Decorated dinghies propped against posts invite people to snuggle in their shadow at headland Sculpture on the Gulf, to take refuge from sun, wind or rain.
But to spend any time under them is to hear harrowing accounts of refugee lives before and after coming to New Zealand, narrated by familiar Kiwi media voices.
The Journey of A Million Miles Begins With One Step is a partnership between social practice artist Tiffany Singh and the Auckland Resettled Community Coalition. On Tuesday, refugees whose stories form the emotional core of the installation visited the headland to inspect, gathering around and beneath the boats to hear their own experiences as art.
Their reaction was “overwhelmingly positive”, she says. “It was quite amazing and quite emotional for everyone to come together like that.”
Her work is a response to the way the refugee community is thought of by New Zealanders and particularly the media, she says. The focus is often on statistics and costs rather than who these people are and the contribution they are making.
The four “upcycled” dinghies, their outer hulls decorated in thousands of paper boats, were donated by Waihekeans after Singh put out a call in the Gulf News last year. “They’re a little bit damaged and neglected and there’s this sense that they’ve been washed ashore after a long journey.”
The insides are shrouded in fabrics acknowledging the many cultures that make up the refugee community. The colours and patterns are a beguiling contrast to the stories of displaced people from Sudan, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar and elsewhere.
Mats and cushions beneath the boats reinforce the theme of refuge but the soundtrack is disconcerting: a Sudanese man whose father and grandfather died in separate civil wars but whose bid to live in Australia was blocked by corruption; a young woman so alienated by New Zealand that she overdosed on illegal drugs “to get out of this dark hole”; a certified nurse enduring racism as a taxi driver; a mother who cannot breach language barriers to explain that her children are being bullied at school …
Yet most express optimism that they and their children have a future here.
The nine stories are from The Beyond Refuge Resettlement Storybook produced by the coalition last year. After working hard to gain her subjects’ trust, Singh says it was a privilege to connect them with the work.
Footnote: With Sculpture on the Gulf closing on Sunday, artists are seeking accommodation for de-installation work from Monday. Most need beds for one or two nights. If you can help, email with dates and the number you could host. • Geoff Cumming

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