Image Credit: Alex Ryan. Penny Ryan – Open Hearts, an installation of the Confined Hearts Project


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.