Editorial: A Compass Without Points


Owen Leong. 'Void', 2005, lambda print, 57 x 74cm

In this edition, the Peril Map explores the ongoing importance of locating alternate voices in a shifting landscape of multiple identities, politics, and social discourses making up contemporary Australia today.

I was recently invited to take part in an Asian-Australian art workshop for the New York University Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange, hosted by the Australian National University Centre for European Studies in Canberra. Part of a multi-year transnational research project to explore Asian diasporic cultural production across Asian-American, Asia-Pacific, and Asian-Australian spheres, I was part of a roundtable discussion of artists that included John Young, Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, and Mayu Kanamori.

After the workshop, participants enjoyed a visit to the newly expanded galleries of the National Gallery of Australia, where I was excited to see on display one of my favourite contemporary indigenous artworks by Daniel Boyd[1]. What at first appears to be a large geographical map of Australia, on closer inspection reveals a shimmering tapestry of colours that reference the Australian Indigenous languages map. In bold contrast, emblazoned in looping calligraphic text across the map are the words “Treasure Island.

A complex, potent and provocative work of art, Boyd’s painting Treasure Island uses the metaphor of piracy to deconstruct the romanticised act of European colonisation, in order to reconstruct and portray the act of colonisation from an indigenous perspective. Boyd’s map of Australia references the 350-750 distinct Aboriginal social and language groups that existed before colonisation. Today, fewer than 150 indigenous languages remain in daily use, with all but 20 languages highly endangered[2].

In recognising that Indigenous culture existed for thousands of years before European colonisation, this work subversively refutes European claims to the land through terra nullius, a Latin expression meaning “empty land” or “land belonging to no one”. The legal fiction of terra nullius justified ongoing policy and attitudes denying the original inhabitants of Australia their land, culture and traditions. It was not until the Mabo judgment on 3 June 1992, that the legal fiction of terra nullius was overthrown.

In the act of acknowledging alternate histories and realities, I have always felt it important to consider not just the dominant dialogue between black and white – but to also consider the many shades of complexity in-between, to consider the social, political and cultural cartography of the many people who have migrated to Australia and who in one way or another now call this place home.

Thinking back to the NYU Global Asia/Pacific Art Exchange workshop, each of the artists who spoke at the roundtable touched upon ideas of belonging in their work. As artists, we locate our selves in our work in a multitude of ways. On a long journey, it is often only when we look over our shoulder, back the way we came, that we truly see how we found our way to the present moment.

Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, who emigrated to Australia as a refugee child, works with perforated canvases to evoke a meditative exploration of Buddhism imbued with a distinct sense of the Australian landscape. In her most recent exhibition The Beautiful As Force at Martin Browne Contemporary, her perforated paintings explored her enchantment with the Australian scribbly gum, several species of Eucalyptus tree whose bark is distinctly marked by the burrowing lines of the tiny scribbly moth larvae. Describing how her Blue Mountains bush studio was surrounded by these trees, she said it wasn’t until twenty years of living and working in this setting that the markings of the scribbly gum made its way into her soul and onto her canvases. In these works, her perforated canvases are a minimalist landscape of repeated holes, a cartography of positive and negative space navigated by the meandering, meditative line of the scribbly gum.

Mayu Kanamori, a photographer and performance maker, spoke about her latest project About Murakami, which documents her ongoing research and dialogue with Yasukichi Murakami (1880-1944). Murakami was a Japanese born photographer who arrived in Cossack, Western Australia, when he was sixteen years old. He had a career as a photographer in Broome and later opened his own photographic studio in Darwin, before he was interned in Tatura during WWII. He died whilst interned and is now buried in the Japanese Cemetery in Cowra. Like a traveller through time, Kanamori’s process-driven project traces the journey of Murakami: from his birthplace in Tanami, Japan, from which, at the age of 17, in 1897 he sailed to Australia, through to meeting his great grandson in Broome. She works sensitively and intuitively to explore archives, collective memory and the diasporic condition. Many of her works have engaged with place and memory, with a particular focus on the geographical locations in Western Australia and the Northern Territory where trading and interaction between Indigenous Australia and South East Asia existed well before European settlement.

Similarly, many of the poets who have contributed to the Peril Map, express the same sensitivity to personal expressions of Asian-Australian identity, a sense of place, memory and time.

In What Olivia de Havilland Wished For, Ivy Alvarez describes “the mirage of eternity between our lips”, a succulent image of unspoken desire, which also conjures her experience of that frozen moment living always between two cultures. Misbah Khokhar’s Imran, Irfan and the Electric Lights evokes a multi-dimensional experience of place and culture: “Did you know you can stand on Adelaide street in Brisbane to catch the 380 bus to Red Hill, and there you can smell Karachi’s port? Only at a certain time of night, around 8pm onwards—the smell of fish, human effluvia, rain. It’s really there, like a portal between the two worlds.”

Reading these poems and navigating my way across the Peril Map, I recall my own sense of belonging and displacement, of living between two cultures, as an Asian-Australian. My contribution to the Peril Map is not pinned to a particular location. Void is an undulating expanse of white, at once here and nowhere, a secret cave like a second skin, with its incantations of dips and curves, folds and pits. The void depicted in this artwork is the negative space left behind by the cast of a porcelain Buddha; the first of many attempts to empty my self of cultural markers. A body evacuated into white amnesia. While many of the contributors to this edition have pinned their work to a geographical map of the physical world, I would like to invoke terra as an experience of boundless cartography, a compass without points: rich with potential to explore our collective past and to navigate our present condition.

[1] My other favourite artwork from this series by Daniel Boyd is We Call Them Pirates Out Here, in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia.

[2] Wikipedia: Australian Aboriginal languages http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Aboriginal_languages

Owen Leong

Author: Owen Leong

Owen Leong, Peril Visual Arts Editor, is a contemporary artist and curator. He is currently undertaking his PhD at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. Owen uses the human body as a medium to interrogate social, cultural and political forces. He has exhibited widely in Australia and internationally including Chicago, Beijing, Berlin, Hong Kong, London, Shanghai and Singapore. Owen has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants from the Australia Council for the Arts, Ian Potter Cultural Trust, Art Gallery of NSW and Asialink. He has held residencies at Artspace, Sydney; Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester; Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris; and Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan. Leong’s work is held in the Bendigo Art Gallery collection and private collections across Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Visit him at www.owenleong.com

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