Unseen Habitation

unseen habitation_1
Artwork from ‘Unseen Habitation’ – courtesy of Dom Golding

Unseen Habitation was a site specific exhibition featuring work by five Australian artists from diverse migration experiences: Somalia, Eritrea /Egypt, Vietnam and Bosnia.

Unseen Habitation explored the concept of how communities post-migration reconstructed place and home in Australia.  According to Dom Golding, Project Curator, the exhibition aims to deliberately critique the “current packaging of refugee arts’.

Find out more from Lian Low’s interview with Dominic Golding.

1) What was the motivation behind Unseen Habitation?

Unseen Habitation really came about from my observations of the visual arts scene, what was being presented as contemporary art. I noted that when it came to POC artists they were either migrants or second-generation migrants or whose parents were refugees. It is interesting that most of what was on display to the public swung towards more conceptual art. The second motivation was the concern I had over current packaging of refugee arts. Seen mainly through the prism of sympathy there the production of the art was assumed to be therapeutic or hobby – this can be seen by the art works Refugee Art Project in Sydney too.

In Melbourne we have an annual Heartlands , which is an open call for works by artists of refugee background to compete for prize money totaling $20,000 and art residency with Parks Victoria. A competition supported by AMES and Multicultural Arts Victoria and ECCV.

Though I do support its outcomes which is to give “recently arrived” artists some degree of exposure to art competitions and support monetarily; I have a number  of reservations to its processes and arts industry value.

Firstly the professional curator’s eye we use when we engage with contemporary artists from overseas is not applied with the same critical gaze as we do with refugee art works.  This results in a showing that is mixed in quality, works restricted to 2 dimensional.

Secondly the entrants must demonstrate they are of refugee background by proving they have certain class of visa. This marginises a whole lot of artists who have entered Australia through the family reunion or as a migrant but whose family are refugees and asylum seekers to a secondary country before Australia. Which begs the question about how we see refugees, and does this automatically eliminate asylum seekers from entering Heartlands.

Thirdly, Heartlands being run by AMES and MAV, state that artworks entered should reflect the theme of the Refugee Council of Australia’s focus. This year it was “Hope in Settlement” , and last year it was “Restoring Hope”.

This I see as reflected in the art works problematise the prism we gaze upon the works by refugees (when does one stop being one and is an artist in their own right?) and today’s contemporary narrative of sameness in multiculturalism. Heartlands has good intentions and allows refugees to strive towards putting in a piece of work and showcase excellence. Yet it is restrictive in its creative potential to wow audiences and engage and challenge us.  It does this by subscribing to multiculturalism as a display of the exotic third world culture, demonstrating one’s patriotism and assimilation and gratefulness in all it’s hyper rose coloured lens. This work is great for the artist to do and is cathartic, is at the end of the day about satisfying the bleeding heart white gaze.

Heartlands was about the three peak multicultural institutions showing quantity and normative artistic aesthetic quality. It is not about the art at all.

Unseen Habitation was an opportunity for a select group of artists to explore beyond the self and their own journeys, to examine the communities they reside in. It was also a chance to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in a given space—the Goodtime Studios. I give the artists a commissioned fee—understanding that being from a refugee background or a recently arrived migrant creating major pieces of work costs money.

Artwork from 'Unseen Habitation' courtesy of Dom Golding
Artwork from ‘Unseen Habitation’ courtesy of Dom Golding

2) What was your curation process?  How did you end up with the artists represented in the exhibition?

The curation process was both to seek out artists I knew and people who were at the time members of RISE. I evaluated the work by their previous material and what area of visual and creative industry they are active in. I also wanted a wide breadth of works to maximize audience engagement and promote dialogue and questions about the works presented.

3) Can you tell us a bit about the work from each artist?

  • Nadia Faragaab installation examines the rituals the Somali community bring with them and adapt around death and home in Melbourne.
  • Iris Radovic’s sound/installation piece is a soundscape depicting the internal impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from trauma of war.
  • Thuy Vy presents a set of photographs, which documents the community of recycling and flea markets being a place for refugees to continue their salvaging and trade.
  • Mohammad Nur’s sculpture re-looks at how public housing is constructed and reconstructed.
  • Maria Pena working with textiles builds an organic representation of the ‘body as being a home’.
  • Hoang Tran looked at his childhood growing up with his “gang”
  • Dominic Golding’s ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ mixes the actual and the profane of Multi-Cult-ist Tourism.

In addition were two walls dedicated to RISE’s arts, in that the works were pieces by two asylum seekers and works donated by Texta Queen and Lauren. A display highlighting that value we place on the arts as being as important as our  foodbank, shelter and advocacy work.

4) Have you curated an exhibition before? What was the hardest part of working on the project?

Working on this project was not as easy as I thought, namely the process that of a CCD (Community Cultural Development) project cannot be readily applied to the way a visual artist’s would see the creative process. That of having regular creative development and steering committee meetings; this process is not like a theatre production where there are scheduled rehearsals and lots of time on the floor and working intimately and collaboratively. Basically my role as I saw it was more of a facilitator, yet to many of the artists by the nature of the industry saw me as a curator. This in turn threw up many decision making challenges to balance my responsibilities to ensure the artists worked well together as well as enabling them to put in their works as they saw fit to balancing my work as an arts administrator and the responsibilities’ to RISE. In a nut-shell Unseen Habitation as an arts worker was a process; the pendulum of professional arts and community cultural development is never clear cut in the Not for Profit

5) … And the easiest?

Putting together the opening night’s catering.

6) What do you hope to achieve with Unseen Habitation?

Unseen Habitation I hope exceed everyones’ expectation of what is seen as art by a “refugee”. I also hope that the group, and I believe they could see the value in working on a group show with RISE, will see this as an opportunity to continue discussions, allowing for cross fertilization of ideas and potential creative partnerships.

Unseen Habitation opened on 5th September, 2013 at the Goodtime Studio 746 Swanston St, Carlton. 

Dominic Golding

Author: Dominic Golding

Dominic Hong Duc Golding came to Australia as a tiny baby in a cardboard box, evacuated from Saigon in April 1975, just before the city fell to communist North Vietnamese forces at the end of the Vietnam War. Operation ‘Babylift’ was a last minute effort to save some 3000 plus children and babies from orphanages in South Vietnam by flying them to adoptive families in the United States, Australia, and other countries. In 2000 he was involved with a site installation performance Memory Museum about Australia's involvement in war for the Adelaide Festival Centre. In numerous roles Dominic has worked with Australian Vietnamese Youth Media on Aussie Bia Om, Viet Boys Downunder, Banana Strip (2001-2004) and directed Walking Without Feet (2004) with the Vietnamese Community in Australia (VIC chapter) an art showcase by Vietnamese young adults with special needs Dominic has returned to Vietnam three times, each time a new show was developed, Shrimp (2005, 2007) which won the Drama Victoria Award, Mr.Saigon, Ms. Hanoi (2007) and now working on Umbilical which examines Operation Babylift and the role of women during the Vietnam war, this play was short listed for the RE Ross playwright development award (2010). Today he works at RISE a refugee drop in centre.

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