Friday 06 March 2020

by Dan Stirland

On 15 March 2019 a gunman entered two mosques in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) and murdered 51 worshippers. Many more were injured in the attacks. Aotearoa New Zealand’s response was immediate and unequivocal: “They Are Us”.

The victims, their families and Ōtautahi’s Muslim community became the focus of an outpouring of love, support and solidarity.

Over the following weeks and months, tens of thousands of tributes to the victims and the community were laid outside the Al Noor Mosque, the Linwood Islamic Centre, and the city’s Botanic Gardens. As the weather deteriorated in April, Christchurch City Council moved the tributes indoors and began the process of distributing them.

The floral tributes were composted and the compost given to the Al Noor Mosque for its garden. However, many of the flowers had been wrapped in colourful, often patterned plastic. This was handed over to the Giving Seeds of Love initiative, which intended to turn the plastic into an artwork. Bunnings Warehouse donated hardware and the Government’s Ethnic Communities Development Fund provided funding via the Lady Khadija Trust. Meanwhile, the plastic was painstakingly cleaned to remove the dirt and mould that had built up during a month in the wind and rain. UNITY was the result.

UNITY composite

UNITY. Canterbury Museum 2019.I.19.1

Designed and built by Flower Girl Simone Johnstone with her husband Kris and father-in-law Colin, UNITY required 200 hours of work to produce. It incorporates plastic from two of the three tribute sites (the Al Noor Mosque and the Botanic Gardens) and represents the mass of flowers that were laid.

The fact that no two flowers are the same speaks to the diversity of cultures, faiths, and nationalities present in Ōtautahi and Aotearoa New Zealand more broadly. The way they are positioned on the sign, packed side-by-side up against each other, promotes ideas of equality and celebrating difference, suggesting that together we can be more than the sum of our parts. UNITY's myriad bright colours remind us that hope and positive outcomes can sometimes spring from terrible circumstances.

Unity Unveiling

UNITY is unveiled at St Andrews Chapel in July 2019. Canterbury Museum 2019.69.13

Simone and Giving Seeds of Love consulted with the Uniting Canterbury Women group throughout the process. Uniting Canterbury Women provides a platform for women from different cultural backgrounds to connect, share and support each other through kindness, compassion and love. The group includes Muslims, who chose the word “unity” over “love” for the piece, thereby lending the work authenticity and ensuring that its message is not hollow.

2019.69.12 Simone Johnstone 1200

Simone Johnstone. Canterbury Museum 2019.69.12

Simone started producing paper flowers out of vintage maps to use instead of real flowers at her wedding. She says, “I wanted to be able to keep my flowers for longer than just a few days.” Since then she has expanded her repertoire to include books, sheet music and many other types of colourful, quirky or unusual paper and plastic objects. Flower Girl has grown into a successful business, although Simone’s time and effort on UNITY was given free of charge. Simone says, “It was an honour for me to create this piece and to gift it to the Muslim community.” Giving Seeds of Love was able to give her a small koha in return.

UNITY was unveiled at an emotional, women-only event at St Andrew’s Chapel in Christchurch on 10 July 2019, at which the work was ceremonially gifted to the Muslim Association of Canterbury who in turn immediately gifted it onwards to Canterbury Museum. The handovers were conducted by members of the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre.

UNITY Audience

UNITY's unveiling was a women-only event. Canterbury Museum 2019.69.8

In September 2019, to mark six months since the terrorist attacks, UNITY was included in Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū’s Tributes of Aroha exhibition, where it was given a prominent position in the Gallery’s foyer.

UNITY has been collected by the Museum with the intent that it will be available for display in public institutions provided some conditions are met. Enquiries should be directed in the first instance to info@canterburymuseum.com

UNITY will be on display in the Museum Visitor Lounge on Level 3 from 9 to 22 March to commemorate the one year anniversary of the terror attacks.

Dan StirlandDan Stirland is Curator Special Projects and has been working with the Muslim community and other groups to preserve tributes to victims of the Christchurch terror attacks.

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