Orientalism can be corrosive. Each time the culture positions Muslim-Australians as a threat to Western values, without considering the community’s humanity or complexity, the effects can ricochet through individual lives.
Khalas, a new exhibition at Sydney's UNSW Gallerie, uses contemporary art to reframe precisely these tired narratives and show the Muslim-Australian experience as three-dimensional and ever-changing — a world away from what fear-mongering headlines would have us believe.
The show, curated by Phillip George and Nur Shkembi, features work by acclaimed Australian artists Hoda Afshar, Abdul Abdullah and Khaled Sabsabi and takes its name from the Arabic word for “enough.” The word calls for an end to Islamophobia but it’s also a declaration of agency and individuality.
Here are five works from Khalas that are worth a closer look:
Westoxicated #7, Hoda Afshar
Hoda Afshar knows that pictures can be deceptive. The Iranian-born artist believes that the art world’s obsession with images of the “the veil” parrots the Western desire to see Islamic women as faceless victims rather than agents of their own destiny. Her response? Westoxicated, a series of digital photographs that wink at Andy Warhol’s love of surfaces and show Muslim women smoking cigarettes, carrying dogs and sporting Mickey Mouse ears. “The work playfully critiques the way in which the global art market intersects with Western representational politics,” says Afshar, who won the National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2015. “The use of an ‘Andy Warhol aesthetic’ highlights the message that ‘Veil Art’ is a white thing.”
Delegated Risk Management, Abdul Abdullah
Weddings, whether they’re depicted as white and fluffy or stylishly artisanal, are usually considered joyous occasions. But for award-winning artist Abdul Abdullah, this universal ritual foregrounds the way we “project criminality onto innocent bodies.” His 2017 image, Delegated Risk Management shows a married couple sitting on a podium laden with flowers, wearing balaclavas and hints at the double-consciousness that afflicts people of colour. “Here is a couple aware that they are being watched but still going about their business,” he says. “When it comes to marginalisation, the actions or beliefs of a person are irrelevant to how they are perceived.”
Syria, Khaled Sabsabi
Khaled Sabsabi has always used art to challenge singular perspectives. For the last two decades, the acclaimed Lebanese-Australian artist, who immigrated to western Sydney following the Lebanese Civil War in 1978, has made works that highlight the way the East exists in the Western imagination. For the Sydney Biennale, he created Bring the Silence, a video work that revolves around a sacred burial site in New Delhi and draws on his long-standing interest in Sufism. 99 Names, a decade-long series that documents the horrors of war was a highlight of the 2018 Adelaide Biennial.
Syria, a dazzling video work, originally created for the 9th Shanghai Biennale, splices together footage of street scenes and Islamic architecture and casts the kaleidoscope — a symbol of multiplicity — as a visual device. Sabsabi started working on the piece while travelling in pre-war Syria. “I travelled to Syria in 2011 as the protests were starting,” he says. “Something told me that this was the last time I was going to see it.”
Dancing in the Crevice of Desire, Leila El Reyes
Leila El Reyes knows that there’s power in the in-between. El Reyes, who grew up in western Sydney, works across installation, painting, video and performance and draws on her Egyptian and Palestinian background to explore duality, sensuality and otherness. Her work also focuses on vulnerability as well as the ties that bind us together, regardless of identity.
Dancing in the Crevice of Desire, a performance piece that sees the artist play with the notion of the Middle Eastern woman as femme fatale (cue everything from Queen Scheherazade to Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin) mines these contradictions to stunning effect.
Stop Creeping Sharia, Safdar Ahmed
Few pop culture figures symbolise our creeping cultural anxieties quite like the zombie. But for the Sydney artist Safdar Ahmad, who won a 2015 Walkley for his documentary webcomic Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre and who also makes zines and comic books, these ghoulish doppelgangers aren’t limited to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or ‘80s horror films. They’re also a powerful metaphor for Islamophobic ideas that circulate in the media such as “sharia by stealth.” Part of the artist’s Muslim Zombies series, Stop Creeping Sharia! is a case in point.
Khalas is on exhibit at the UNSW Galleries until July 14.