Photos: Kai Schwoerer/Carl Court via Getty Images

Christchurch remembers: The politics of memory, on the anniversary of tragedy

As the city today marks the anniversary of the Canterbury earthquake, and in a few weeks that of the Christchurch terror attacks, Susan Wardell looks at how and why we choose to remember, and the complexities of collective public grief.

“Christchurch has suffered more than any community should have to endure,” the prime minister said last year in a national address.

It’s this suffering the city is currently preparing to revisit. Today is the 10th anniversary of the Canterbury quake; March 15 will be the second anniversary of the shootings at Al Noor mosque and Linwood Islamic centre.

These are tragedies of quite different sorts – a natural disaster and a terrorist attack. Yet they are linked by some of the same questions of how to live with and mark these traumatic events and their diverse impacts on the city.

How we remember is who we are

Humans have many different ways to grieve and remember, together. In contemporary Aotearoa, these range from organised gatherings such as vigils or memorial services, spontaneous public responses such as laying tributes at the site of a tragedy, or flooding online spaces with comments and artwork. As time moves on, decisions are made about installing permanent markers in the landscape – things that become woven into the everyday life of the city.

These memorials shape the way tragedies are integrated into the city’s identity. Many will claim to express something on behalf of an entire population, yet experiences and interpretations of traumatic events are diverse, entangled with different values and identities. Because of this, practices of memory are never neutral. In fact, they often generate controversy or disagreement. This is true in Christchurch, especially during anniversaries when both pain and possibility come to the fore. Yet it is also true in the everyday.

Some of the tributes brought to the Al Noor mosque on the first anniversary, March 2020 (Photos: Susan Wardell)

City of history: Constructions and deconstruction of memory

If you stroll along the Avon River as it winds its way through the Christchurch CBD, you walk on and through the city’s memories. They’re embedded in the landscape – plaques, signs, statues, and buildings. It’s a city deeply invested in history and heritage. This memorial architecture recognises historical traumas ranging from the “Black Saturday” of the Spanish Flu to the losses of the World Wars. These exist alongside modern bustle. The enormous arch of the Bridge of Remembrance prettily frames the restaurants and chain stores of Cashel St behind – past and present, cohabiting the centre city.

Today’s Christchurch is also a testimony to deconstructed histories. The literal deconstruction, by the quakes, of the colonial heritage that made up the city’s character is still strewn about. Visible ruins have become tourist destinations of themselves. Road cones and chain-link fences are the normal aesthetics of the city centre, even 10 years later. There are losses, as well as tenuous promises, wrapped up in this. Memories not only of the quake itself but of the layers of institutional commitment and failure that dogged residents throughout the following years – years of waiting and fighting for compensation and infrastructure repair. It’s hard to know whether to read the proliferation of bright murals and street art as acts of joyful resilience, or an attempt at distraction.

Temporary fences have become part of the aesthetic of central Christchurch, as have colourful commissioned murals on bare walls (Photo: Susan Wardell)

Flowers and stone

The official earthquake memorial – Oi Manawa, which means “tremor of the heart” – was opened in 2017. It is also beside the Avon, just a stone’s throw from the CBD, but tucked away from the shopping. At the top of the ramp, on a stone base adorned with whakairo, stands a huge piece of pounamu running with water from a hidden pump. This gift from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu marks the threshold. Descending, an imposing wall visually separates the sombre memorial from the space of everyday life above. This is something common to Pākehā approaches to grief – this cordoning off of space and time, an assumption of grief as private, rather than public. The sort of assumption that’s challenged when trauma and loss are shared by an entire city.

The marble wall at Oi Manawa is inscribed with the names of the 185 people lost to the quake. The space is grey, geometric and static – clean benches and tidy saplings surrounded by careful grey stones. But along the bottom of the wall are colourful, hand-painted stones holding down letters and notes that people have left. There are seasonal tokens, like tiny Christmas trees – things that mark time in a real way and the individuality of those lost and those grieving. Reminders that memory is not a thing, but a process, and one enacted collectively. Something always being renewed and renegotiated, even after a decade. 

These colourful tributes will undoubtedly increase this week. The ones from family members will be joined by offerings from the wider public. They are tokens of a bigger trend that scholars call “spontaneous memorialisation”. The practice of leaving flowers, cards, gifts, candles, flags and teddy bears at sites of tragedy, is quite a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. It’s both individual and ritualistic, something that happens in the spaces between official and unofficial memorial practice. Importantly, it’s tied to place – made sacred amidst the mundane – and to material objects.

Oi Manawa memorial (Photo: Susan Wardell)

After the mosque attacks in 2019, this form of response became iconic in international media coverage. The streets outside the mosques were soon crowded by offerings with cones and barriers set up to protect them. This represents the public acting upon the city landscape and, the powers that be, honouring this. A series of short videos by RNZ covers this in detail, conveying just how much these meant to some of the bereaved, and documenting some of the formal efforts made to preserve, display or archive the gifts. Perhaps because the flood of little kindness is one part of that horrible event that everyone wants to remember. Something easier than the colonial and racist histories that surround and support such violence. Yet both are real. And both, I think, contributed to the sense of necessity around a national remembrance service for the first anniversary of the attacks in 2020. A service that was then cancelled at the last minute amid growing Covid-19 concerns.

Public ritual – with whom and for whom?

I was in Christchurch to attend the event when the announcement came. The day before, I was sitting in a small auditorium, listening to a panel session about RNZ’s Widows of Shuhada podcast when someone passed a note to the MC. When she informed the crowd that the event had been cancelled, there was a heavy, collective “ohhh”. Then she turned to Dr Hamimah Tuyan – wife of Zekeriya Tuyan, the 51st casualty of the white supremacist attack of March 15 – who was sitting behind her. Dr Tuyan had travelled back from Singapore to speak on behalf of the bereaved at the service (as well as on this panel). As she stood to take the mic, her face was wrought with grief. She took a moment to compose herself. The tears came quietly anyway as she began to share with this small audience, what she had hoped to say to a predicted crowd of 10,000 in Hagley Park the following day: words of gratitude, but also of the need to grow. 

It is possible that some people were relieved about the cancellation. Despite being planned carefully over five months with input from numerous branches of local and national government, Muslim community leaders and representatives of the bereaved families, the remembrance event had generated a last-minute media storm when it was asserted a few days before that “the Muslim community” didn’t want the event. Like much media coverage, this assumed a conformity of perspectives among a diverse group of people. It also seemed to assume the service had been (mis)intended for the benefit of Muslim New Zealanders alone. But it was always bigger than that. 

Christchurch, March 2019 (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The planning committee had quickly acknowledged that Muslim traditions didn’t require or encourage marking deaths in this way. Faith leaders had stated their communities didn’t need it. And yet, they formally supported it. Acknowledging New Zealand’s cultural traditions and the public investment in the event, their graciousness was striking. 

They maintained involvement in planning. But there were further complexities to navigate in the “home”. A controversy arose about the suggestion of including Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Welcome Home’.  Was it moving or trite? Would a “sing-along” set the wrong tone? Logistical questions were tied irrevocably to questions of respect. Who would sit up the front? The families of victims? The bullet-wounded? Witnesses? How to respect and acknowledge different kinds of trauma? 

In the flood of reflections that hit the media as the anniversary neared, it wasn’t just the trauma of the Muslim community being discussed either. The experiences of emergency workers, bystanders, hospital staff and journalists; the actions of non-Muslim citizens who cried and cared; the organised fundraisers and laid tributes. They all found their place alongside the stories of the mosque attendees.

This is understandable, yet involves risk. A risk in outsiders overidentifying when the tragedy is so targeted. One member of the planning committee for the remembrance service for the mosque attack, put it this way:

“No matter where you were in the greater Christchurch region, every single person felt the earthquake. And every single person had something fall off their shelf, or lost power, or – on the extreme end – lost their homes and … also loved ones. Everyone experienced the exact same thing at the exact same time. The mosque attack is very specific, to a specific group of people. While we were all witnessing, grieving, watching all those kinds of things on TV… we didn’t experience it.”

This difference must be acknowledged as something that shapes both who grieves and how they grieve. It shapes the goal of remembrance, both for the population attending and for those looking on around the world. Matt Nichols, who headed up the planning committee on behalf of the Christchurch City Council, explained that it had aimed to leave space for both acknowledging the terrible loss and recognising the wider community response. The hope was, as he said, that people would attend and “feel optimistic, about the future of the city”.

Taking it online

In the press conference announcing the cancellation of the 2020 event, the mayor of Christchurch stated that “An online vigil can continue remembrance”. But can it? Is there a reason behind this compulsion to gather in person, and what is lost when this isn’t possible? 

Émile Durkheim, the renowned French sociologist, wrote about something called “collective effervescence”. It happens in crowds, especially during shared rituals. It’s an energy, something that produces feelings of belonging and connection – a powerful force for creating unity in the face of tragedy or uncertainty. Can that happen online, sitting alone with the blue glow of a screen? 

This is an especially salient question in the age of Covid-19. In New Zealand, lockdowns temporarily limit the ability to hold funerals or participate in public grieving in person. Māori communities are especially affected by restrictions on tangihanga. There are some things that social media cannot replace. And yet, there are some powerful and unexpected things that it can do – more often entangled with physical practices and symbols, rather than separate from them.  

Thousands turned up for the Wellington Vigil held at the Basin Reserve on March 17, 2019 (Photo: Elias Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Directly after the attack, people flocked to vigils: 11,000 attended in Wellington, 10,000 in Dunedin, and 15,000 in Christchurch, along with thousands in Auckland. But not everyone could make it in person. Many of those who couldn’t went online. Those I interviewed described how photos and videos flooded their social media feeds with real-time reactions from friends spread throughout the crowd, conveying the “vibe” and creating a sense of connection for them, in their own homes. A sort of digital “being-there”. 

Social media, however, has its own force and rhythms. Formal attempts to replicate offline collective rituals on the internet don’t always work. While the videos were beautiful, the digital  “living flower wall” instituted for the anniversary felt a little clunky and strange to me, while the live streams of musical tributes came closer to accessing that desirable sense of shared experience. Adapting to the medium, rather than trying to replicate physical memorial practices, may be key. As is letting people respond individually online, as they prolifically do, through shares and comments, profile banners, hashtags and emojis. These things are often criticized as shallow or tokenistic. yet pixel hearts aren’t inherently more “shallow” than paper ones. Both contribute to visualising public sentiment, conveying a sense of care to those bereaved or victimised, and a sense of solidarity with others doing the same. 

Space to remember

A second attempt at a national remembrance service for the mosque attack has also been arranged this year, and – just like this year’s earthquake memorial service which is planned to take place at the Oi Manawa memorial – will be live-streamed online. This opportunity to be together, apart, will benefit many people. The physical gathering, if Covid-19 alert levels allow, will take place at the Christchurch Arena since no dedicated public space for this after an early proposal fell flat.  

In 2019 the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand released concept drawings for a large memorial site, featuring a conference centre, gardens, paths, and ponds. But on social media, many (who seemed to have misunderstood the financing plans) objected on the basis that the need for money for infrastructure repairs in “a city being rebuilt” was much more pressing than a memorial. Others supported the notion but advocated for something smaller or with less “bells and whistles”, with one person highlighting that the proposed memorial looked “five times bigger” than the earthquake memorial and compared the death toll. The sense of competition of space for memory was both literal and metaphorical.

Public responses also showed differences of opinion on what felt necessary to remember.  One person positively compared the memorial plans to Anzac memorials as a way of publicly saying “never again”. Another said the proposed memorial was “pushing an agenda” when “we just want to move on”. The proposal seems to have now been dropped.

So in March 2020, with the remembrance service at Hagley Park cancelled, Al Noor became the focus again with spots pre-arranged at the front fence for flowers to be placed and displayed. It seemed there was an acceptance the mosques had become a place of pilgrimage and small rituals of love for non-Muslims too.

The gold inscription on the plaque in Arabic is a phrase from the Quran and translates to “we surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. (Photo: RNZ/Nathan Mckinnon)

A few months later, after the conclusion of the terrorist’s landmark trial, the prime minister appeared in Christchurch to unveil a memorial plaque at Al Noor mosque. There was little fanfare or social media buzz, and the choice to place the marker within the premises of the faith community, rather than in a neutral public space, belies a complex politics of memory and place.   

The marker is a tall, black stone, around shoulder-height. It’s inscribed with gold lettering, including a quote from the Quran. It bears a picture of a pair of open hands. Whether or not the second anniversary service goes ahead, it’s likely this site will welcome visitors and tributes yet again and, perhaps, long into the future. 

How to go on?

Christchurch has a “knack” now for dealing with disaster, according to the planning committee member for the remembrance service for the mosque attack. Cantabrians have a way of working together to respond to tragedy that’s “unique to this place.” But it can’t be easy, especially at this time of year.

After all, what can be said about the earthquake of February 22, 2011, that sums up all of those 185 lives? What wall can convey the loss of homes, norms, history and sense of safety, much of which is still being rebuilt today? 

What songs can be sung to process the reality of a white supremacist attack against a minority community, in the heart of a conservative city, on March 15, 2019? What markers say “welcome”, “safety” and also “sorry”? As many people have pointed out – most prominently many Muslim voices – the real way to remember is to change. 

Still, we lay our flowers. Still, we carve our stones. And this is not so separate as it seems from the question of change.

The past is always pressing into the present. Memorialisation is our way of controlling what form it comes to us in and how it’s incorporated into the wider story of who we are. And who we will be.




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