Close-Up on Kiribati

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Giulietta Verdon-Roe’s photographs of everyday life on the islands of Kiribati initially appear idyllic.  Pictures like ‘Retrieving moimotos (green coconuts), Bairiki, Tarawa’ (above) epitomise a tropical island paradise to a jaded Londoner, while the crisp black and white snapshot style summons up both a certain nostalgia and a refined beauty.

But the raison d’être of the trip to Kiribati, and the fact that colours the whole portfolio with an urgent poignancy, is that the islands are threatened with imminent extinction from the rising sea levels.  Kiribati is a chain of 33 low-lying atolls in the South Pacific, though the majority of the population live on just a few islands known as South Tarawa. These islands were occupied by the Japanese during World War II and were the site of the Battle of Tarawa in 1943; formerly the Gilbert Islands, they gained independence from the UK in 1979.  Over the course of the exhibition, all these various aspects of Kiribati – its history, culture, industry, flora and fauna, and its now precarious future – are documented, building up a subtle yet complete portrait of a people.

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The first selection starts quietly, with still scenes of empty interiors and food being prepared.  A lone flip-flop signifies momentary human absence, while images of bagging and cooking of fish illustrates the limited diet of the islanders – predominantly fish, rice and coconuts.  Wall 2 continues this theme, with scenes of coconuts being collected and fishing boats being loaded.  Figures make an appearance here, both at work and play: there is an image of ship-breaking and a petrol station (below), a hospital maternity ward, the airport at Maiana (little more than a shack), the church and the bar.

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Further along, one is admitted an insight into individual lives.  Joy is pictured gutting flying fish at 5.30am (below), sitting cross-legged with the first dappled rays of sun filtering through the leaves, just catching her absorbed features.  There is a scene of a bride preparing for her wedding, and another showing a celebration of a man’s recovery from a motorcycle accident; others show locals enjoying an evening swim or children playing in trees.

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Wall 4 introduces to this chronicle of daily activities and entertainments the more serious issue of climate change.  Photographs document the Climate Change Conference held in Maiana, the delegates sitting cross-legged in the ‘maneaba’, the community’s meeting hall – so very far away from the scale and technology of EU conference centres that it seems difficult to believe there is any real understanding between the two.  Hopefully exhibitions such as this will help to remedy that concern.

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The final sections of the show focus in on details again, becoming increasingly abstract.  Compositions of cards captured mid-game, piles of fruit, piles of rubbish; the sudden – incongruous – appearance of the a rusting World War II tank emerging from lush undergrowth.  The Climate Change Ambassador flies out of Maiana; and we are left with exquisite, elegiac images such as ‘Dried Coral Beach, before the tide returns, Maiana’ (above) whose textural and tonal qualities sum up the innate beauty of these islands.

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