Banksy in a Burqa?

2 Mar

I’d like to thank my friend Caitlin for drawing my attention to the article below.  Often male street artists are lionised for getting their work into difficult or spectacular locations and  Shamsia Hassani should certainly be celebrated for making her work in one of the most dangerous locations in the world! Go sista! You rock!

When walls can talk

Date: February 26 2012
Emma Graham-Harrison

INSIDE the blackened ruin of Kabul’s cultural centre, a spray-painting of a woman in a burqa sits at the foot of a staircase to nowhere, beside a line of poetry mourning everything that has been lost to Afghanistan in three decades of violence.

The painting is the work of Shamsia Hassani, 24, probably her country’s first serious graffiti artist.

”The water can come back to a dried-up river, but what about the fish that died?” is her translation of the line, written under gaping holes gouged through the concrete walls by shells when battles raged through the area.

”When I heard this poem, I thought how it was about the situation in Afghanistan. A lot of people died in the war; now the situation is better, but those people cannot come back,” said Hassani.

She is an associate professor of sculpture at Kabul University and draws, paints in oil and is a founding member of a contemporary art collective, Rosht, or ”growth”. She was introduced to graffiti when a British artist, Chu, flew out in late 2010 to hold a week-long course in street art.

She has embraced the discipline. Spray cans and stencils have more impact than traditional art, she says, because the latter is a luxury. ”If you have an exhibition, most uneducated people won’t even know about it. But if you have art like graffiti in the street, everyone can see that … If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art.”

The obstacles in a city at war, policed by jittery security forces, discouraged most other students on Chu’s course, even though the high walls and giant concrete blast barriers are a tempting blank canvas. For women, there is also street harassment; even those who go out wearing the burqa can meet leering compliments on their hands and ankles.

So Hassani works in industrial yards and abandoned buildings, such as the cultural centre.

Or she does fantasy graffiti. ”If you stand in the street, you face problems; because of this I started a new style of graffiti. I take pictures of places I like in the city, open them in a program like Photoshop, and do digital designs. Or I print out a picture of the street and then do graffiti with a paintbrush. If you scan it back, it looks like real graffiti, but of course it isn’t.”

She hopes to start a graffiti class and bring art to the city. ”Art can bring change, I am sure. If people see an artwork, it will perhaps only cause a small shock to their mind, but that can grow and grow.”



Spelling it out: burqua, burqa, burkha, burka? Bugger!

25 Feb

“…well they’re not burquas are they because the sleeves are wrong and that’s not even how you spell burqa! There’s no u in it!”

This comment overheard at the Armadale opening of my new show FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua, suggests the title and images certainly got someone talking, if perhaps not quite thinking!

Spelling Nazis are about as pleasant as a fart in a burqu/a/kh/a! It would appear the pedants are out and about…and I wonder if they focus on things like “correct” spelling and hem lengths because they don’t want to consider the greater issues at hand. Shall we talk about constructions of femininity, race, cultural and religious identity, fundamentalism and consumerism or shall we talk about spelling? Alright, lets talk about spelling because its soooo interesting, no really, it is.

As a teacher of the English language and an examiner of the Cambridge University International English Language Testing System I’m supposed to care enormously about the spelling of words. Yet for me what is most important is a persons ability to communicate meaning most effectively.

The title of my latest show is a play on words and ideas and it uses one of four possible spellings (although i’m open to further possibilities!) of the word naming the article of clothing known as a buqua, burqa, burkha, burka. For me it is the ideas behind the words that are most important because it is these ideas that have so much power to affect women’s lives.

In case it has escaped some viewers, burqua is an Arabic word. This means it’s original written form is in Arabic script and not our own 26 letter alphabet, leaving English users with the task of translating the sounds of the Arabic word into English phonemes and from there into something representative in English script.

English grammar has rules, most of which we break. However, one rule we uphold without fail is that, in English all words using a q must follow the q with a u, why? Because that’s how we do it! It’s the rule! This may be why some people spell burqua with a qu, it would be an appropriate English spelling. However, as burka is an Arabic word, and Arabic has both qu and q alone sounds, one might also translate the sound of the word into the English characters burqa. Burkha and burka might also be considered to be phonemically correct.

Translating sounds between alphabets or character systems can be fraught. Exact correlations between the sounds we make with our mouths and the symbols we write on a page to represent these sounds are not always possible, but we can often get fairly close, close enough to communicate our meaning effectively.

Now, does anyone want to talk about constructions of femininity, race, cultural and religious identity or consumerism?

For the record, the title of the show when it appears at No Vacancy Project Space in the atrium at Federation Square in Melbourne (Fri March 16, 6-9pm) will omit the u as a gesture aimed at opening up the possibilities for spelling, thinking, acting, and communicating meaning!

FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua

8 Feb

Next week I will be launching my latest solo show of prints, FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua.  Many of you have been asking what it’s all about so I thought I’d put down a few words by way of explanation. This particular series of prints sprang from interactions I was having with burqua clad women in my neighbourhood and my ESL classroom.  I began reflecting on my attitudes to the burqua and the women who wear it.

I have never felt entirely comfortable with the idea that women who wear the burqua choose to do so out of blind religious faith or compliance with patriarchal codes of behaviour, that they are experiencing some sort of false consciousness seems to me rather patronising and simplistic.  Many of the women in my neighbourhood and in my language classes were certainly very spirited people and yet it seemed the burqua was an encumbrance to their physical expression.  I tried to imagine what they might become were they not so encumbered.  I was thinking about control of women’s bodies and their ability to be active and I realised the burqua didn’t have a monopoly on restriction of women.  I began to consider Barbie and the message she sends to little girls about the kind of woman they can be.  It seemed to me that both barbie and the burqua were extreme examples of constructed femininity and neither of them had much to do with a human being who could fully realise their human potential.  Barbie is renown for her costume changes, but few of them allow her to engage in physically active pass times, indeed the physiology of Barbie is such that were she a real woman she would be unable to stand due to her ill-proportioned body.  Barbie is impossible and leading an active life in a burqua is also damn near impossible, it would appear.  I started to try to imagine burqua clad women doing active things like sports and the project just grew from there.  Some of the images are very funny, I made them with the intention of using humour to unveil both western attitudes to the burqua and the garments limiting effects on women’s choices.  Humour can be a very powerful tool in opening us up to seeing in a new way.  I have no intention to ridicule the women themselves, rather this is a project about asking questions and exposing where the power really lies.  John Lennon said “Woman is the nigger of the world,” that is still true today and it’s a power relationship I’m trying to reveal in these works .

The graphic simplicity and power of the lino print lends itself well to this project.  I love comics and graphic novels and sometimes I imagined these impossible burquas as superheroes, certainly they would need to have superpowers to do what they do (synchronised swimming for example).  There is an Iranian comic book artist and illustrator, Marjane Satrapi, whose work I love, and while she was not a direct influence on this project there may be certain stylistic or thematic similarities.

The works in this show were made as limited edition prints but then I started to feel that I wanted to make gifts of the prints for my neighbourhood and my city so I started making paste-ups of the images and putting them up in city lanes, sometimes in masses or individually as little surprises for intrepid backstreet wanderers.  Street art is a great equaliser, it’s open to us all to create and to view as opposed to the gallery system which can be alienating to some viewers and exclusive of some artists.

I hope viewers will reflect on these works with an open heart, ask themselves questions about their own beliefs and about the various social codes that attempt to govern women.  Most of all I want people who see these works to laugh because laughter is subversive! 🙂

…because of others

5 Feb

I recently came across a man picking up cigarette butts outside the state library in Melbourne. At first I thought he might be collecting them to smoke the remaining tobacco but soon I realised this could not be the case as he continued to retrieve the butts en masse and without discrimination. How odd, I thought. Then I began to wonder if he might be a fellow artist involved in a kind of performance piece or endurance work? In the end I decided to do the unthinkable in a large modern city and engage the stranger in conversation . “Excuse me, do you mind me asking why you’re picking up cigarette butts?” He stopped and looked at me rather blankly, pausing before answering, “ …because nobody else does…” and walked away.

Did he mean he liked doing things no one else would do, or that he felt compelled by some intangible force to do what others would not, was he just a neat freak? I was still perplexed but he got me thinking about social responsibility, interconnectedness and our sense of responsibility to one another. In South Africa the Ubuntu people have a concept of community expressed in the phrase “I am, because of others”, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas spoke about “Being for the other…” and Dostoyevsky ‘s character Alyosha in The Brothers Karamzov states “We are all responsible for everyone else, but I am more responsible than all the others.” Connection to our fellow humans and a sense of responsibility to them is not a new idea, merely one that seems so lacking of late as to be truly surprising when one stumbles upon it.

Red Dog: Wagging the tale of Aussie mateship.

5 Feb

There’s a lot to love about Red Dog; it’s got a cute furry lead, beautiful cinematography and it makes you feel good. On Australian box office figures alone the film was hugely successful, taking $21.3 million according to a recent article in The Age newspaper, more than all the other 34 first release Australian films of 2011 combined. Red Dog won Best Picture at this month’s inaugural Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards and as an example of a film written and pitched correctly for it’s audience it was also a winner. Red Dog was written to appeal to middle Australia and it does that very well. All of these measures make the film a good barometer of current Australian culture and on the face of it I’m worried. I want to muzzle Red Dog and send him to the pound before he infects us with historio-cultural blindness! Ahh, but I shouldn’t blame the dog, he’s not the cause of the problem, merely symptomatic of it.

So what’s this film about and what does it tell us about the stories we like to watch about ourselves? Australians love animal films, remember Phar Lap, Dusty, Skippy? We also love movies about mates, think right back to Forty Thousand Horsemen, Gallipoli, Buddies and Crackerjack to name but a few of the reels spilling from the film archives. However, we’re just about beside ourselves if we get animals, mateship and it happens on the road in the rough and tumble Aussie outback, ergo, Red Dog. This is a story about a man and his dog or perhaps a dog and his master, told through the lens of mateship. The dog is a free spirit that befriends lonely men yet will not accept any master but the one it chooses itself.

One of our favourite narratives is mateship, especially in the isolation of this big harsh country. Women can threaten this bond (although they do need to exist on the sidelines to avert fears of homosexuality) but in the case of Red Dog the female lead is accepted by the dog and thus validated. However, soon after, and before the human relationship can be legitimised through marriage, the male lead is killed in an accident thus preserving the honesty and purity of the mateship relationship between man and dog while our focus returns to the dog as it searches the countryside in a romantic quest for its master.

Red Dog makes a painfully token gesture towards acknowledging Australia’s cultural diversity by introducing us to a cast of two dimensional miners who hail from other shores. Indeed there is even one Asian miner; it seems we killed all the others on the gold fields of the 19th century. And despite being set in the Pilbara there is no mention of indigenous claims to land and only one Aboriginal miner who has no speaking role (don’t want those black fellahs getting a voice now), yet the land itself features almost as a character.

The story takes place during the 1970’s so one would expect to view extremes of racism and sexism yet there was no examination of these themes and the dialogue was certainly written for a G rating. It seems the whole production has had its mouth washed out with soap. We love a light-hearted, surface level, heart-warming animal story that doesn’t ask too many awkward questions and we love to have a laugh. Humour can certainly be used to expose and reflect on unpleasant truths but this is not the case in Red Dog. Rather the film reaffirms our favourite cultural narratives and muzzles any dissenting viewpoint. As one of our most successful cultural products of recent years Red Dog says a lot about how we view ourselves and want others to perceive us. So are we still racist, sexist and in denial of our historical beginnings as a nation? Artist Ai Weiwei says “…a nation that will not search for its own past and not be critical of it is a shameless nation.” Red Dog confirms Australia as a shameless nation.