a story ancient and contemporary


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Personally I often (not always!) find that a trip to see contemporary art becomes an exercise in the banal, cranial and pretentious. In the midst of grainy repetitive videos of nothing happening and piles of junk, some of the most disheartening works come under the title ‘political art’. Combining raw visceral rage at some soulless institution of power with a soullessness that rivals or perhaps concedes defeat to said powerful, unjust institution, political art can leave me feeling empty most of all, as if there’s simply nothing more to hold onto than being ticked off.

In contrast however, the work ‘Rustam-e-Pardar’ (Rustam With Wings) by Khadim Ali at the Queensland Art Gallery is a work that shimmers and resonates, moving me at a number of levels yet (or perhaps by) always just eluding my grasp, as if constantly fluttering just out of reach like the winged figure at the centre of the work. A series of five small images of water-colour, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and part of a larger series of ‘Rustam’ images, it draws from the 10th century Persian epic the ‘Shahnama’, the hero of whom is apparently the demon Rustam who defends his people from, well, other demons. I haven’t read the Shahnama (or even heard of it before) but this work has created the desire in me to get a hold of a translation. Bless you, Kindle. Rustam-e-Pardar is a sensitive work dealing with the plight of the Hazara people, to whom Khadim Ali belongs.

Unfortunately copyright laws means you're stuck with my blurry iphone flashless photos.

Unfortunately copyright law means you’re stuck with my blurry, flashless iphone photos. Ugh.

The Hazara are a people group from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been horribly persecuted. As both an ethnic and religious (Shia muslim) minority in Afghanistan the Hazara have borne the brunt of Taliban (and now other extremist Sunni groups) violence. For many Hazara who fled Afghanistan in the face of the rise of the Taliban, finding a new home in Pakistan has proven no refuge from the deadly violence against them. The stance of the Taliban and other groups is nothing less than genocidal, despite my Hazara friends being the most gentle and peaceful people you’ll ever meet. In an earlier post I link to an article spelling out the plight of Hazara seeking refuge in other neighbouring countries. Fortunately some have managed, against incredible odds, to make their way to Australia where they’ve found… no, don’t get me started.

It’s to the Taliban’s war against the Hazara that Rustam-e-Pardar refers. I’ve come to this work as a cultural outsider and so most of what I know of it has had to be explained to me: that in 1998 the Taliban began calling themselves the ‘Rustam of Islam’ to give their jihad broader Persian cultural appeal; that the shades black and white with which Rustam is depicted represent not good and evil in the Shahnama but hypocrisy and deceit; that the script overlaying the images is Arabic, perhaps indicating the overlaying of Persian/Afghan culture with that of Arabised Islam.

Nevertheless there’s so much more to this work than a blunt, angry political shout. The work communicates in a way that words on their own simply can’t, subtly and delicately drawing from the rich and ancient Persian culture to comment on the hypocrisy of those who’ve claimed to defend that culture even as they’ve systematically set out to destroy it, the hypocrisy of a demon fighting against a people they’ve demonised. There is a deeply felt pain here and yet it’s so heartfelt and soulful, resonating with Ali’s obvious love for his cultural roots and his own people. That’s obvious even to me as an outsider, with so many details hinting at ideas or emotions that lay beyond me. But even as the work slips from my grasp, leaving me wondering about this detail, or that figure, or what this scene represents, I find myself with the rare desire to just pluck them off the wall and take them home with me. More than that it creates in me a yearning I can’t quite put my finger on, a desire to connect more deeply with the stories and culture of these Peoples, ancient and contemporary.

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this is suburbia

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw this very work in all its airbrushed glory hanging on the wall. Any protest at its presence which might have leapt out of my heart and lungs evaporated even before it could take shape in my mind as I stood mesmerised before the stucco home’s pulsing luminescence. The reproduction can’t convey the physical presence of the thing ‘in the paint’ – the larger size, glowing phosphorescence and airbrushed fuzziness combining to create an hallucinatory quality to the suburban home which captivated me. This was no architectural plan. This was… beautiful. Something happened that fateful day in 1999. I would never see suburbia, art, or my life in quite the same way again.

Too much? Well I was young. But for a period afterwards Arkley (who died tragically of heroin overdose in 1999)  held the status of Ryan’s favourite artist, (much cherished in the Australian art world), and to this day Stucco Home 1991 remains one of my favourites and retains a special place in my heart.

Look again. Look at what he’s doing here. Arkley painted life. Not ‘life’ in any abstract sense, but the life of so many of us. Whether or not as we want it to be, he painted it as it is. You know the standard icons of Australiana: gum trees, koalas and kangaroos, wide-brimmed hats with corks dangling from strings. But such icons are myth. Sure they belong to Australia, but not to the daily experience of most Australians. Arkley once said, ‘Something like 89% of Australians live in this environment . . . it’s something that’s denied so often’. When I see the stucco home, transformed by the airbrush into Australian icon, it represents my suburban experience growing up. It symbolises so much of my childhood. And that’s no generic suburban home. It’s just so…Aussie. The Aussie of the 80’s and early 90’s. You know, it’s not just memories but the identity that it represents, my national identity, which fills me with affection. Arkley once shared a favourite story of his, of him standing behind two elderly women viewing one of his paintings. One of the women turned to the other and exclaimed ‘Ooh! That looks just like Dot’s house!’. Exactly, little old lady. Exactly.

The obsessive precision of the airbrush comes from Arkley’s detestation of the messiness of creating with brush and paint tin. It forms a quality that reflects the same obsession with neatness and perfection shared by so much of suburbia itself. It’s not a sentiment I share myself, but it expresses his subject matter better than any ‘expressive’ wild brush strokes or whatever that I would’ve assumed necessary for any generic personal expression. I may have spent so much of my time when younger aching to burst free of my neat, safe, constrained suburban environment… but hey, that doesn’t mean I should deny its major place in my life, personally and culturally, nor Arkley’s brilliance in capturing it so simply and colourfully, exuberantly  bringing it to life.

Like it or hate it, this is Australia. This is suburbia.