this; the image of gang members which becomes a reversion to this stereotype. It accentuates those very negative colonial stereotypes.”

I am not saying white people should not make work about other cultures that happen to be brown, what I am saying is there needs to be some moral accountability if you do.

Apart from perpetuating damaging stereotypes of indigenous people, Rotman has also effectively immortalised an accused killer; Rotman choose to leave in a photograph of Shane Harrison who is on trial for the murder of Sio Matalasi. The decision to exhibit this image seriously undermines the work itself which attempts to humanise the publically perceived inhuman. Not only this but as Rotman’s show opened last week an ex Mongrel Mob prospect  Mauha Fawcett was found guilty of partaking in a brutal and sustained gang rape of Mellory Manning in December of 2008. Her body was found the next day partially clothed, covered in bruises and mutilated. Fawcett murdered her to gain a gang patch. Clearly, art is not made in a vacuum – even if Rotman seems think it is.

When I attended art school one of my photography tutors once asked me, “if someone takes away the rights and freedom of speech of another person, do they deserve to keep theirs?” my tutor’s words ring true in relation to Rotman’s photographic series. He has used photography as a method of telling/discovering these men’s stories, men who are part of a sub-culture which silences other human beings through violence, intimidation, rape and sometimes murder. I know women, one of which is related to me, who have been gang raped and their stories have never been told; their rapists never bought to justice. As Rotman said,

“Because I keep returning, I think they [Mongrel Mob Members] recognise that I’m not in it for a quick media bite. This is a serious body of work and it is part of their story.”

When I tried to get hold of Jono Rotman through the Gow Langsford Gallery to interview him I was told “Jono prefers to let the work speak for itself,” this is an illuminating statement that perhaps also “speaks for itself”. If you are going to use art as a form of serious social commentary then you need to be prepared to answer for your work. Rotman may not consider himself a political artist but he has created and is publically exhibiting a highly political body of work with heavy social and cultural loading. You can wield art as a weapon for change, or you can blow your own foot off with it. There seems to be a major lack of moral and ethically responsibility and consideration from the artist over his own work.

As a well-known New Zealand photographer who has asked to stay anonymous said to me “bold images but they are almost void of any context.”

 

 

 

 

 

47 COMMENTS

  1. …this work explores the idea that a predominantly Maori fraternity can be considered a logical and brutal result of the colonial process. Both as tribal orphans and as vessels of post-colonial trauma.

    What a crock of shit. You have to wonder how he’d account for White gangs like the Devil’s Henchmen, who tend to be active, accomplished and violent criminals remarkably similar to the Mob.

    • that is a really good point! I think it is important to recognise that gangs like MM and BP are results on colonization so there is a difference between gangs like DH but all gangs use similar tactics to get what they want…

      • I believe there is a difference – with both rooted in various forms of marginalisation.

        “Brown gangs” are marginalised from a colonisation process that results in alienation of young people who can’t identify with the new, dominant culture.

        “White gangs” are marginalised, disaffected, working class youth caused predominantly by high unemployment and a lack of outlet for workers who, in older times, were used as “cannon fodder” to soak up excess labour. (Which also, by the way, explains the phenomenon of the British soccer hooligan. Two hundred years ago, they would’ve been facing off against the French or Spanish or whoever else British rulers had the ‘pip’ with.)

        If memory serves, I think Chris Trotter wrote something along these lines, but in much more eloquent terms…

        In short, if a group of people find themselves alienated from a dominant culture, with little in common with those who make the rules, they therefore don’t give a toss when they break said rules.

        It’s hard for middle class, white, law-upholding citizens to understand this, because they are a part of the society which benefits them.

  2. They seem to be good if somewhat alarming pictures. Your conclusions tell us more about you though, than about the art.

    A dog starv’d at his master’s gate. Predicts the ruin of the state.
    A horse misused upon the road. Calls to heaven for human blood.

    These men are not the victims of 19th century colonialism but the present social system. Even though they may have victims in turn. We used to get a bunch of them deep sea fishing – it was a good fit – they wanted to prove they were tough, and there was abundant opportunity just in the work itself.

    Lincoln Tan was successful in resettling a group of them in Dunedin. They rapidly became a friendly law-abiding community, so the Gnats cut his funding.

    • Quite true. Before the economic reforms of the mid-eighties; prominent gang brawls on the street fist to fist, Muldoon created work schemes and was respected by them.

      After the reforms of the mid-eighties; Māori statistics drastically worse on so many levels – unemployment, poverty, life expectancy, mortality. Gangs deal in hard drugs and violent crime, killings and shootings occur. Then the rise of LA-style street gangs with youth. Gang patches banned. Alienation favoured over integration.

  3. They [ the photos ] are exceptional for many reasons and will be seen , in time to come , as an important record and as art . As for the rest ? As for the criticism ? As for the non artist negativity ? Get over it . Move on . Maori need to forgive and non Maori need to understand . That is all . We , as a people of this land need to get along or we will lose this place to the sociopathic 0.01%ers who gleefully use the tensions between Maori and non Maori to inflame , enrage and to ultimately concur . Don’t play into their hands .

    • I am a practicing political artist so this is not “non artist negativity” I did over a half a decade of art school and have shows myself.

      • As a huge fan of Steve McCurry’s work who has a huge cross section of confronting portraits including subculture in his portfolio. These are the people you just don’t look at in society as they are intimidating. Being able to look at these photos shows us a reality, these people are real they are not photoshopped magazine gloss that’s the point isn’t it? It is what you feel looking at these and what you as the viewer bring to the viewing. Most institutional ‘high art’ would have us gushing over a box in the corner of a gallery, after reading a stupid load of crap that explains why it is so amazing…. Yawn.. These works whether you like them or not have created attention, feeling, anger, emotion, good or bad that is the point of art and galleries to bring something out of the viewer, if they don’t do this that is a fail.

    • “non artist negativity”? I take it you didn’t bother to actually read the piece. As for your weird implication that the MM represent all Maori, I suggest you take a step into the real world. Maybe try to pay attention. I’m not going to equate a violent gang with most Maori I know. Nobody engaged with reality ought to.

  4. Art is immune really. From pretentious manifestos by artists aiming for the top end market down to kiwi philistines who don’t know and don’t wanna know about Venice Biennales.

    What I do know is anyone, social worker, writer, artist, wannabe, thrill seeker; that mixes with patch wearers are in as dangerous a space as other potential victims. US author Hunter S. Thompson was badly beaten years back after a few months consorting with the Oakland Hells Angels.

    Gang members are like cops and military. If you do not wear the colours you are nothing to them. Though personally I would be more offended by a series of photographs of the “captains of industry” the capitalists that oppress and exploit the rest of us and taught the gangs well.

  5. What people seem to miss is that to call something human should not be the same as calling it good or noble. Humans build concentration camps and kill others with drones at least as much as they write poetry, take photos, or write art critiques. These mobsters are indeed human, and there is some of us in them, just as there is some of them in all of us. Humanity is a wide spectrum.

  6. White dude (probably nicely middle class, at least tertiary educated) goes slumming it with brown dudes and takes some pretty good pics of said brown dudes.

    Puts them on show for richer white folk (and some brown and yellow folk) to look at with glasses of expensive bubbles in hand…. and makes some nice $$

    And gets a lot of media coverage.

    The pictures are most definitely devoid of context. Which makes them rather disturbing I find, IMHO.

    It’s all wrong on SO many levels. Thanks for so nicely explaining some of those levels Chloe.

    • +1 . Thank you Chloe for articulating and clarifying my disquiet over this exhibition.
      You need to put together a show of your own to provide the context.
      The faces of survivors of gang rape (those women have expressions of pain etched into their faces that are beyond words and it is exceptional) You know it, so show it!

      • Hey Shona thanks for your kind words, I am working on another show in relation to women’s issues. But you make a really good point, I tend to use political storytelling as political testimony and other mediums over photography to bring attention to the violence women have faced. You made some really good points though.. X)

      • Exactly.

        When I look at those images is see rapists. And I’m pretty damned sure these guys are. Gang rape is part of their culture, it’s part of their initiation into the gang.

        And the fact that the pictures were taken by a white male… he clearly hasn’t thought of the context of rape, and the other crimes these men have committed. I strongly suspect he doesn’t give a damn.

        All I see with this body of work and most of the discussion around it is another group of dudes ignoring the damage done to women by rape.

        Okay, that and a side order of racism.

    • Its the manipulation of the subject that is objectionable.Not your sitting at the kitchen table Moko, or not poses.They are taken with a lens on the intimidating.

  7. Before you get too whimsical about that lot, ask them what they think about all the issues which have been lamented in the news ala Roast Busters. Their recruitment requirements would sicken any decent person. Don’t delude yourself. Enough

  8. When someone close to you has been on the receiving end of Mongrel Mob violence, you can’t really see them as anything other than the violent crims they are.

    Personally, I find the photos, and the mentality behind them sick and disturbing.

  9. TRIGGER WARNING: Here is the thing. For many women who have experienced sexual violence, then read about the Mellory Manning case, or are aware of the rape culture which exists in these gangs, simply SEEING a gang member and knowing that they are part of a rape gang is terrifying, upsetting, and traumatising. We use trigger warnings on our posts on social media to prevent the heart pounding fear and anguish that hits some of us when we see something we associate with rape. But seeing that culture glamourised and glorified? Thats a whole new trauma.. I liken it to being not listened to by the police after an assault. It tells me that NZ doesn’t give a F#*k if about rape culture. I encourage the artist to wear an I <3 Jimmy Saville Tshirt to his next photo shoot.

      • Absolutely. It’s a rape gang, right? Or because this rape gang doesn’t visibly/traditionally appear to target men (to rape/gang-rape), maybe this isn’t a concern to Jono. What a terrible shame for those round him that he lacks any empathy for rape survivors. With NZ having the highest rate of sexual violence in the world, can an artist afford to be so ignorant and re-traumatise a group of people in a small country? Is it worth it?

          • Gosman says:
            May 12, 2014 at 7:18 am

            NZ does not have the highest rate if sexual violence in the world.

            Oh! *phew* That’s ok then, eh, Gosman?

            As long as we keep our sexual violence below a certain threshold, you’re ok with that.

            You’ve never been one for empathy with other people – but your concerns for statistics relating to human misery is well known.

                • Any chance you can explain why lying about rape statistics is “caring for victims of sexual violence”?

                  • I think we are third in the world – and this is only the reported ones that manage somehow to get through the court system.

                    I believe that if you use the ‘actual’ rape figures then ‘top of the world’ would be about right.

                    However high up or on the very top of the ladder we are, the stats rose by 10.6% for 2013 – and this doesn’t include the 4 out of 10 children who will be future statistics once they are old enough to stand up for themselves!

                    Opinion and belief.

                  • Imagine being a school teacher, and wondering who the 12 out of 30 children in your class are, that are being sexually abused.

                    Opinion.

  10. Chloe, in an earlier post you indicated holding Ai Weiwei in high esteem. As someone knowledgeable of his work, you’re also possibly familiar with his philosophy, perhaps best represented by a comment he made towards the end of a 2011 BBC Radio 1 documentary: “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”

    Despite agreeing with much of what you’ve said in this article about the savagery attached to the Mob and its members, I’m left feeling that your views are an assault, no doubt unintended, on the freedom of expression.

    I’m also surprised how anyone, apart from those aspiring to the thug life, could view these images as glamourising or romanticising gang life. Whether intended or not, the images I’ve seen are of deeply disturbing men boiling with malevolence and wrapped in layers of protective symbols drawn from a shallow pool of iconographic detritus to which they appear to have conferred magical properties; crushed souls that are so horribly fragmented as to be forever consigned to live in the shadows and on a diet of bile.

    I can think of little about the Mongrel Mob or other similar bands of thugs that is anything other than thoroughly objectionable and I can easily understand how Rotman’s depictions of some of its members would be traumatic for anyone who has suffered their brutality or known someone who has been harmed or killed by them. But it isn’t mandatory to attend the exhibition; individuals can choose not to expose themselves to these images if they don’t want to or if they know it will be harmful to them.

    On a different note, I’m struggling to see how any informed viewer would be with left with the impression that this body of work actually denigrates all Māori or in some way defines the essence of the entire ethnic group as ignoble savages; you’d have to be approaching it with an alarming amount of bigotry or an equally heavy load of baggage to form this conclusion.

    Whatever Rotman’s true reasons are for having birthed this disturbing body of work, it has sparked a debate far wider and of far greater significance than mere criticism of the photographer’s technical accomplishment or any of the other humdrum areas of critique that come easily to work that isn’t socially or spiritually challenging. And isn’t this art’s primary objective–to arrest our attention and divert it from the mundane long enough to spark a conversation that otherwise might not have been had?

    In saying this, I believe my life would not in any way have been diminished had Rotman devoted his time and effort to another subject.

    • errrrrrrrrrr I never said we should censor the work I critiqued it? Also a lot of people agree with my points in relation to these works romanitising gang culture a lot of people do not?

      I never said the work “denigrates all Māori some way defines the essence of the entire ethnic group as ignoble savages; ” I pointed out it perpetuates stereotypes which i backed up with commentary from Paul Moon. In no way did I lump all Maori into one category.

      “you’d have to be approaching it with an alarming amount of bigotry or an equally heavy load of baggage”

      Well I do not know what to say to this other than, if you feel I have made bigoted commentary this was not my intention I went to great lengths to avoid this by contacting many Maori artists and activists to find out their views to inform my own as well as taking my time with this article and gathering alot of research.

        • Personally, I would say ‘no’, there is no reason to retract anything. You’ve given a pretty darned good insight into how you view the artpieces/”artpieces”.

          If indeed “Jono prefers to let the work speak for itself,” then every single person who has viewed them has the right to voice their interpretation, incdluding creating a context where none has been provided.

          If any artist is prepared to delve into the controversial, then s/he is de facto inviting a critique, whether supportive or condemnatory.

          • totally agreed, but obviously if I was racist in my critique I be a bit horrified with myself and have to seriously check my own privilege..

              • one would hope. I just get a bit tired of people excusing this work with the cringe making statement “art is subjective”, there is some pretty explicit meaning in this artwork even if, the white artist, was woefully unaware of it.

      • Chloe, I was not saying that your commentary was bigoted but simply that if anyone were to walk away from Rotman’s images believing that Māori as an ethnic group were defined by the actions of the Mongrel Mob then they (not you) would surely be reaching conclusions drawn from a deep well of ignorance or bigotry.

        You open this door, though, by raising the issues of “damaging stereotypes of indigenous people” and the “colonial stereotype of the ‘violent savage’”. Should the artist truly be concerned that some viewers inevitably will impose their own warped perceptions on her/his work? Is that a valid reason to limit or even suppress expression?

        For what its worth, I believe your time would be better spent working on Shona’s proposal (a show of your own featuring the stories of survivors of gang rape) than seeking to discredit this body of work; those stories not only need to be told but would attract a far greater audience than an article on TDB.

        Although I obviously don’t agree with some of the opinions you’ve expressed, or with Paul Moon’s views, I’m grateful to you for having initiated this conversation and sincerely hope that you find the time to help give a voice to those who have been brutalised by this group of thugs or others like them.

  11. If I had to choose between looking at those photos and the forensic photos of Mallory Manning (if they were available for public viewing) then I would choose Ms Manning ‘ s. Her memory deserves imprinting on the minds of the living. Why?

    Because the Mongrel Mob decided they had the right to play God.They took her life away. I don’t feel their lives deserve any visual record other than via police mug shots.

  12. The problematic part of these photographs is their blatant aestheticizing of poverty and gang culture by an artist unaware of the wider consequences of that action. Violence and alterity are neatly packaged with a side serving of notoriety for an audience largely consisting of upper class pākehā. Art is not solely the realm of the upper class or of the pākehā, but that Rotman chooses to site the works in a High Street commercial gallery is significant. They are produced and subsequently priced specifically for the consumption of the rich; as subjects for chatter, as ornamentation.

    It is fairly obvious the depth of Rotman’s conceptual engagement hasn’t really gone beyond the bare minimum of ‘these images look cool’ and that ‘the mungies are people too’. They are superficial things, and although technically sound, Rotman along with Gow Langsford are oblivious to the varied yet well mapped contexts that these photographs and the discussion of contemporary art operate within. That obliviousness is where the majority of offence lies in the exhibition of these works, not to say they can’t or shouldn’t be exhibited, but it’s 2014, you’re going to get called out on that.

    As for the notion that these works are somehow validated or interesting for the sheer fact they ‘sparked debate’ (as if debate is actually something novel), it is a position that conflates the quality of Rotman’s art to the quality of critique or to an essential quality of art itself. If the sum aspiration of a work is to be the art equivalent of ‘click baiting’ then that work is mediocre and tired.

  13. Those photos represent the 21st Century version of the 19th Century Victorian world’s fascination with a sense of the macabre.

    On the flip side, gangs and their family members will love it because of the sense of validation to their lives.

    Meanwhile, victims of gang violence are made aware they are victimized again – by a photographer and his market revelling in their privilege.

  14. I believe this exhibition has done us a valuable service. It has (as evidenced by this article and the following comments, among many others) reminded us that there are parts of our society that are ‘not nice’.

    It could be seen as somewhat unreasonable to expect that a single exhibition of this ‘not niceness’ is castigated because it fails to encompass the full gallery depicting all the conscious organisers of such ‘not niceness’.

    For example one could ask; where are the other perpetrators? Where are the exquisite images of the boards of directors of every alcohol-manufacturing and distribution company, with thumbnails of every shareholder?

    Where are the sepias of those who have commoditised education – compulsorily taking our children from our sides and imprisoning them in an increasingly irrelevant penitentiary of Victorian ethics and expectations while ignoring (or worse, denying) the teachings of The Wise Ones?

    Where are the carefully crafted portraits of the operators a Health System which focusses on making money out of illness rather than supporting and glorifying health?

    Rotman’s work depicts but one of the many facets of our ‘society’, and that facet is (in terms of it overall impact on our society as a whole) perhaps just a small part of the totality of ‘wrongs’ we should be discussion and addressing.

    To find that we rile against these images being thrust into the main-stream conversation means, I guess, that we are not yet ready to meet these illnesses of our society face to face. It is important that we know that of ourselves, and for that, at least, we owe Rotman our thanks.

  15. I like photography as a art form.Monochrome gift of clarity of vision and capture.Setting, better for the art of light reflection and clarity to the vistion that is seen.

  16. I wonder how many commenting that the work glamourises or sanitises the subjects have actually seen the exhibition. Nothing in the pics that I’ve seen suggest either to me, they still look like violent losers in my view.

    Still, Chloe has a good point about the price tags and ultimate destination of the works.

  17. I’m not sure why Jono would spend 7 years doing this. Is there something I am missing because I have no art training? Why did Jono deem them worthy of such time/ glorification? I don’t get it.

    These thugs most likely felt good getting some real attention outside court, giving them a perceived higher status. I’m sure they were encouraged to continue their ‘successful lives’. I think the presence of Jono can only have validated their existence, and ‘encouraged’ more crime. He doesn’t seem to have enough ‘strength of character’ to have influenced them in any positive way.

    The only good thing, is that now these images can be digitally altered to show the true character of these rapists, oh, and Jono won’t have to worry about being asked to do any more wedding photos.

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