Moving On: a critical examination of the Australian arts scene

Written by Sam Meekan

I would like to acknowledge the benefits and privileges of my position within the traditional institutional systems of our society. I cannot speak as a person directly affected by the issues of systemic racism; instead, I offer my perspective as someone who sees that our institutions are inherently flawed due to their inability to reconcile their histories outside of token representations. I also speak as a part of the globally diasporic Jewish community; one that, although integrated (to varying degrees) in some societies, has historically been the face of “the other” in European cultures.

True integration of Asian-Australians into the Anglo-centric Australian zeitgeist, which is required to obtain the goal of a multicultural, pluralist society, cannot be led by the institutions to which Asian-Australians seek access. This is due to several issues, notably the inability of Australians to reconcile with their colonial past, a view of Asia as an ‘Oriental’ novelty, and the thick veneer of obsession with "cultural cringe" that still permeates Australian society. Here, I discuss the Asian-Australian critique of these issues through their art and show how the provision of independent gallery space founded and run by Asian-Australians has led to both a richer and more diverse expression of their practice.  I argue that this offers a model for the inclusion of other excluded cultural groups into a multicultural Australia.

One of the major flaws of the process of inclusion of Asian-Australian artists led by traditional institutions is that it relies on fickle interest or political agenda, which is often rooted in the ‘Oriental’ view of Asia and Asian-Australians as a novel “other”. Although it is a matter of current fashion for an institution to focus on the inclusion of a specific demographic (such as Asian-Australians), all it takes for this aim to be diminished is for an alternate, less confrontational, in this case of Australia's colonial roots, excluded group to appear. This problem is the result of Australia's colonial history and racist border policies, most notably the White Australia Policy that came into law in 1901, remained in force until 1957 and was not formally abolished until 1973. As stated by Attorney-General of the time, Alfred Deakin (1901), this policy aimed to "prohibit … all alien coloured immigration". Effectively, this characterised those not of Anglo-Saxon decent as an "alien other”, despite the arrival and subsequent integration of Asians since the 1820s (Sahni 2017). The sustained intensity of these racist border policies over decades and the sudden shift in more recent years towards an "orthodox multicultural paradigm" (Lo 2016) has led to a quest today for "authenticity", which somewhat ironically, has come at the cost of the exclusion of the same people they seek to include.  For example, according to curator and historian Karen Shamberger in her paper An Inconvenient Myth–The Lambing Flat Riots and the Birth of White Australia (2015) the annual Lambing Flat Chinese Festival, held by the Young Shire Council and the Chinese Heritage Association of Australia, denied representation of the Chinese communities in Young in favour of a fetishized more "authentic” performance by groups imported from Sydney. Similarly, Asian-Australian artists see the same issues occurring in the attention paid to their art by society. Juno Do, in his interview with Soo-Min Shim of Peril magazine (2020), noted that his exhibition Fortunes Within, which explored traditional Korean folk art, received far greater attention by critics and the public than any of his shows presenting contemporary Korean art generated within Australia.   

This demand for “authenticity” has led to Asian-Australian artists feeling as though they must perform "ethnographic testimonials of racial difference" to gain recognition, preforming to their novel "otherness" (Edmundson 2009). According to Andy Butler in his article Safe White Spaces published in the Runway Journal in 2017, this focus by institutions and the wider Australian art scene, is a consequence of a deep-seated inherent racism that, despite a desire to be more inclusive, remains “aggressively and institutionally White.”  In his article, Butler notes that the overwhelming lack of representation of Asian- Australians within art spaces points to an inherent hierarchy that has not changed since the creation of these institutions. He claims that this issue cannot be solved by the institutions themselves, as it is within their very nature, part of the same thread that dates to the founding of the country as a "poor Western cousin" of Europe (Clarke 2016).  These origins have resulted in a cultural mindset characterised as Australia's “cultural cringe”; a concept codified in A.A. Phillips’ 1950 essay "On the Cultural Cringe".  

This described the proclivity of Australian society and cultural institutions to regard the work of artists and writers from overseas, most notably Britain and Europe and more recently the United States, as superior to those produced within Australia. Phillip’s work explicitly identified the source of this inherent inferiority complex from the founding of the country and its ongoing view of Britain as its colonial “parent”, which after the Second World War, transferred to the United States with the collapse of the Empire.  The cultural cringe inherently subjugated and devalued ethnically Australian ideas and culture. Although Australians have subsequently learnt to celebrate Australian art, it is still typically recognised in a nationalistic (as opposed to global) sense. This behaviour has been promulgated by institutions who seek to encourage a celebration of our current (inherently White colonialist) society that has only just begun to fully recognise and reconcile with these underlying issues of cultural history and racism. As a result, Asian-Australian art is celebrated for its otherness, rather than for the fact that it is a product and expression of the unique cultures and communities that have developed within Australia. According to Andy Butler (2022), because of their origins, these institutions are incapable of change. Thus, it falls to those ethnic groups seeking access to these institutions and the broader Australian cultural zeitgeist to create their own spaces and venues for the display of their work.

The development of venues by Asian-Australians for the display of their work such as the A4 and White Rabbit galleries has allowed the artists to focus on a more balanced representation of their art and provided the cultural space for them to offer a critique of Australian nation building mythologies that otherwise may never have been accepted or could have been censored by other institutions, for or example, the exhibition The Burrangong Affray (2018) curated by Micheal Do and Mikala Tai, both Asian-Australians themselves, highlighted pieces by John Zerunge Young and Jason Phu. The exhibition was a critical examination of the Lambing Flat riots between November 1860 and July 1861. In these riots, White Anglo-Saxon miners attacked and forced out Chinese immigrants on the goldfields surrounding Lambing Flat. These actions led to legislation that formed the basis of Australia's first anti-Asian immigration act, the National Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Ultimately, this committed Australia to a denial and exclusion of the country from its position as a nation in Asia. The exhibition highlighted how the accounts surrounding the riots have been altered to fit a specific, neutral (and fictional) narrative of national identity, rather than the reality of their position as the "Birth of White Australia" (Walsh 1928).  In violent opposition to Asian (Chinese) immigration, this revelation of the traditional storyline of the riots as revisionist history resulted in heavy criticism from several far-right political groups, who considered the exhibition "anti-digger" and therefore "anti-Australian" (Hood 2018). Although this was a reaction from (hopefully) the margins of society, it pointed to a broader unwillingness in Australia to confront these issues and was symptomatic of how the exhibition forced an uncomfortable focus on the inexorable intertwining of society’s nation building mythology with a racist colonialist past. The independent and non-commercial nature of the gallery, founded by Asian-Australians, allowed this insight to be clearly expressed free of the historical baggage and oversight that would have otherwise been required by an exhibition within a traditional institution.

The provision of safe exhibition space for Asian-Australian artists has allowed them to display a much richer and broader expression of their practice, which for some is inexorably linked to the perspective of their cross-cultural identity. For example, John Zerunge Young examines the interplay between the East and the West and the place of Chinese diaspora within a White colonial Australia. Young has a particular focus on instances where an individual breaches the cultural divide "because such moments represent instances of rupture, re-inscription, or displacement of the prevailing values of a culture or nation”. According to Young (2022), it is in these instances that by reaching between cultures, society can reinvent itself. This fascination extends outside of Australia, with his works including figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi German pastor who was motivated in the 1930s to oppose Nazi rule, and John Rabe who attempted to create a “safety zone” during the 1931 Nanjing Massacre (Rape of Nanjing) by Japanese armed forces. Similarly, his work Lambing Flat, 2018, which consisted of 27 digital prints and chalk on blackboard-painted paper and featured in The Burrangong Affray, focused on role of a local farmer, John Roberts, who sheltered Chinese victims of the riots on his property, rather than simply on the violence committed against the immigrants. In so doing, Young recognises that Roberts reached between cultures in the name of compassion. Young’s aim was to demonstrate that Australia is culturally and ethnically plural, despite continued attempts by institutions to curate an inherently false narrative of events that, at the time, framed the immigrant Chinese community as an "invasion" or in more modern times, portrayed the Lambing Flat riots as an expression of national identity divorced from its racist roots. The works themselves, presented in a uniform, monochromatic grid expressed no distinct contrast or subject, or 'other' within the piece, instead offered a unified composition combining English and Chinese characters erased and rewritten alongside photographs of Chinese miners and John Roberts. The aim of this work was to invoke a seamless combination of two "distinct cultural epistemologies" (Trail 2020).

Jason Phu offered another uncompromising critique of the lasting effects of these riots by combining Chinese script and symbols in a western style, committing an act of “cultural cannibalism’ to present both the impact of Asian-Australians on Australian culture and the inherent multiculturalism of Australian society. In one video piece, Phu visited John Roberts’ farm and set alight a braided black cord that spelt the word "queue" on the sandy bank of a creek. These cords were reminiscent of the "Queue" or "Cue" hairstyle that was part of traditional Chinese dress at the time of the riots. The burning invoked the violence inflicted on the miners whereas the remains left on the landscape reminded the viewer of the lasting cultural impact of this act on Australia. The video was presented within a two headed, four-armed figure drawn directly onto the wall in a western cartoon style. This act of “cultural cannibalism” (Andrade 1958), was used to critique the veneration of this violence within colonial Australian society though the symbolism of the cartoon.

The Burrangong Affray exhibition in which these artists featured was more than a criticism of a single incident in the revisionist mythology of Australia’s past. By staging it within a space that was free of the cultural baggage inherent in traditional institutions, it also became a political statement that dealt with much larger issues. These included the need for Australians to reconcile with their colonial past, a view of Asian-Australians (and Asia generically) as an  “other”, and the ongoing "cultural cringe" that results in the exclusion of ethnic groups from Australian society, even when specific attempts are made to include these groups in cultural events. These artists show how Australia as a society can truly progress towards multi-culturalism as opposed to the “orthodox multicultural paradigm” (Lo 2016) offered by traditional institutions. Moreover, this process offers a roadmap for other marginalised ethnic groups within Australian society that can begin to enrich the Australian zeitgeist and move society forward to a more inclusive and authentic future.  

Figure 1: Young J (2018) Lambing Flat [prints and blackboard-painted paper with Chalk] John Young Studios accessed 1 September 2022

Figure 2 & 3: Phu J In the morning I wake the rooster. In the afternoon I drive across the mountains & waters. At night I cut all my ties Jason Phu Accessed 14 September 2022

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