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A rest along the way

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Aida Azin, Mister Kabab, 2016, acrylic on board. Courtesy the artist.

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Aida Azin produces and exhibits in an almost real-time way. She has been interviewed explaining that her pace relates to her tendency to double-book herself and the intensity this creates:  “...Everyone knows I have one breakdown per show. I'm a very emotional person so it makes sense that I make my artworks under a bit of stress – [this] helps bring out my personality” (YEWTH Magazine). Having undertaken an artistic residency and cultural exchanges in the Philippines, Azin’s maternal ancestral home, her work gravitates around understanding of her Filipino-Iranian heritage. Azin is drawn to understand her origins but immersions in new contexts, cities, social circles can deliver unexpected experiences, indeed, some shrill, non-consensual, dangerous and harmful. This is beginning to be expressed in her work.

Azin’s signature is surprising combinations of bold, bright colours. Vibrant colour is synonymous with joy through my lens, but these optically pleasing combinations tend to, at least initially, conceal the increasingly politically potent subjects of Azin’s work and the cruel realities she moves to represent. I find myself having ‘oh fuck’ moments laying eyes on her work - for example, the jarring recognition of a decomposing corpse submerged in a lagoon in her epic mural at Praxis ARTSPACE in Home Thoughts from Abroad (March, 2017). This reflects the weight of what Azin is willing and compelled to explore, her ability to hear other people's stories and translate them visually and to seek to understand historical and contemporary injustices. Here the purpose of the artist is as story-teller, meaning-maker, activist.


Azin’s most harrowing work is the most discreet. It is the disquieting nature of Mister Kabab shown in Adelaide's Fontanelle Gallery in Everything is Stolen (August, 2016) that separates it from her signature style, and in doing so demands attention. It is an outlier in her body of work. Azin created Mister Kabab in the Philippines but did not show it as part of Everything is Stolen in-country, it was an additional inclusion to the exhibition of the same name at Fontanelle in August 2016.

Aida Azin is my friend so I know that Mister Kabab is about sexual assault and escape from rape. The experience took place in the Philippines and Azin’s safety was rendered insecure for some weeks after the trauma itself. Depicted is location – a restaurant called Mister Kabab. To me Mister Kabab is also the representation of a perpetrator, an imposing presence that is compositionally omnipresent. Azin explains to me that the figures represent her and other little girls, “the waterfall is our innocence and our death...”

The dreamy peach haze blanketing this canvas is unnerving, all encompassing, paralysing. It captures the ‘everywhere-ness’ of the experience piercing physical body and psyche. The fight or flight response is much described from an evolutionary perspective, indeed, when threat presents being very still and quiet, termed catatonic, can be a way to survive. Having experienced this response, witnessed it professionally in deeply traumatised children (dissociating into an internal world as a refuge to environmental triggers), time takes on a stillness, every moment feels like an eternal plateau. Once in this state, it can be excruciatingly hard to drag oneself back, to incite any movement at all. Fighting back can be dangerous too, it can be met with (more) violence.

It is Azin’s text, her voice, while diminutive against the scale of Mister Kabab, that builds power, asserts action and gives the audience hope that safety was reached. This text is a proclamation of action in the face of inertia – the will to achieve this action, to make fast essential decisions, is enormous. The JUMP that follows is not the end of the experience, rather just the beginning, as HURT is prominent and there is much to be processed.

What could the creation of Mister Kabab deliver for Azin and her audience? I think it might be cathartic, healing for Azin? Azin explains that in actuality she does not want to share this experience with her viewer but it is "leaking out" of her. What she has presented here is in fact incredibly sanitised. Mister Kabab is the beginning of a proclamation of the unspeakable things she experienced, things that those around her have not always been willing or able to hear her say out loud. This has translated into the secondary trauma of not being heard when assurance is needed the most.

Indeed part of the agreed purpose (between Azin and I) of this piece is the addition of another voice. A vehicle to say Azin was sexually assaulted. This happened to her whether you want to hear it or not. Across political systems, cultural nuances, oceans, levels of understanding, this coercive act took place and rape and assault take place around the world every day. Azin acknowledges that she is “one of the lucky ones who got away” but even with escape, the trauma is real.

If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?
— Konnikova, How People Become Resilient, New Yorker

Years back I attended a public forum about efforts to enhance population-level wellbeing. An audience member made one of those comments-masquerading-as-a-question which are notoriously difficult for panelists to contend with: ‘great art’ (notwithstanding - what does this even mean?) is created through the essential torment of the artist, if you seek to enhance everyone’s wellbeing, the art will suffer! This sentiment has been troubling me ever since.

Some reflections. Art can be inspired by the full spectrum of experience and this includes powerful, profound works that express joy and beauty. But experiences of fear, uncertainty, grief will be known to all of us too. For some of us these experiences will veil [some/many/more] days, than for others. An aspiration is that we can recover from these inevitable setbacks and that each of us will have access to resources to help us do this. For me art is an outlet for sharing and understanding the whole human range – from incandescent joy to messy shit-stained pain.

Azin faced a vexing succumb or surmount decision about whether to stay in the Philippines after the assault which threatened her physical safety and diminished her sense of self. Support networks in-country were dismantled and she was very afraid.

Azin notes that she was immersed in a context where sexual assault and rape are common place. She did not withdraw to Adelaide (which I implored her to do) after the assault but experienced all the mess that came her way. This was her choice, a choice that not everyone has the privilege to make, but a difficult and strong one nonetheless. An outcome is that Azin has salvaged and reshaped her relationship with her ancestral country and continued connecting with family and building new friendships. She has not avoided that which is most traumatic.

Just weeks after Mister Kabab was exhibited, Azin followed this with A Safe Place shown in Mother, Tongue at the Adelaide Town Hall (August, 2016). Azin describes the six works in Mother, Tongue as an early capture of the “settling and softening” that she has begun to experience after the complexity of preceding months. A Safe Place is a counter to the flatness of Mister Kabab. Depicted is a structured room imbued with meaning and comfort-building. Whether this room existed or not in Azin’s life, it is a place that one wants her to be – both physically and even more so, for her mind to rest.

While we are not privy to the grit of Azin’s physical, psychological and spiritual toil, she offers insights into her coping during a time of adversity and isolation. One way to begin this has been to not consider the assault in isolation but to recognise that she was exposed to the underbelly of how sexual assault happens. Azin’s paintings show her sadness for the world. She is drawing ties with her own mother’s narrative and the idea of cultural disruption, considering that her assault fits within a larger picture of colonisation, exploitation, corruption.

Down the bottom are two boats. These boats were in a photo I took in Siquior, the day after the assault. It was such a beautiful day. Perfect weather. Siquior is kind of like a quiet holiday island. The next day I was told not to report [the sexual assault] to the police. I didn’t know what to do so I went the opposite of hysterical. I was so calm and cool. No one would have ever guessed what I’d gone through the night before. So I tried to be strong and positive and upbeat. I asked our tricycle driver to take us to a snorkelling spot. That’s where I took the photos of the boats. I guess I put them in the room to translate their energy as symbols of fear and disgust into something warmer and less scary. But after painting it and spending time with it I’ve decided it didn’t work out like that. These memories are always going to be there and I’d like to stop recalling them and playing with them because they are what they are. I thought that the incident was my fault and so if I changed my perspective on it then it would change the fact that [it] happened in the first place. But I’m not the one to blame and even though that’s hard to accept, that’s the truth.
— Azin, personal correspondence

When I first considered writing about these works I was compelled by the idea of what you can learn from a snapshot pre- and post- something. This reflects my research training and professional interests. There had been a passage of time between Mister Kabab and A Safe Place and I wondered what [days/weeks/months] had allowed or transformed in and for Azin. Now I feel humbled by my simplicity. I wanted to be able to say – look at this brave strong person, she is actively healing and her art is part of that process. While this is not untrue, this is more complex than I, even with all my training, would acknowledge.

As Aida and I, together, seek to understand the challenges and traumas of each of our recent histories, I want us both to be able to retire our pains. I see now that I was imposing my idea of healing on us both, and indeed an impatience to just be healed already.

These psychological processes are not linear. These experiences are shape-shifting. The purpose is to remember this and that there are safe places to take a rest along the way. I am going to be hanging out with Aida in her turquoise, sandy room and I think we are going to continue to learn a lot.

Aida Azin, A Safe Place, 2016, acrylic and soft pastel on canvas, 59 x 48 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Aida Azin, A Safe Place, 2016, acrylic and soft pastel on canvas, 59 x 48 cm. Courtesy the artist.