V:Wow.I wonder whether you could tell me about your artistic practice.I gather you use video a lot in your artwork.
R: I’m quite post-medium specific. It’s a long story but I studied art history and anthropology and was involved in making music and a little production before I came to art.So I do take a kind of inter-disciplinary approach and use strategies from different fields. I really like to work site-specifically.So in that sense every one of my works is specifically geared towards a situation and an experience. I have a bunch of artistic tools and basically, whatever the project is,I choose the right one for the project.Whether that ends up being film or performance or some kind of social experience.A large part of the work I’m doing for the Festival is animations,which
are recreations of the experiences of Daacad and Abdi in the years prior to coming to Australia and their experiences in refugee camps. So I’m actually quite focused on digital animation at the moment.
V.I’m curious to know who your intended audience is – obviously the Melbourne Festival audience.Who else do you hope to reach, particularly when you’re doing these works for the Melbourne Festival?
R:This is interesting because the Melbourne Festival is a much more mainstream audience than I’m used to communicating with because the guide goes into the newspaper and a lot of the other programmed events
are a lot more accessible and so it has a much larger demographic. I’m happy to be able to reach this more general audience outside of the contemporary art world I usually address. With the work I’m doing I’m hoping to communicate something of the political points of the situation of Daacad and Abdi and also– because I’m working in the field of representation – present visual images of refugees and Somalis which they wouldn’t see beyond Black Hawk Down or starving refugees in camps so that I’m focusing a lot on the 1970’s and 1980’s, pre-civil war Siad Barre era and the music scene in Mogadishu during that period. So I want to provide this
kind of alternative vision of asylum seekers. I also want to communicate directly with the Somali diaspora in Melbourne,so to that end that’s why we’ve got this parallel project of a community space in the front gallery and we’re working with Nadia (Faragaab), Susan (Forrester), Katie (Jama) and the Aussom band also. I feel a little uncomfortable being this Chinese Australian kid pretending to represent the Somali community, especially to such a broad audience as the Melbourne Festival’s, and I don’t want to be mistaken as ‘speaking for’ the Somalis and wanted to have a direct voice coming from the Somali community itself. I guess the third audience would be the contemporary art audience which Gertrude Contemporary addresses – and it’s usually young,middle- class, white kids, which is also the demographic I represent, though I am only economically ‘white’. So I guess a part of it is to smash these three audiences together and force them to confront each other a little bit.
V: I think what you’re doing is brilliant because what is contemporary art? Is it just conceptual art? Or is it something that can have a broader kind of investment in a conversation about politics, about human rights. Surely one of the functions of art can be to speak to those things.
R:Yeah,I think it’s crucial. The beginning of Modernism is intrinsically linked with politics.I think our reading of Modernism has been dominated by the Greenbergian view, certainly the way I was taught about it at school, which is that it reaches its apotheosis in pure, formal abstraction. Now, people like Jacques Ranciere are coming along and rereading the key texts of Modernism as expressions of radical new forms of sensibility and bourgeouis subjectivities. So what Louise is doing is really interesting in her choice of artists for the Festival, it reminds me of when the University of Massachusetts in the 1970’s hired a so called ‘radical package’ of Marxist economists.
V: I’m not sure if you’ve read much of Ghassan Hage’s work? He’s an anthropologist and he’s written a book called White Nation. He’s also written essays about ethnic caging and things like this. He wrote a book called Against Paranoid Nationalism. But he talks about how, for example, at the year 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, he saw the opening ceremony and everyone was saying how fantastic it was and that was fine.But he was looking at it critically,thinking there’s a sort of core kind of‘Aussie’if you like,Anglo-Celtic still perhaps legacy of a dominant idea of what it means to be Australian and then there are all these so-called ‘ethnics’ who get wheeled
ROYCE NG - SOMALI PEACE BAND EXHIBITION DATES: 12 – 26 OCTOBER 2013
out for these events and paraded so it’s this wonderful diversity that we have,but not that we are necessarily.We have this, but we aren’t this. He distinguishes between the multiculturals that we are and the multiculturals that we have and he claims that there’s still a hierarchy between a core Anglo-Celtic, if you like, ghetto and the rest of Australia and that because there’s this sense in which those in the center are ethnicity-free, as though they had no ethnicity, in spite of everyone in Australia having come from somewhere, even indigenous peoples have all come from somewhere. So what do you think about Australian multiculturalism?
R:That’s a big question.I’m a direct product of it,of certain policies.My parents are from Hong Kong and they had immigrated to Melbourne and I was born here and I grew up in – I don’t know if you know - Frankston?
V:Yes, I do, very well. My grandfather lives in Mt Martha. Not far away.
R: So I was born and raised in Frankston so I lived there for the first 20 years of my life and I was the only Asian kid all through primary school and secondary school.This is a big part of my artistic mythology.But at the same time I’d go back to Hong Kong every year to visit my grandparents and I’m not Chinese enough.I think maybe you’ve come across this a lot with Somali community diasporas. My Chinese is really bad. I just don’t know the customs and Chinese culture is so hierarchical and familiarly coded and if you’re not familiar with them, you just make faux pas after faux pas. So I’m kind of in between those poles. But I do see it as a kind of space of agency as well. Because I don’t belong to any culture, I’m pretty comfortable anywhere really.
V: It’s interesting though that you say there’s a sense in which you don’t feel completely Australian. I think that says a lot about the way multiculturalism has worked because that sort of discourse of tolerance that was quite alive in the 1990s is a really problematic one.The idea that there are some people who tolerate and other people who are tolerated.
R: (Laughs) What a word! It’s like ‘I tolerate you’.
V: So rather than a genuine interaction between cultures where each person comes away with something, slightly altered, if you like--- When you come into contact with difference you can be changed by that difference. If it’s a two way street, if there’s reciprocity, you actually come away a bit different when you have those sorts of encounters.And I wonder about how Australian multiculturalism – or the degree to which it has facilitated those sorts of interactions, or whether it’s reproduced a sense of Australianness that’s quite exclusive and hierarchical.
R:Yeah I think so.Australia,it’s been a short time,but it hasn’t really produced a creole culture of any kind outside of that masterpiece of Australian literature, the TV show Fat Pizza. I don’t feel like a hybrid. My real sense is that when I turn on the television and I open up the newspaper, I’m always outside looking in at another culture.They never could manage to keep an ethnic family on Ramsey street.
V:That’s a powerful feeling to be outside looking in when it’s actually the country of your birth.
R:Yeah.There’s that line from Morrissey:‘When you walk without ease on these streets where you were raised.’I always felt like that living in Frankston.
V:That’s fascinating.I think it’s disturbing that that’s still the kind of representation that we largely – I don’t really watch television – see. Occasionally if I come across a television on, I notice that not a huge amount’s changed. You know, we’ve got SBS, but in a way SBS sanctions a lack of cultural diversity perhaps on the other commercial channels.
R:Yeah, it’s like they push it all to the outside –SBS is the excluded Other-while Seven, Nine and Ten represent the consensus culture.
V: So how do you feel about Somalia now?