Why is there a prefix on Australian-ness? Why is identity predicated on where we came from?
To see who feels welcome, and who does not, it can be as simple as opening a magazine or turning on the TV.
In the exhibition, ‘Our Common Bond’ at MAY SPACE, Sydney, Olivia Welch curates the works of a talented mix of Australian artists from Jason Phu to Amala Groom, Dean Cross, Pamela Leung, Siying Zhou, Atong Atem, Lara Chamas and Duha Ali who explore what it means to be Australian, and why there is such a fixation on trying to define what that means.
For Welch, this perspective was amplified while living in Portugal. As a non-white Australian, with a parent who wasn’t born here, she found herself having to define her ‘Australian-ness’. Moving back to Australia she reflected on what labels such as ‘diverse’ and ‘multi-cultural’ mean to her. Welch began to contemplate nationality and what a representative person of Australia looks like or how they act. Turning to the Australian Citizenship Test booklet: titled ‘Our Common Bond’. She says the text ‘opens Australia’s arms to people of every culture, religion and ethnicity… It celebrates the many positives, but brushes over the negatives as follies of the past that no longer bear scars. It identifies certain days, behaviours and beliefs as being ‘Australian’, even though many Australians would not agree that these ideas and events represent them.’
Jason Phu’s work begins the dialogue for a shared national sense of identity, one that questions the familiar and unfamiliar. The Burrangong Affray (2018), commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, which discusses a riot in 1861 on the Burrangong goldfields that lend to tensions between the Chinese and white settlers. Phu’s artworks set the scene for exploring narratives in Australian history, the ramifications continue today. Dean Cross continues this sentiment with PolyAustralis (2017), first shown at Tarnanthi 2018, the works reveal the changing face of Australian identity, but rather than evolve for the better Cross shows it is one that routinely excludes Indigenous people. Amala Groom’s Lest we… get over it (2017), takes a decisive angle at the lack of representation in memoriam to the Aboriginal lives lost – and continue to be lost – through the colonisation of Australia.
Duha Ali will present another mode to view Australian identity, one of a new migrant with a diasporic experience of Australia. The joy of becoming a citizen in a country that has officially decided to accept you is contrasted with the experience of another artist in the exhibition, Pamela Leung. Leung’s new work for the show will feature several pages of tattooed Vellum, a paper made from animal skin. On the paper, each page a different language, which will say, ‘Get out’ – words that were spoken to Leung late at night, after she had got off the train in Redfern, as a new immigrant almost 40 years ago. Words that have scarred and never left her mind. Yet, by taking these words and multiplying them in the far-reaching languages of Australia she highlights the absurdity of this statement.
In a different sense, Siying Zhou explores a mix of cultures, as an immigrant to Australia. She takes a classic Aussie food icon, such as a Meat Pie for Pie Pai, act I (2013), or a cheese and tomato jaffle for Pie Pai, act II (2013) and completely disrupts the visual imagery of it, giving it an appearance of a Chinese dish in little bowls, to be eaten with chopsticks. Lara Chamas’ work summons a similar narrative, using food and everyday items such as a vegemite, chickpea can, or bottle opener, but subverts the original meaning, changing the language on the vegemite jar to Arabic in Vegemite is Halal 2.0 (2018), and uses shapes to turn the bottle openers into Burqa Openers (2016). In ‘Our Common Bond’, she is creating a set of Masbahas (prayer beads) made from a glass made from kangaroo bone ash. It will be presented beside a video of her father counting the 99 names of God with the ‘backbone of Australia’.
The final works are from Atong Atem, who draws from the beauty of stylised images of African people, that get used as a wide-spread photographic aesthetic. However, her visually rich images draw on reverse-ethnography and give the personality and the person back to their image, defying the colonial studio portraiture that exoticised African people. An Australian identity slots into her artwork, she says ‘most of my work is about taking ownership of my own narrative, and also, participating in a pre-existing history of art that centres blackness and our visual languages of expression.’
For ‘Our Common Bond’ at MAY SPACE we observe modes of representation, that don’t hide the damage of colonialism or immigration. There will be a sense of pride, of shame, of acceptance. It’s not an easy country to settle into, but then again, I don’t think any are. This exhibition will tell the stories and perspectives of the people who are battling or allowing a perspective of identity and nationalism. It’s funny, it’s devastating and refreshingly it’s a group of opinions that defy classification. The exhibition is as ‘diverse’ and ‘multi-cultural’ as the population they come from. But, personally, I look forward to the day we stop using these empty words.
Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based art writer.
10 April to 5 May, 2019