In October 2005, a devastating earthquake struck northern Pakistan’s Kashmir region, with powerful tremors sent rippling through a host of neighbouring nations. In the wake of the tragedy, Henk Wildschut was invited by Doctors Without Borders to document relief efforts in the afflicted areas, establishing an enduring preoccupation with the plight of displaced peoples, whose experiences lie at the heart of many of the artist’s subsequent projects.
Naturally appalled by the wretched conditions in which survivors found themselves, Wildschut also recognised an admirable sense of dignity in the collective response. ‘While media reporting on disasters tends to focus on the suffering and helplessness of the almost anonymous victims, I could see that there was actually a great deal of positive action and resilience. Emergency tents were kitted out with household necessities recovered from the rubble, whilst people planted little gardens alongside the tents as a way of marking their private territory and manifesting their individuality’.
‘I could never forget the sight of those newly-planted vegetable patches between the tents, although I wasn’t yet aware that small, informal gardens are a far from unusual phenomenon in refugee camps’. Wildschut photographed these universal symbols of an unwavering hope, sprouting their way through the devastation. Over the course of several years, the project grew steadily across various locations, from UNHCR-administered refugee camps in Tunisia and Jordan to smaller makeshift sites in Lebanon and France.
As well as creating an important counter-image to conventional representations of displaced peoples, Wildschut’s intriguing approaches unearthed a range of fascinating stories. In Tunisia, Sudanese camp dwellers repurposed sand-filled plastic bottles to build ingenious irrigation systems; a technique they had refined during intermittent conflict in their homeland. In Jordan, refugee Abdel al Razaq administered a small camp garden to distract his mind from the brutal war in his native Syria.
For the artist, unveiling these personal histories represents an effective means of fostering understanding of complex social questions. ‘I try to evoke imagination from real situations that, at first sight, leave nothing to the imagination’. In its intriguing focus, Defiant Gardens is emblematic of Wildschut’s broader tendency to seek out new ways of presenting the issues we think we know.