Image: Candy Royalle
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the Art Gallery of NSW to talk about feminism, multiculturalism and art and the way artworks embody global politics in 2016. This was in relation to an exhibition currently on at the gallery, entitled Beyond Words, an incredible display of ancient and contemporary Islamic art from around Asia, Arab and Persian nations and North Africa.
The sensation I experienced in viewing this exhibition, was the same as the full body response I had in 2005 when I attended Mona Hatoum’s exhibition “Over my Dead Body” at the MCA when I was in my very early 20’s. Hatoum, whose family are Palestinian refugees, was born in Lebanon and was later stuck in London as the Lebanese Civil War erupted. Her work often speaks about the experience of being exiled twice from two lands – of being an outsider. It is an articulation of existing on the fringes, displacement, being Arab, being woman, of Orientalism, Colonialism. It was a defining moment for me as a Lebanese Australian, female artist.
Unlike the majority in this nation who see themselves reflected everywhere – from major galleries and theatres to television, movies and music, I rarely saw anything of my self anywhere. Up to that point, the art I had been exposed to in school – predominantly bush ballad poetry and the paintings of Brett Whitely and the like, had never resonated with me. Standing in front of Hatoum’s work though, I felt the tangible power of art – how it connects us to ourselves, to our worlds, how it articulates those things we can’t. I realised how my story had been dissolved in the predominant narratives of the colonisers, of the oppressors, whose messages come from hidden agendas and override, hide and even persecute cultures they wish to snuff out. I wept that day, skin covered in goosebumps – finally I was witnessing a story that validated my own. It’s impossible to express how it feels to move in a world that denies your existence except to cultivate a culture of fear against you, your family, your ancestors.
If your diet of art is predominantly the Old Guard with a smattering of Frida Kahlo because she’s so hip right now you are only getting a tiny bit of this global story.
From that day, I sought out artists who represented me better – the political leanings and physical pain of Frida Kahlo which echoes my own existence, the words of Suheir Hammad whose poetry incites strength and determination to desist buying into the narratives of the enemy by telling stories of struggle and survival. The mournful and melancholic voice of Fairuz, a woman who has recorded over 80 albums and is still going strong at 82 years of age.
These artists show that you can try to push people to the fringes, but they will not stop creating art. We are creating. There are a plethora of organisations, collectives and individuals creating work that is challenging, beautiful, experimental and community driven. One example is the Refugee Art Project which since 2010 has exhibited over 500 works across Australia, placing the narratives and voices of refugees at the forefront of art. This is particularly important when you consider that refugees are denied the right to tell their stories to the media. The government literally silences them. Forbids them from doing the most human thing – sharing their stories – which is intentionally dehumanising. Still they create and exhibit.
Similarly, my work with Aboriginal Youth in Nowra with the Bundanon Trust has been all about providing platforms and spaces for Aboriginal Youth to tell their own stories in their own ways. Mentored by Aboriginal artists and myself, we then facilitate a large scale performance at the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre so they can narrate their own lives – the project, now in its 5th year, is called TRANSMIT – it’s the messages they want the world to hear. Too often, people talk of giving voice to the marginalised – this is just another form of oppression – those that are vilified already have a voice, it’s just that their voices have been systematically silenced by centuries of violence.
In any case, standing in the Gallery of NSW, to talk about art and politics with the backdrop of ancient and contemporary Asian calligraphy – expressions of the philosophy of God, the contours of poetry, the lines of knowledge expressed in a wonderfully fluid coupling of words and visual art, was a pretty amazing experience considering how such institutions have mostly been inaccessible to me as an artist.
Beyond Words displays incredible calligraphy which teaches one much about the ability of art to tell the stories of humanity in the most explorative and experimental ways. To see the work of my ancestors being celebrated is a nice change. How wonderful the use of calligraphy to develop extraordinary geometric and abstract forms. Imagine talking of God and the Universe using ruler and compass to extract from materials the essence of the eternal. How humbling the true craft of these artists who worked to open windows to our consciousness through the combination of ink and mathematics. Their use of rhythm and repetition resonates with this poet who uses similar tools to try to talk of the infinite in a language all can access. To articulate my own stories in ways that counter the persistent ideas of Orientalism. We have been pushing back against these enduring colonialist ideas of who are since even before Edward Said articulated it in his book in 1978.
Systemic racism paints a picture of the Arab world being backwards, uncivilised. How they would balk, those who perpetuate these myths, to know it was the libraries of Asia and North Africa, the libraries of Arabs, that brought the Colonialists out of the “dark ages” (their own construct anyway – where was it dark?). Still, we are pushed to the fringes in these countries we exist in.
These are the challenges we face – we who exist on these fringes, almost invisible due to a system which favours those who form the majority. The challenge is to counter the narratives driven by a system persisting in dehumanising and othering those who do not fit within the constructs of white, of privileged, of male. The challenge, is getting our art in front of those who wouldn’t normally access it, so that our voices are equal in tone, volume, depth – so that we are more than just two-dimensional caricatures of the colonisers, of the patriarchy.
I am a very 3D queer woman of colour who has been an artist for over a decade. I have had to fight for the entirety of that time to be heard. I have appeared on panels otherwise all white, all male. I have performed on stages otherwise all white, all male. I have been told to be less political if I want to be more successful, to be quiet, to be sensitive to the majority in order to engage more potential allies.
But I will not.
You see, I understand that I am art. I am the political. Art and politics are not somewhere out there, it is all in here, in the hallowed halls of our hearts. This is where our narratives are born and carried through our throats, through our vocals chords. We wrap our tongues around our ancestors stories which intermingle with our own new lives and can not be silenced, no matter how hard, how sustained the attack on our voices. You could slice our throats and still not silence what flows through us – in fact, that’s already been tried time and again. Our narratives rise above the oppression and we share them with each other. Those who refuse to engage and support, endorse and allow spaces to create, are the ones who miss out.
To unconsciously consume anything, including art, is to do a disservice to yourself and the world – we must be conscious of what we consume and how we consume it. If your diet of art is predominantly the Old Guard with a smattering of Frida Kahlo because she’s so hip right now and the Day of the Dead aesthetic has been misappropriated in proportions perhaps only native Americans could understand, then you, my friend and fellow human, are only getting a tiny bit of this global story and it is you who is missing out.
How does it happen? That such a large proportion of artists could remain invisible to so many? Over the last two years, $200 Million has been cut from an already paltry budget in the arts sector. The money that remained has been predominantly distributed to the biggest arts organisations in Australia. For example, Opera Australia, received one of the largest grants even though it’s audiences continue to shrink faster than any other art in this country. 65 small to medium arts organisations lost funding, too many having to close their doors – these are the organisations which foster new talent, mentor emerging artists, engage communities and take the sort of risks large organisations are loath to do. The trickle down effect of that means a threat to community engagement, to the mentoring of young and emerging artists, it means a threat to the fostering of arts for those in lower socioeconomic areas, it means the potential demise of gathering, producing and telling the stories of those who are not white, middle to upper class, not male. It means a violent silencing of the voices most needed to be heard.
This is a political act of silencing whether visual art or performance, poetry or dance, these cuts mean a direct attack on people of colour, women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders plus many more who tell stories of genocide, war, migration, of resilience, struggle survival. It means a threat to witnessing the vast array of humanity in this country, the multi dimensional beauty and ugliness of a nation born of genocide where more cultures reside than nearly anywhere else on earth. But the further underground you push art, the greater it thrives. You can not kill art or completely silence the voices you most wish to mute. Art is in our nature – it is a survival tactic, a form of connection, it is a reason to push on, for many, it is the very reason we exist.
The Golden age of Islamic art, some of which you are able to witness in the exhibition, was made possible by the patronage of the Caliphs of the time. All over the world there is an understanding that the full potential of art is impossible without the support – monetary and otherwise, of the government and ruling class. Cutting $200 million from the arts in Australia and diverting most of the remaining amount to the “high arts” such as ballet and opera is a political act which supports the current system of oppression. I will not mince my words here – the arts sector and the financial support it is meant to offer, has been so thoroughly white washed that the wealthiest and whitest organisations receive the most funding.
Art that embodies the stories of those who have been oppressed and murdered, tortured and colonised, art that talks of courage and resilience – not just as victims saved by oppressors – must be provided the same platforms, the same funding, the same media coverage as the colonisers voice. Otherwise, the story never changes, the dominant narrative maintained is that of the elite.
And calligraphy was never just for the elite. It was something enjoyed by all classes. It wasn’t just about religion, it was about creating beauty, surrounding oneself with poetry and philosophy. It adapted to new cultures, new materials. It was mostly inclusive and accessible. “Beyond Words” can teach us much about the power of art to speak volumes into the abyss and hear the echo’s of those voices we continue to miss.
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