Boundless plains to share?
SYDNEY CITY: Two free exhibitions at Customs House, open until the end of October, explore Australia’s commitment to inclusivity and respect for difference.
Their setting is perfect given that Customs House at Warrane (Circular Quay) was the site of first contact between the British and Australia’s Indigenous people, and the point of immigration into Sydney for more than 140 years.
Adelaide-based artist Peter Drew was inspired by the second verse of “Advance Australia Fair” to probe the nation’s approach to multiculturalism. He delved into archives to produce a series of posters that offer seven “new” Aussie folk heroes from the past, and which illustrate Australia’s enduring ethnic diversity.
Presented by the Australian Centre for Photography, Drew’s exhibition Real Australian asks viewers to ponder who they consider to be a real Aussie.
I enjoyed learning about Dorothy Sym Choon, born in South Australia in 1904, who worked as a shop assistant in her younger sister Gladys’s mini-emporium in Adelaide’s Sym Choon Lane. The sisters were well educated and Gladys was the first woman to incorporate her business in South Australia in 1928.
Since Cronulla’s violent race riots in 2005 showed us just how prejudiced and unwelcoming Australians can be, Drew has produced more than 700 posters for 27 language groups and taken them (anonymously) to the streets as part of his Real Australians Say Welcome project.
One striking poster is of Monga Khan who migrated from Ambala (present day India) in 1916, and rode his camel piled with wares to hawk throughout regional Victoria. Drew was so captivated by Monga Khan’s story (including Khan’s application for exemption from the White Australia Policy) that he worked with 36 contributors to create a fictional book about him.
Site of Passage
Site of Passage is a thought-provoking exhibition by Sydney-based curators Claire Field and Tian Zhang. It invites visitors to use an online platform to respond to two questions: “What important places and events have shaped who you are?” and “Where do you feel a deep sense of belonging and connection?” It also shows the work of nine artists whose work illustrates how belonging can be “complicated or obscured by colonisation, displacement or migration”.
I loved Nikki Lam’s “Falling Leaf Returns to Its Roots” – a video that responds to Max Dupain’s iconic photograph Sunbaker (1937). Lam was born in Hong Kong and positions her Asian-born self, lying head down, resting on her arms, in the same pose as the archetypal Australian male in Dupain’s work.
I was inspired also by Liam Benson’s Motherland series, which plays with notions of motherhood and monarchy, and by Christian Thompson’s video “Dead Tongue”. Thompson shows that, while the English language has been a tool of colonisation, some Indigenous languages like Bidjara are being kept alive with pride.
Real Australian and Site of Passage are two exhibitions that show clearly why Australia’s diversity should be nurtured and celebrated.