by Yusuf Hayat
People have always been connected. A long history of interaction across cultures and civilisations risks getting lost in the resurgent ethno-nationalism evidenced in the post-Brexit/Trump global order. This rhetoric has echoes in Australia too. Donald Trump’s Presidential Order calling for the travel ban of people from several Muslim majority countries was hailed as a model to follow by Australian MP Bob Katter. During Question Time he called for a ban on visas from:
North Africa and the countries between Greece and India, exempting of course persecuted minorities, namely Sikhs, Jews and Christians.(1)
Scott Morrison, Australia’s former Immigration Minister, publicly empathised with the ban in a radio interview. He went on to claim the world was "catching up" with Australia’s strong border protection policies which are the "envy of the world".(2)
The obsession of Western nations with protecting their borders and retrenching multicultural aspirations in favour of assimilationist strategies is confirmed in our reluctance to accept refugees. The mindless attacks in London and Barcelona earlier this year resulted in the unnecessary loss of life and further polarisation of opinion globally. Reactionary and populist politics have created a nationalist atmosphere based on fear and ignorance. This is likely to negatively impact on the lives of millions of Muslims worldwide, particularly the most vulnerable in places such as Syria and Myanmar. The narrative of Islam needs thickening, not just to repatriate history, but to help us imagine a different (better) socio-cultural order. The current climate indicates an impasse that makes re-imagining transcultural relations imperative.
The transformative power of art lies in its potential to support us to imagine ourselves differently, allowing us to re-negotiate our relationships with each other and the world. The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA)’s bi-annual Tarnanthi Festival activates arts and cultural venues throughout Adelaide to celebrate contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture. After opening October 2017, Tarnanthi’s presence at AGSA continues throughout January 2018, offering audiences a temporary glimpse into how our collective identities might be enriched through art. Jerome Bruner refers to ‘subjunctivising’, as a mode that permits ‘the varying perspectives that can be constructed to make experience comprehensible’.(3) The subjunctive space in art helps us imagine what it is like to think other people’s thoughts while remaining fully ourselves. There may be meanings available in celebrating the richness of expression across difference that enable us to know ourselves better.
What about the other twenty non-Tarnanthi months of AGSA’s calendar year? The neoclassical façade and architecture of the institution suggest a heritage that traces its lineage to the civilisations of Greece and Rome, and the cultural inheritance of the Renaissance. The dominant “Western” narrative tends to ignore the Islamic contribution to its thought traditions. Bertrand Russell in “History of Western Philosophy” (1946) credits Aristotle’s reputation to Muslim translators and commentators, adding:
If the Arabs had not preserved the tradition, the men of the Renaissance might not have suspected how much was to be gained by the revival of classical learning.(4)
Galleries 1-5 at AGSA represent a settled cultural identity that perpetuates the myth of “national” character - the history of Australian art is itself a story about the creation of that myth. The irony of an “Elder” Wing that contains little representation of First Nation elders is hard to miss. Whiteness is presented as the normative model from which to judge culture and in doing so attempts to render white history in Australia as natural. Dean Cross’ PolyAustralis series included in Tarnanthi at AGSA uses:
The mark to disrupt, displace and dislocate the old and broken myth that Australia is, and was ever, a white country.
Alternate narratives that predate the dominant European presence in Australia are largely missing from the public imaginary. The Islamic presence in Australia, predating Christian colonisers, stands in stark contrast to the impact of the British colonisation. Aboriginal people sailed to Indonesia to trade tools and tortoise shells amongst other things and Muslim fishermen from the Indonesian city of Macassar made annual trips to Arnhem Land in search of sea cucumbers. Cave paintings in Arnhem Land depicting Macassan boats are speculatively dated back to the 16th century, with traces of their cultural and religious legacy found in the song, dance and art of the Yolngu nation of the region.(5) The inclusion of Waŋupini by Nawurapu Wunungmurra in Tarnanthi pays tribute to this history. The ceremonial poles represent the coming of the wet season with clouds forming on the horizon. The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre in the Yirrkala region on Northeast Arnhem Land asserts:
Yolngu sacred songs tell of the first rising clouds on the horizons – the first sightings for the year of the Macassan praus’ sails.(6)
The geometric pattern can also be read as the sight of Macassan sails on the horizon with all the trade and cultural exchange that followed. Afghan cameleers added to the narrative of Islamic influence in Australia. The Adelaide mosque, built in the late 1880’s, is Australia’s oldest mosque in a major city and one of a few surviving relics of this history of interconnection in SA.
The movement between and across cultures is not new. However, it is the interconnectedness of local and global art traditions that is significantly changed. Ian McLean informs us that the notion of globalisation itself has undergone different understandings and it is now ‘more or less synonymous with postcolonialism’.(7) Stuart Hall states:
postcolonial is not the end of colonialism. It is after a certain kind of colonialism…in the wake of it, in the shadow of it, inflected by it – it is what it is because something else has happened before.(8)
Whereas postmodernism emerged from high art theory, postcolonialism is based on issues of minority cultural identity and its initial focus on subverting the legacy of colonial hierarchical cultural identities with their inherent binary version of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that ‘others’ the non-western world. Titled You, me, us, them, the new display of Australian Art post 1945” in AGSA’s Galleries 6, 7 & 17 goes some way towards helping us remediate relationships across difference. The understanding of history and lineage in Aboriginal art can present a curatorial dilemma for Australian art collections. This re-hang encourages connections that help us re-imagine our personal and collective identities. Tony Tuckson sits alongside the sophisticated and timeless elegance of Emily Kame Kngwarreye is just one example of how the dialogue is set up. The display bears the marks of an identity in the making - an unsettling in-betweenness that mobilises the potential of art to re-imagine our shared cultural identity.
Operating at the edge of the dominant culture is a precarious existence – it relies on the interests and ambitions from the centre. Repatriating the narrative of nation so it asserts the pre-existence of songs and dreamings that tell the stories that have given meaning to this land before white settlement seems an obvious cultural imperative. An ambitious re-imagining of the Elder Wing in a manner that renovates history could be a meaningful gesture towards conciliation that might better address the past and make it possible to imagine our shared future. To enter the narrative and repatriate history, the guardians of culture – writers, curators, gallerists, educators – need to have the appetite for change with all the uncertainty and loss of power that might entail.
- “Katter calls for Trump-style immigration ban after Young arrest,” SBS, March 1, 2017,
- “Scott Morrison says Trump travel ban shows 'world is catching up' to Australia,” Guardian, January 30, 2017,
- Jerome Bruner, Actual minds, possible worlds (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986), 37.
- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, (UK: Allen & Unwin, 1945), 268.
- “Histories with traction: Macassan contact in the framework of Muslim Australian history”, Australian National University
- “Black and White – Nawurapu and Djirrirra Wunungmurra”, Outstation Gallery,
- Ian McLean, Ian. 'On the edge of change?' Third Text, v. 18, no. 3 (2004)
- Julie Drew, 'Cultural Composition: Stuart Hall on Ethnicity and the Discursive Turn', JAC, vol. 18, no. 2 (1998): 189.
Yusuf Hayat recently completed the Bachelor of Art & Design (Honours) at UNISA: australienartmatte.wixsite.com