Creative artists present nuanced views of conflict, causes and consequences

ntop-qanonAward wining film director George Miller says, “. . . art is at its best when it allows catharsis through story telling and a nation is at its best when it provides a refuge for humanity to heal and flourish.” It seems that this observation is relevant to three arts events due to launch across western Sydney, where negotiating multiculturalism and difference is a daily  experience.

The first is Diaspora-Making Machines opening at Blacktown Arts Centre, on Thursday, September 29. The second is a public dialogue between writers Ellen van Neerven and Michael Mohammed Ahmad under the provocative title Black and Lebo. The third is The Cartographer’s Curse, a new production created by National Theatre of Parramatta, which explores the complexities of political and social divisions within the Middle East. Above is an image of the qanun, a Middle Eastern instrument featured in The Cartographer’s Curse. Director Paula Abood explains qanun is the origin of the English word canon, encompassing the lore and law of a society.

In Diaspora-Making Machines eight artists of diverse cultural backgrounds explore some of “the systemic devices (the machines) that generate movement and the dispersal of communities (the diaspora).” From the earliest days of the colony, Blacktown has been a scene of continuous waves of migration. Some were forced, like the Aboriginal and Maori children sent to be “reformed” at the 1823 Blacktown Native Institution, and others like migrants and refugees who made new homes there by choice.

1-blak-douglas-bac-for-diaspora-making-machinesOffering an Aboriginal perspective on the exhibition’s theme of Blacktown’s historic place as a centre of migration, attitudes to newcomers, and notions of belonging and assimilation is Blak Douglas, who grew up in the area. His work, left, Pipe Dreams (Part A), suggests a challenge to the role of the church as a systemic device in the dispersal of Aboriginal communities. Another of the artists is Mehwish Iqbal, who grew up in a small town in Pakistan where art wasn’t even taught in the local school. Nonetheless, she defied traditional expectations to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National College of Arts and then moved to Dubai. In 2006, she moved to Australia with her family where she completed a Masters degree at the College of Fine Arts UNSW. Mehwish has undertaken international artists residencies and has a keen interest in themes of integration, assimilation and separation experienced by migrants living in Australia and issues faced by under privileged children in developing countries.

The other artists are Jumaadi, Nerine Martini, Susannah Williams and Warren Armstrong, Luping Zeng and his son Cheng Zeng. Diaspora Making Machines will continue at Blacktown until Saturday, November 5.

ellen-van-nervanBlack and Lebo promises a lively discussion between two award winning young writers, Aboriginal author Ellen van Neerven, right, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad, below, left. Ellen won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Indigenous Writers Prize, among other awards, and has just published a new book Comfort Food, a collection of poetry. Michael is the director of Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, a talented actor, and a doctoral candidate at the Western Sydney University Writing and Society Research Centre. He has won several awards for his work and for his debut novel The Tribe. His second novel The Lebs will be published early next year.

Ellen and Michael Mohammed.AhmadMichael will discuss the intersections between race, faith, class, gender and sexuality in contemporary Australian literature, give performances from their latest works and take questions and comments from their audience. Black and Lebo takes place on Friday, September 30, at Western Sydney University, Bankstown campus, Building 3, Room G 55. The event is free with lunch provided and everyone is welcome, but RSVP is essential.

Prof Ghassan HageFrench and British colonialism of the early 20th century in the Middle East is the starting point for The Cartographer’s Curse. Invasion, colonialism and conflict have been common experiences for centuries among people in this region, where borders have undergone frequent change, according to who holds the power. A century ago, it was the British and French who drew lines on a map to divide the area according to their own interests. The consequences continue to reverberate and have led many people to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. Under the guidance of Paula Abood, history is imagined through spoken word poetry and prose, parkour movements and qanunic music. Among the characters are the cartographer, the wandering professor, the poet, the resistance, the merchant and the master of the qanun. The professor is played by Ghassan Hage, above right, an actual Future Generation Professor of global stature.

1-ntop-cartog-curse-thistle“This ensemble captures the very best of Arab Australian artistry in all its different expression,” Paula says. “Each performer in The Cartographer’s Curse brings a particular prowess and this makes for an exciting performance.” The coupling of the melodic quality of the qanun with the edginess of Parkour movement, she describes as “artistically very exhilarating.” The thistle, left, grows throughout the landscape of the Middle East and could easily be perceived as a metaphor for resilience and survival. The Cartographer’s Curse opens at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, on Thursday, October 5 and continues only until October 8.

Advertisements

Respond quickly to threats and great opportunities

NPUR - proposed redevelopmentYou have until 5pm, this Sunday, July 24, to make a quick submission to the Parliamentary Enquiry into Crown Land. Better Planning Network, through North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) says, “The NSW Government is proposing major changes to the way Crown Land is managed. This includes transferring Crown Land back to local councils and prioritising a business model. This will see the disposal and sell-off of parcels of Crown Land.” Among the lands likely to be affected is the North Parramatta Heritage Precinct, for which UrbanGrowth NSW is currently developing a master plan – NPRAG’s impression of the initial buildings proposed for the site, above.

“In response to community concerns, a Parliamentary Inquiry has been convened to investigate: – the adequacy of community input & consultation regarding the commercial use & disposal of Crown land
– the benefits of active use and management of Crown land
– the most appropriate & effective measures to protect Crown Parramatta Gaol - ABCLand
– the extent of Aboriginal Land Claims over Crown land & opportunities to increase Aboriginal involvement in its management’.

Click proposed changes to find out more and click on this link to make a quick submission, which you can personalise. Parramatta Gaol, ABC photo right, is the subject of a successful land claim by the Deerubbin Aboriginal Land Council.

There are some great opportunities to learn new skills and participate in fascinating explorations. Tracks: Western Sydney is a pop-up program for young writers. On Saturday, August 6, Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) at Parramatta will host a day of workshops conducted by Express Media in partnership with Westwords – western Felicity CastagnaSydney’s literacy organisation for young people. You can take part in a fiction masterclass with Sarah Ayoub or a non-fiction masterclass with Rebecca Giggs. Young writers can find out what opportunities are available for them in western Sydney and beyond with Michael Campbell, Lily Mei, Sarah Saleh and David Graham. Then find out what happens when you have been selected for publication from Susie Anderson, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Kylie Fornasier and Felicity Castagna, pictured above. And if that’s not enough, listen to the work of some of western Sydney’s hottest young writers. Costs, bookings and details.

From Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest comes an exceptional opportunity. The gallery is about “to embark on a landmark project in partnership with the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences and Western Sydney University and needs volunteers to assist with its smooth running. This opportunity will particularly suit people interested in both art and science and is part of the upcoming exhibition Gravity (and Wonder) and its accompanying series of public programs. The exhibition and program examines gravity as a universal force, holding all things in place and in relationship to each other.

Penrith R Gallery - Gravity (and Wonder) Amy“The exhibition will bring together objects, historical drawings and photographs, technical and measuring instruments from the collection of MAAS alongside the work of contemporary Australian and international artists who have sought to engage with gravity and its wondrous elements. In addition to exhibiting existing art, new artworks have been commissioned from Sandra Selig and David Haines and Joyce Hinterding.

“Volunteer Invigilators will be required across the period 3 September – 27 November. Volunteers will be provided with training and induction and will work under the supervision of gallery staff.

“Deadline for applications: 31 July at midnight.
To apply: Please visit our website and read the extra information, then complete the downloadable application form and return it to us by the deadline.”

Haines and Hinterding - Gravity and WonderAs a preliminary to the opening of Gravity (and Wonder) art and science will intersect in a talk to be given at the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo, on Monday, August 15, between 6 and 7pm, by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. They are an artistic partnership, whose work is inspired by scientific concepts, while science is the foundation of their research and eventual artistic production. Their work is focused on the unseen and unheard – forces of energy, the environment and hallucinations. Their talk will precede their participation in the opening of the Gravity (and Wonder) exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery on 3 September. Details and bookings.

Arguing the toss about literature, provocation and radicalisation

Michael Mohammed.AhmadIn a period of heightened anxiety about radicalisation of young people and fears of Muslim extremism comes a discussion of radical literature at Western Sydney University. On Friday, November 6, the Writing and Society Research Centre on the Bankstown campus will host sessions that aim to challenge the boundaries and reclaim the contemporary migrant-Australian narrative. The first session will feature award winning author of The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, above, in conversation with internationally acclaimed Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at Melbourne University, Professor Ghassan Hage, below, as they explore the images and realities of the Arab-Australian narrative.

Through the last 20 years, this narrative has been profoundly coloured by media reports of sexual assault, drug-dealing, drive-by shootings and terrorist conspiracy. It has often overwhelmed any effort to understand a growing community that has a significant place in contemporary Australian society. Michael Mohammed is a founding member and director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a passionate advocate of improved literacy and critical thinking among marginalised young people.  At last count, Sweatshop had conducted workshops for more than 10,000 Australian high school students. Professor Greg Noble from the university’s Institute of Society and Culture will chair the session, which will unpack the various representations Prof Ghassan Hagein media, politics, film and literature that have shaped our understanding of the Arab-Australian identity.

An item in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald described the NSW Premier’s $47 million plan to fight extremism in schools. “Specialist teams and trained counsellors will identify students at risk of radicalisation and help counter violent extremism.” It is a move that has been welcomed by members of the Muslim Women’s Association, who have been seeking similar training for counsellors and mentors for many years. Some leading teacher representatives fear the initiative could be counter-productive in schools. Andrew Zammit, a counter-terrorism expert from Melbourne University recently recommended programs that encourage critical thinking among students rather than suspicion by teachers.

The second session of Friday’s event will be a conversation between radical Melbourne poet TT.O and critic and editor Professor Ivan Indyk. Greek-Australian by background and anarchist by conviction, TT.O’s poems have dramatised the voices and gestures of the working class of inner city Melbourne, and marked the migrant presence in Australian poetry throughout 40 years. In addition to the conversations, the panellists will take questions from the audience and perform readings from their upcoming books. Radical Literature is a free event hosted by Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre and will include a complimentary lunch. Western Sydney University, Bankstown Campus, Building 3, Room G 55, from 11am – 3pm.
Bookings are essential. RSVP: writing@westernsydney.edu.au

Studio Stories - ProvocationThere is a further opportunity to hear Michael Mohammed Ahmad, left, when he is joined by Faith Chaza, centre, and Aanisa Vylet at Parramatta Artists Studios on Thursday, November 19, from 6.30 to 8pm. Studio Stories presents a monthly event of readings, discussion and open mic showcasing western Sydney writers. This time, they will be Stories of Provocation – “stories that will enrage and provoke you and maybe even change the way that you see the world.” You are invited to come for a drink, a chat, a listen and BYO your own material for the open mic.

Free. No RSVPs required. Parramatta Artists Studios, 68 Macquarie St, Parramatta.

Passion for justice and “coming to voice” drives Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s work

Michael Mohammed AhmadAs a Bankstown boy of Lebanese Muslim background, Michael Mohammed Ahmad was profoundly affected by the media frenzy that broke out in 2000 following the Skaf gang rapes in south western Sydney. The savagery of sterotyping about young Muslim men, Lebanese and Arab Australians and western Sydney had a widespread negative impact on other young men like himself. While not denying the awfulness of the crimes, Mohammed concluded that the only way to counter such unfair labelling, was to develop strong and confident local voices who could tell their own stories to a wide audience.

Bankstown Youth Development Service, under the leadership of Tim Carroll, gave him the opportunity to develop his passion for writing and the promotion of literacy and critical thinking among local young people. Under BYDS’ auspice, Mohammed initiated and ran Westside Publications as chief editor and coordinator from June 2005 to February 2013. In 2012, he won the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his leadership in community arts and cultural development. From this emerged Sweatshop – Western Sydney Literacy Movement, now based at the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, Bankstown campus, where Mohammed is a doctoral candidate.

Sweatshop team - UWSThe university website says, “Facilitated by local literacy artists, PhD candidates and UWS graduates, Sweatshop visits local schools to run workshops and activities, and also produces publications, literary events and performances to showcase the work of local writers and artists. Mr Ahmad has been working with Western Sydney communities through literacy for the past 10 years and over this time has worked with more than 10,000 young people to develop reading, writing and communication skills in local schools.”

It’s a pretty impressive achievement. At times, Mohammed’s style is abrasive and confronting. His studies have led him to the work of bell hooks, the African-American feminist scholar. In her book, Talking Back, hooks uses the term “coming to voice” – an act of moving from silence to speech as revolutionary gesture. “We are coming to voice”, he says.

“This agenda has inspired much of my own work. I have been fascinated by the experience of being from both western Sydney and being of a Lebanese-Australian Muslim-Alawite background. My fascination has not been in the stereotypical, limited and often demonising way that we’ve seen it done so far, but rather in the honest and complex way that it unfolds in my life.”

OneThe Tribe - cover result is his first book of fiction published earlier this year by Giramondo. Its style is gentler. The Tribe, opens with a vivid description of the recollections of his protagonist as a seven year old, sitting close to his grandmother. His Tayta points to the scars on her expansive belly and tells him how they mark the birth of each of her children. Thus we meet the members of Bani’s family and begin to discover the individuals who make up three generations and the complexities of relationships throughout the extended family. It’s not quite a cast of thousands, but the connections are multiple and complex. The loyalties and antagonisms  existing in a tight knit community bound by tradition are vividly illustrated. Reviews in The Daily Telegraph and the blog The Lifted Brow offer contrasting and illuminating commentary.

Last week, in collaboration with Seizure Literary Journal, Sweatshop published a new anthology Stories of Sydney. Stories from 15 writers focus on place. All have been developed and intensively workshopped since 2013. Five come from inner Sydney and 10 from western Sydney. It is both a printed book and an e-book. During term four a series of writing workshops and residencies in schools will be held, with the aim of exploring difference across Sydney through storytelling.

 

 

#Three Jerks offers a different perspective on a heinous crime

Three Jerks“Dark legacy of Skaf crimes” headlines a Sydney Morning Herald story, today, about a hard hitting production coming to Sydney Writers Festival, Wharf Theatre 2, May 24. Michael Mohammed Ahmad has created #Three Jerks with two fellow writers Peter Polites and Luke Carman. They are members of the Bankstown based performance group Sweatshop.

All were at high school when the notorious Skaf gang rapes were committed in western Sydney in 2000. The crimes generated a media frenzy, which Mohammed says demonised young men of Arab-Australian background and portrayed western Sydney as a war zone of ethnic and religious tensions. Simplistic reporting by the media and knee jerk responses from political and religious leaders “messed with the heads” of many young men of related cultural backgrounds, he says. As a result they adopted the caricatures of violence and menace they saw in constant media coverage.

Mohammed and his co-writers and performers argue that there were many more people affected by the crimes than the young women, who were the immediate victims. They are not offering solutions, but striving for recognition of the complexities of issues like these. The production is directed by Roslyn Oades, who recently directed Mohammed in the verbatim theatre production I’m Your Man.

Sweatshop is operating under the wider umbrella of Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, based at University of Western Sydney. Founded by Mohammed, the movement is dedicated to achieving equality for western Sydney communities through literacy and critical thinking.

Mohammed and Luke Carman will be part of a wider discussion, The Centre of Sydney, at ICE, Parramatta, May 21, part of Sydney Writers Festival. Bookings.