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Australia

Artists challenge barriers to belonging in Narre Warren's Bunjil Place

Nusra Latif Qureshi, ‘Reflections II’ 2016, courtesy of Deakin University Art Collection, image © the artist.

Nusra Latif Qureshi, ‘Reflections II’ 2016, courtesy of Deakin University Art Collection, image © the artist.

Using soft, lightweight fabrics to drape around the faces and shoulders of her sitters, artist Nusra Latif Qureshi conjures an almost ghostly effect. She varies the shutter-speed on her camera, so one image seems to layer upon another until the idea of personal identity flutters and dissolves.

Qureshi produced these images with a driving enthusiasm – making many more than she could possibly use – but the five she has settled on to exhibit shimmer with vitality, and with questions about how we construct ourselves.

Qureshi says her cultural sensibility is still based in Pakistan – she migrated to Australia in 2001 – but this is augmented by her exposure to and life amid various other cultures that thrive in Australia. She offers us her own rich traditions, while accepting into her life those elements offered to her.

Even so, Qureshi thinks she doesn’t need to carry the weight of explaining her Pakistani traditions and culture to a ‘‘Western’’ audience – as she told curator Rodney James, she does not believe there is any such thing as an isolated or pure culture, because all living cultures ‘‘lend and borrow, cull and adopt’’ from the ones in their vicinity.

In the City of Casey, in Melbourne’s outer south-east suburbs,  the beautiful Bunjil Place brings together an extraordinary range of cultures. This is a municipality known and celebrated for its strong south Asian demographic. Perfect, then, that Qureshi’s work is part of a large group show called Continental Shift, curated by James, which explores the work of 14 contemporary artists who have origins in south Asia or who have strongly engaged with that region through their travels and practice.

Qureshi says her Reflections series grew out of a 2009 work in which she used her own passport photo. Over it, she superimposed historical portrait paintings – both Indian miniatures and Venetian classics – aligning her eyes with the new images to make multiple faces. History and art history are a part of her artwork and life.

During the process of making Reflections, Qureshi says, she realised she had her own biases about how she perceives what other people see when looking at her. ‘‘That was quite confronting,’’ she says.  She found that her assumptions were largely phantoms. Working through it produced these beautiful works: with them, we might consider our own biases.

While curating Continental Shift, James says many questions emerged about identity, cultural influences and how we define our place in the world. The exhibition spans a breadth of media – painting, drawing, photography, design, architecture, sculpture, video, film and installation art – but it also has many visual connections between works. James says he has noted many bright blues, greens, yellows, reds and oranges through the space – in particular a turmeric orange – even though the artists come from quite different backgrounds, age groups, artistic disciplines and cultural viewpoints.

While James says the artists in Continental Shift might be diverse in terms of their connections with south Asia, many of them question what it means to come from a particular place and time in history, how their hybrid identities are formed, and how art can make a difference.

James started the project more than two years ago with an idea of surveying work connected with India, but soon broadened to a wider region. He had curated an earlier show on artists connected with Bali and was keen to make the new exhibition similar in being a two-way conversation, but also wanted to take that foundation further.

He describes Reena Kallat’s Woven Chronicle (2018) as a sort of signature work in Continental Shift. It took him a long time to negotiate for it to come to the exhibition – it is a complicated and enormous work from the Art Gallery of NSW collection in which a large map of the world is criss-crossed and connected with electrical wires, circuit boards, speakers and other fittings, enhanced with a sound component.

Reena Saini Kallat, ‘Woven Chronicle’ 2018 (detail), courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of NSW, image © the artist.

Reena Saini Kallat, ‘Woven Chronicle’ 2018 (detail), courtesy of the artist and the Art Gallery of NSW, image © the artist. Credit:Mim Stirling

James describes the work as showing how borders are broken down through our constant transmission of ideas, information and people. Visually referencing barbed wire, it traces migration routes taken by groups of people, including indentured labourers, settlers, contract workers, asylum seekers and refugees, as well as professionals travelling for their work.

‘‘It is the centrepiece of the exhibition, showing that we live in a global world,’’ James says. ‘‘But people still have the need or desire to belong somewhere, and to tradition. The more boundaries break down – and the more they are put up to keep people out – the stronger a sense of wanting to belong somewhere. In this work, she challenges the idea of any cosy multiculturalism.’’

Khalid Ali is another artist who upturns preconceptions, with a focus on refugees who are displaced near their homeland rather than to distant places in the world. In his two works in Continental Shift, he examines his heritage with the Hazara people, a Shiite minority whose ancestral home is in central Afghanistan, where two sixth-century  Buddhas were infamously destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Trained in traditional miniature painting techniques in Tehran and Lahore, Ali uses this artform to condemn the Taliban attacks on the Hazara for their Buddhist faith. In the 1890s, Ali’s great-grandfather escaped earlier persecution by moving to India, then to the Afghan-Pakistan border, in the hope that one day a fair government would be restored. Ali came to Sydney in 2009.

James says Ali’s referencing of ancient texts brings a contemporary view to the idea of ‘‘demons’’ – his subjects are seen not as assertive and aggressive – the way refugees are often portrayed by the ‘‘keep them out’’ camp – but as asylum seekers who are rendered inert and powerless. In Ali’s work, James says, the figures sit passively waiting, with blank expressions, surrounded by eucalyptus leaves and foliage reminiscent of Australian passport decorations.

Shivanjani Lal's ‘Kala Pani’ 2017, installation view, © the artist.

Shivanjani Lal's ‘Kala Pani’ 2017, installation view, © the artist. Credit: Christian Capurro

As we wander the many other works in this colour-saturated and passionate show, we might pause for a while in front of Shivanjani Lal’s video work Kala Pani (2017), whose title references ‘‘black water’’, a term once used in Hindu culture to describe how crossing the seas to foreign lands badly affected a person’s social respectability and character. As a Fijian-born Australian woman with Indian cultural heritage whose family entered Fiji as indentured labourers, Lal captures the complications of cultural and social identity – the richness of who we are.

In Kala Pani, a woman is shown washing her hands in traditional vessels, using sand, clay and turmeric. Lal has described the work as a sort of cleansing, questioning conventional ideas about ‘‘black water’’ and transforming it into a ‘‘site of healing and reforming imagined identities’’. It reminds us that, wherever we come from or go to, our identities are layered and nuanced constructions worthy of celebration, not fear.

Continental Shift: Contemporary Art and South Asia is at Bunjil Place, Narre Warren, until September 22. www.bunjilplace.com.au

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