Australia – it is the multicultural, lucky country. The national anthem promotes that ‘for those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share’, but the political rhetoric of ‘team Australia’ and immigration policy which ‘turns back the boats’ suggest otherwise. As a nation Australia struggles with its cultural identity and addressing its uncomfortable history of colonisation and genocide, on which the nation was founded. Australia’s attachment to the motherland, England has seen it continuously disassociate itself from its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific, despite its close geographical proximity. Contemporary artists probe issues pertaining to Australia’s cultural identity and the falsities of nationalism. Artists such as Zanny Begg, Abdul Abdullah, Blak Douglas, Dale Harding and Khaled Sabsabi play on the discomfort evoked from talking about Australia’s history and pertinent issues in contemporary society to scrutinise the misrepresentation and dehumanisation of people based on cultural disparity.
Splitting|Sides presents the views of six early career artists unified by their desire to further dissolve ideas of the cultural other and the periphery/centre binary within Australian society. Frankie Chow, Navid Ghezelayagh, Martin James, Dominic Byrne, Andrea Srisurapon and Haiku Thompson present a healthy cross cultural conflict through alternative perspectives and histories. Co-curated by artist Andrew Christie and Brigitte Gerges, Splitting|Sides scrutinises the political rhetoric of “Team Australia” that was championed by ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Sport, in particular cricket is an identifier of Australian culture. However, it automatically proposes a collective of people in opposition to another; the home and the away team and at the end of the day, only one can walk away with a win. In the context of culture wars and racism, this recalls the writings of Homi Bhabba and Frantz Fanon who remind us that bloodshed by those perceived to be “the other” demarcates progress.
There will be no bloodshed in Splitting|Sides, which opts for a less violent approach. The use of personal histories and the body through performance, sculpture and photography demonstrates the perspectives of young Australians from diverse cultural backgrounds. Andrea Srisurapon plays on her Thai-Australian heritage to develop bold, anecdotal artworks that speak to the racial vilification of Asians and more generally, the westernisation of cultures. Wash is a photographic series in which the artist’s mother uses a face cloth to scrub yellow body paint off the artist. The body paint blatantly refers to derogatory phrases, such as the ‘yellow peril’ and ‘yellow army’ that were used collectively towards Asians migrating in the years following World War Two and the Vietnam War. In what Srisurapon refers to as the removal of a ‘racial stain’, she stares down the camera as she is westernised in a ritualistic manner. Adorned in a chad-dah, a traditional Thai headdress used in performances, the artist conforms to western stereotypes of Thai culture. Continuing to play on parental relations and racial vilification, Pauline Hanson’s Maiden Speech is a two channel video work that shows mother and daughter engaging in a monologue of the controversial speech which called for a tighter immigration policy. Srisurapon subverts the viewer’s expectations when her mother (who is a white Australian) articulates herself fluently in Thai and the artist retranslates the speech into English. Srisurapon highlights the importance of cross-cultural understanding and the conflict of identity in a country which struggles to uphold its multicultural values.
Simarily, Frankie Chow’s performance ChingChongFuckOff explores Australia’s fear of the cultural other. This fear has been constructed through media (mis)representation, political rhetoric and policy, with two examples being the fear of the iron curtain and anti-communism campaigns in the 1950s and the present spread of Islamophobia. Drawing on her experiences as an Australian with Chinese heritage, Chow moves through the gallery repeating the phrase ‘ching chong fuck off’ as she encounters the audience. The repetition of a word or phrase can cause it to temporarily lose its meaning, and in this case seemingly become less offensive. Undoubtedly abrasive, the artist stands numb with what she describes as a dead pan expression, exasperated and frustrated by the acceptance of casual racism.
Hanadi Saleh’s practice to date has played on semantics in the form of Arabic script. Whilst the viewer may be aware of what the script represents, they may not necessarily understand its meaning. Free from rhetoric or persuasion the viewer finds themselves in a one-on-one encounter with words where they are encouraged to seek further clarification to aid understanding. Salah selects words to be considered in isolation as a sculpture. For Splitting|Sides the script reads ‘Allah’, meaning God. Using wood, wall paper and lace, emphasise is placed on religion as a private practice. In a previous form, Salah created this work using diamantes, speaking not only to worship, but also ideas of glitz and glamour in a society that still privileges white, middle class and conservative values.
In the context of global issues and the heightened attention on Islam following the events of 9/11, Saleh’s semantic sculptures take on additional meaning. Playing on the tensions between people of Islamic faith, nationalist hate groups and the wider community, her practice interjects with the (mis)representation of Islamic beliefs. Blanket stereotypes constructed by irresponsible journalism promote Islamophobia, the demonisation of the majority based off the actions of a minority. Semantics and how they frame local events within a global narrative play a significant role in relation to this issue. In light of recent events (the Lindt Café Seige, shooting of Curtis Cheng in Parramatta and the events in Paris) Salah’s semantic sculptures become a call to action promoting education, understanding and respect for diverse beliefs in a multicultural society.
The controversial inclusion of Martin James in this show demonstrates a conflictual position as he represents the dominant Australian culture – white Australia. His practice navigates the ongoing tensions between history and present, coloniser and colonised and how he is implicated as a white Australian. This is a common position of personal conflict for young white Australians who have avoided generational racism and conservative thought. This generation of Australians reflect the changing values of contemporary Australian life. It is this same idiosyncrasy that I occupy, being a tertiary educated white Australian and the author of an essay interpreting practices about cultural disparity and minority groups. James’ installation of Tony Abbott Stubbies refers to the archetypal Australian male who clad in board shorts, flip flops and a sun-kissed tan occupies the beach with his esky full of beer. Printed on the red, black and white stubbie holders are quotes by the ex-Prime Minister, Tony Abbot about refugees, immigrants, Aborigines and women. His inclusion in Splitting|Sides is intentionally antagonistic to the works that surround him, representing the semantics and political rhetoric that have suppressed minority cultures in Australia.
Splitting|Sides unashamedly probes political issues which are prevalent in contemporary Australian society. Intersecting with global debates, these early career artists are in the process of realising their critical and conceptual potential, in particular how their personal histories can translate into global conversations with local meaning. Through their diverse cultural backgrounds, these artists probe ideas of what it means to be a citizen of Australia in light of the rise of activity from racial hate groups, semantic influence and blanket stereotyping by mainstream media. In the words of writer and photographer, Taiye Selasi, ‘don’t ask me where I am from, ask me where I am local.’
* This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for Splitting|Sides, on display at MOP Gallery until January 31st, 2016. Please click here for gallery opening hours and concurrent exhibition to plan your visit.