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Blend: Interwoven threads of Australian-Lebanese culture
Jill Kerr Conway has drawn our attention to the fact that we are all autobiographers whether we choose to formalise our stories on the written page or not.1 She urges us to pay close attention to the form of our stories, warning that the structure has a way of dictating an ending which conforms to what came before.
The same might well be said for societies and cultures as a whole. In Australia the debate over who composes, controls and disseminates our national stories is perhaps hotter than it has ever been before. On one hand there is a political desire to close down the spectrum to a single homogenising story steeped in a set of contradictory values, and on the other there is an apparent willingness to allow even that single story to be lost in a morass of imported ones from the United States, with the prospect of diluted ‘local content’ protection.
Interestingly, there has been a concurrent upswing in an art practice that speaks of the possibility of multiple stories, the telling of places and times from different perspectives.
It is the great conceit of the Anglophone settler nations that migrants are only welcome if they present the artefacts and customs of their culture for perusal on arrival, like traders in cultural capital, and willingly accept that their new nation can pick and choose which elements of their homeland they can keep and which must be discarded like potentially dangerous fruit in the bins provided. In this country, we quite like our immigrants to bring food, possibly quaint folkloric customs, and a little bit of colour. They are expected to leave their religion, their language, their politics, and the rich, raw stuff of their stories behind. That so many different non-Anglo migrant groups have succeeded in maintaining and continuing to create a sense of unique cultural identity in the face of often outright hostility, while still contributing greatly to the civic life of this country, is frankly a testament to the durability and ingenuity of the margin.
TOW, a Melbourne-based art project established in 2001 to research and communicate elements of Australian-Lebanese culture, concentrated, in the exhibition, Blend, on textiles as an analogy for the ‘social’ fabric. Without wanting to push such metaphors too far, TOW effectively dealt with the complexities of life pushed to the selvedge edge of that fabric.
The narrative of migration is the essential structure on which the entire history of non-indigenous Australia is based and yet we are still persuaded that the real story is somehow contained in the pattern imposed onto that structure by deliberate design; a design as White Anglo Saxon Protestant as a needlework sampler.
TOW’s installation at Melbourne’s Horti Hall worked on the deceptively simple premise of portability. In it stories from Australian Lebanese experience, gathered mostly as oral history, have been interwoven into the very design of a series of shoulder bags and stuffed toys, both of which are constructed from acrylic awning fabric. The toys are made in the shape of various vehicles (buses, trams, caravans, etcetera). In the exhibition, these were counterpointed by two wall works and a single floor piece, which wittily deal with Anglo expectations of Lebanese culture.
The bags and toys, the most successful pieces in the show, are inscribed with stories in Lebanese Arabic script representing nursery rhymes, folk songs and other more ambiguous tales such as that on the To–Caravan:
Once upon a time there was a milkbar in my street, and the girls and boys used to get together and play and Hanna the drunk used to sit in the milkbar and photograph the neighbour’s daughter, la la la la la la la la la la la la la la, don’t forget me, don’t forget me and always remember Hanna the drunk.
Removed from their context these stories seem absurd and yet also strangely familiar, not because they exploit some impossible idea of universal human experience but because they seem so particular to an individual experience. While I Eat Tabouli, Therefore I Am (an oversized wall-mounted place setting) and Turf (the Cedar of Lebanon rendered in artificial turf) are slighter works, they still reflect quite accurately the ‘corner shop felafel roll’ attitude towards Lebanese culture in this country, regardless of the longevity of Lebanese migration to Australia.
Although individual works may have benefited from additional space, the overall effect of crowded intimacy created by the relatively small gallery venue helped to draw us into the stories told by the works. We were reminded of the sheer beauty and dynamism of Arabic script, while also painfully aware of how implicated it has become in our own current national obsession with the otherness of Middle Eastern culture. Blend chose to be an affirmation of Australian-Lebanese culture rather than a defensive gesture.
Artists are aware that they are contributing to the social autobiography of their own culture. What was compellingly made clear by so much of the content of the stories and the specificity of the experiences represented in Blend was that, far from being simply irredeemably other, these stories are an integral part of the complex set of narratives which makes us all Australian. Whether we will see this diversity officially acknowledged again in the near future is another matter entirely.
1. Conway, J. K., When Memory Speaks: reflections on autobiography, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.