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Finding Meaning in Giving Voice

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Cigdem Aydemir, Site Occupied (b), 2011, digital print 126 x 68 cm. Courtesy the artist.

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This may be a controversial statement to broadcast publicly, but for the purposes of reviewing Giving Voice: the Art of Dissent, and in light of the current political climate in Australia, I think it is important to disclose the following: I feel a degree of shame towards this country. Shame, disillusion and disgust. And readers, I’m sure some of you do, too. Despite our many accomplishments and achievements (and there are many), in recent years Australia’s stance on human rights, social justice and environmental protection seems to have regressed as far back as the 1950s. Our once socially progressive and egalitarian attitude is being threatened by a conservative political agenda: one that is reinforced by a generation of Australians who are, for the very first time, more conservative than their parents. In light of this, I was looking forward to visiting Flinders University Art Museum to see Giving Voice: the Art of Dissent. Throughout history the arts have fought for and represented marginalised people. Given our current socio-political circumstances, an exhibition rejecting the status quo felt not only timely, but urgent. Curated by Dr Yvonne Rees-Pagh and developed by the Salamanca Arts Centre, Giving Voice exhibits the work of eight contemporary artists from Australia and New Zealand, each of whom speak out against a range of political, social and economic inequalities that currently occupy national debate.

However, herein lies the inherent problem with Giving Voice. There exists so much injustice in the world, that no single exhibition can adequately explore all of its causes and complexities at once. Particularly an exhibition of this scale. I am not suggesting that Rees-Pagh was trying to solve the world’s problems with Giving Voice, however in the absence of any clear curatorial premise one is left questioning what the curator was trying to achieve. Perhaps, it was simply to offer an overview of local social practice today and, in this sense, the exhibition was successful. However, touching on themes as wide ranging as environmental degradation, racism, refugees and war (to name but a few), much of the work throughout this exhibition is diluted by a broad curatorial approach that fails to establish a coherent argument. Rather than exploring a specific subject in depth, Giving Voice offers audiences an overview of dissident art in Australia and New Zealand.

The selected artists include emerging and mid career practitioners Cigdem Aydemir, James Barker, Megan Keating, Michael Reed and established artists Richard Bell, Pat Hoffie, Locust Jones and Khaled Sabsabi. Both Sabsabi and Aydemir draw on individual narrative to reveal collective experience. In Site Occupied Aydemir, a Muslim woman with Turkish heritage, fills the gallery space with an oversized Niqab. Using her body as a site for political action, the artist contests and interrogates the Othering of Muslim women, particularly in relation to personal freedom. Here, Aydemir literally occupies the space, challenging the invisibility many Muslim women experience.

Locust Jones‘ large-scale scroll drawings, which interpret and scrutinise images from the media, are guided by the artist’s intuitive and personal response. His work is perhaps the most unexpected in Giving Voice. While the images themselves are quite political in content, his artistic process seems far more understated than the other artists selected.

Pat Hoffie, Smoke and Mirrors, 2012, carbon on paper, mirrors, 180 x 650 cm. Courtesy the artist
Pat Hoffie, Smoke and Mirrors, 2012, carbon on paper, mirrors, 180 x 650 cm. Courtesy the artist

Pat Hoffie’s series Smoke and Mirrors expands on Jones fascination with mass media. Reworking photos taken of refugee vessels at sea, Hoffie renders them in carbon on paper, obscuring each boat in a haze of smoke. Hoffie describes this a visual device that speaks to the political spin pedalled by governments – the constant battle between illusion and reality.

One of the most disturbing works in the exhibition is by ‘Anglo/Arab’ artist James Barker. Titled Lest I forget, the image of pale, mangled feet stacked on top of another is a morbid and necessary reminder of the human cost of war. It is a confronting artwork, and arguably one of the most emotive in the exhibition.

As Barker says in his artist statement: ‘Not too long ago, we were perceived as a caring and welcoming nation, but now are considered reactionary dispassionate racists.’ Now, more than ever, Australia need the arts. As those selected for Giving Voice demonstrate, artists play a vital role in not only establishing discourse around contentious subjects. However, curators too, have a role to play in this: to facilitate and communicate these conversations with clarity and purpose. If we seek to mobilise and inspire action through art, curators must continue to engage with the social and political, and in this respect Rees-Pagh should be commended. However, while Giving Voice: the Art of Dissent shines light on many ideological challenges, it is best enjoyed as a brief introduction to politically engaged art rather than as a militant call to action.

James Barker, Lest I forget, 2014, digital prints, perspex, timber, metal. Courtesy the artist
James Barker, Lest I forget, 2014, digital prints, perspex, timber, metal. Courtesy the artist