Image Credit: PETER MORGAN
Thank you to RealTime for featuring our latest exhibition Moving Nations. Check it out here.
Thank you to RealTime for featuring our latest exhibition Moving Nations. Check it out here.
We live in a world built on forced, mass displacement; likewise, the logic of colonised, convict Australia is one of violence, segregation, and involuntary movement. At a time when global migration is surpassing the incredible mass displacement of World War II, we’re also aware of the constant shifting tectonic plates of people in Sydney. As we watch the sell-off of public housing in places like Miller’s Point, wide-spread gentrification, particularly in suburbs of Indigenous significance like Redfern, and the disturbing footage presented by those who can capture any within mandatory detention, (clearly detailing the human cost of forced detainment) – we can’t move through our city without being reminded of the ways in which space and place are politicised, ravaged by capitalist greed, constantly in flux and forever bound to class, culture, community and identity.
Moving Nations speaks to both a contemporary, worldwide phenomenon of displacement and globalisation and our particular local context of Australia. We’re a settler-colonial nation of Indigenous genocide and eviction, post-war immigration, diaspora, gentrification, refugee detainment and settlement and often our understandings of these issues are from clinical or affective representations of large-scale trauma on the news, which we receive refracted through our personal experiences, or lack thereof, with displacement – an issue permanently entangled with and felt through race, culture and class. The purpose of art in this exhibition is to reinstate the lived experience of a single subject in a complex global and national phenomenon and give voice and space to people whose bodies and lives are inscribed with inter-generational trauma and socially-determined Otherness.
Works by Abdul Abdullah, Olga Cironis, Dean Cross, Eugenia Lim, Peter Drew, Penny Ryan, James Nguyen and Justine Youssef produce aesthetics and poetics of marginalised subjectivities, of people not represented in the Settler-colonial matrix of heteropatriarchial nationalism that perpetually recasts the white Australian man as the dominant semiotic spectre haunting our carefully and violently constructed nation-state. Their works don’t reject an understanding of the physical, environmental and geographical repercussions of mass migration but they privilege personal experiences of displacement over totalising accounts. Their works, sitting together in the gallery in solidarity, facilitate an affect-laden, artist-driven experience of moving closer to understanding how the movements of nations and the movements of bodies coalesce to create people and their experiences of the world
Most of the artists involved in the exhibition have personal investments in displacement, its effects and affects and all have devoted parts of their practice to investigating these themes. In particular, all artists are united in their negotiation of the experiences of enculturation and acculturation. For Abdul and Justine these processes are felt through ties to Western Sydney, religion and diaspora. Dean and Peter’s understandings of these processes are inflected by considerations of indigeneity; for Dean this is as an Indigenous man, for Peter this is as a white Australian living in complicity in the occupied lands of Australia. For Eugenia, James and Olga, enculturation and acculturation are phenomena considered alongside their lived experiences as second-generation Australians with subjectivities born from the struggles of operating between two worlds and with the trauma of family migration. Penny grapples with understandings of cultural difference and experience through a complicated engagement with notions of inaction and complicity, as she addresses Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
With such personal and subjective entanglements to these issues, it’s unsurprising that one of the strongest currents of commonality running through the exhibition is the unconventional and diverse artistic practice of (self-)portraiture. Perhaps the most traditional use of portraiture in Moving Nations is in Abdul Abdullah’s the lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep from the coming to terms series (2015) and Eugenia Lim’s Yellow Peril (2015), two symbolically rich photographic works that labour, defiantly, against the violent politics of colonial representation and production of Otherness in ethnographic photography, to produce a self-determined image of outsiderness and difference.
Similarly, Olga Cironis’ use of photography in together we were rich, we had shoes (2013), a medium still associated with representational violence and the problems of pathologisation and spectacle, complicates the very processes of coming to knowledge through looking and objectifying the photographed subject; her oiled, encased, distorted reproduction of a lost family photo demands a critical, searching engagement with the reading of an image, which produces a mode of viewing that makes the viewer aware of their distance from the photographic subject. As such, Cironis, Lim and Abdullah all subversively use photography and the history of portraiture to reimagine our relationship to knowing and understanding the experiences and subjectivities of people whose bodies are understood in relation to their geo-political positioning
In contrast, Penny Ryan’s Open Hearts (2016), an iteration of the Confined Hearts Projects, is an installation comprised of collective makings of the self; each small heart is made in a workshop wherein participants craft a terracotta human heart while discussing their feelings towards, and position within, a national system of refugee policies and practices grounded in violence. Peter Drew’s Real Australians Seek Welcome poster has a similar link to community as his posters are distributed around Australia like political mirrors, confronting members of the public with the chance to reflect on who they are as individuals and as citizens in a post-colonial nation where sovereignty was never ceded.
Likewise, James Nguyen’s neon sign animation Adidas/Converse (2017) produces a community-style portraiture of the Vietnamese diaspora. His work reflects on the connected but divided character of his community through the metaphorical lexical conflict between two iconic shoe brands, as Vietnam’s GDP is heavily indebted to the production of shoes.
Justine Youssef’s An Other’s wurud (2017) echoes Nguyen’s artistic wrestle with the Western influence on the shaping of Vietnamese identity, as her cross-cultural use of introduced colonial English flora and rose water represents a diasporic identity of in-betweeness. Her portrait is also rich in the feminine, in the look back of a woman who is orientalised in the Western imagination but also actively moving through colonisation with culturally-significant objects like rose water, a material imbued with meaning by the many generations of women who preserved its meaning and uses for Justine.
Dean Cross’ video work Right Land’s provides a similar portrait of community. Whereas Youssef’s work gestures towards the power of doing to create community through the use of rose water, an object that binds together people through its transgenerational use, the subject of Cross’ portrait is the very act of walking, which has a specific cultural and community significance. The act of tracing the borders of his family property very poignantly alludes to the violent and yet arbitrary placement of fences, here representative of the Western ideal that one can claim ownership of land with something as malleable as barbed wire. Cross’ work doesn’t just speak directly to movement in an exhibition called Moving Nations, but also redefines portraiture as a practice of representing a verb rather than a noun. He presents walking, rather than a person, as a way of producing and visualising subjectivity, perfectly demonstrating the ways in which the practice of moving the body through space and place can be at the heart of subjective experience.
Image Credits below: Zan Wimberley, Peter Morgan.
It took several years for Stories about Hope to come to its current form. My very first impulse to do something was after an exhibition my partner and I attended back in 2013. The exhibition featured art works drawn by people in an immigration detention centre. The drawings were beautiful and painful simultaneously, yet the tour guide was very pessimistic. One of the visitors asked him whether there was anything positive or hopeful for these people in the detention centre, he responded: “No. Everything is bad”. While I could understand his embedded political claim to close the camps, his pessimism was erasing human agency, reducing the hope that had been created in these individuals through their art and getting their voices heard. At that time, I could barely speak English, so I didn’t have a chance to respond to him, but that overheard conversation has stayed with me.
The first version of Stories about Hope was a deeply autobiographical series of photographs, produced in black and white as a metaphor for the emptiness and numbness we felt. I had become very familiar with the rhetoric about refugees in Australia. It was a mix of the persistent narrative of victimhood on one side, and refugees being a burden to society on the other. I did not identify with either. I also struggled with the fact that being defined as a refugee by society, meant to only be a refugee and no one else. For me this label was completely erasing any humanity, history, education, achievements and so on. The other main drive for me with Stories about Hope was the imperative of storytelling. When people find out that you came to Australia seeking protection, they only want to hear that story. You are constantly asked to tell details about your trauma and pain. You are being held in your past, and it feels like you are not allowed to move on. At the end, I came to a multimedia approach with the project: photography, short documentary films and writing. I started looking for people who would want to share their stories with me. But unlike popular demand, I was interested not in their stories of trauma, but their stories of dignity. Ethics was an underlining principle of the whole undertaking for me. This has become the concept of Stories about Hope.
The stories celebrate the courage and resilience of people who have undertaken diverse journeys to Australia throughout different points in history. It was important to challenge society’s stereotypes about who can be a ‘refugee’. There are 8 participants in the project, from Holocaust survivors, queer people to our most recent young arrivals. The stories prove that your past does not define you, but can give you more strength to move forward with confidence. Starting from an autobiographical account and moving on to tell stories of other people who sought safety in Australia, I aim to challenge false narratives of victimhood and burden to society. The project explores what it means to be of a refugee background, questions of identity and belonging. It shines an important light on the voices, perspectives and experiences erased from public conversation.
I was privileged to form a team of incredible people along the way who helped me tremendously with the project. My partner Tina, aside from being a project participant, was responsible for communications and fundraising. Elias Kelleher wrote the stories for the book, based on interviews that were conducted by myself. Most importantly, Amber Hearn became the curator of the exhibition. Thanks to her the way we displayed Stories about Hope made the message so much more powerful.
“It was important to me that, although the focus of ‘Stories about Hope’ is on the positive, the show needed to begin with an image that alludes to the pain and memories suffered not only by the artist, but all who are represented in the show. Renee uses her own body as a canvas, scrawling messages about her experiences in a raw and honest, yet sensitive presentation.
The viewer then goes on to journey though the space, encountering the individual portraits of each subject, all of whom hold a friendly smiling disposition, yet they are clipped to a big metal gate, as if they are emerging into light from a dark bound past. The final point of contact with these stories is the film at the end, projecting the interviews with these subjects. Although the focus is on the positivity and resilience of the individuals, we must not forget the pain they experienced and triumphed through to get to this point. The gates serve as a powerful symbolic statement of the borders of this country being open wide, or that they should be open, to those who seek safety here. However, they also suggest the opposite dark side which is not the focus in the photos or documentary, of being locked up behind gates, which is an all too familiar story for many of the people who come to Australia seeking asylum.
In ‘Stories about Hope’ the gates are wide open for the viewer to walk between, experiencing each of the subjects up close and personal as they journey through the space the work inhabits. The viewer is given the opportunity to connect with these stories, with these people, in a way that most of the portrayals of people from refugee backgrounds do not allow. In this exhibition, I not only wanted to highlight these wonderful people and all they have achieved, I wanted to use the space to pose questions about our system and allow people to connect on a more personal and relatable, rather than abstracted, level to people who have come from a refugee background. ”
– Amber Hearn
We were successful in securing small grants from the City of Sydney Council and the Inner West Council. We have also run a crowdfunding campaign. The support from the public was extremely important to me because it was not only about donating to the good cause, but about the broader support for the arts. In the current state of lack of funding, it is extremely hard to be an emerging artist in Australia. When your art depicts politicised issues, it becomes even harder. The approach that I took to depict people through the lens of dignity and not victimhood was both successful and challenging. It is easy to sell suffering. It is extremely hard to sell strength. Yet, we were successful in producing the project with the resources that we had and with people who believed in it. We launched the project in December 2016. This year it will travel to Southern Highlands in May, Melbourne in June and Sydney in July and there are more shows in negotiations following this. See more here
With the project, I wanted to leave a long-lasting impact. We have adopted a give back concept, when we are donating profit from the book sales to organisations that are working with people seeking asylum. It becomes this circle that people not only see the art and raise their awareness but they are supporting a bigger cause and making a difference to people’s lives.
I feel very grateful that many individuals and groups are showing their leadership and are willing to shift persistent negative narratives. In the debates about people seeking asylum, we should be speaking about human dignity, courage, resilience, and strength. This is what the Stories about Hope project is about.