Counter vilification and stereotype by getting to know the individual

1-khaled-sabsabi-majority-minorityWhat can we as individuals do if we don’t accept the torrent of vitriol, racial abuse and false information currently swirling around us? Quite a lot, really, if we are prepared to be steadfast, patient and respectful. Artists and arts activists in western Sydney have been travelling this path for many years. Through their art forms they have offered insights into what it’s like to belong to one or several different cultures and how that may find individual expression through their personal experience. As artists reveal aspects of their lives, we witness vulnerability, a search for the infinite, for meaning and understanding. Insights may challenge assumptions about each other and leave audiences and participants more open to new ideas and understandings.

Khaled Sabsabi is a western Sydney artist, who was awarded the inaugural Western Sydney Arts Fellowship in 2016.  He migrated from Lebanon with his parents as a 12 year old in 1978 as a result of civil war, and settled in western Sydney. His personal experiences of conflict and dislocation in Lebanon and then in his adopted homeland of Australia, led him into deep social engagement. Independent curator and editor of Artist Profile, Kon Gouriotis wrote in 2014, “As a young artist, Sabsabi began experimenting with sound and poetry within the hip‐hop group COD (Count on Damage) in Granville NSW. He gradually moved to sound tracks for short and feature films, his last work was for Cedar Boys (2009). Yet it was to be media that eventually connected his sound and images . . .”

khaled-sabsabi-majority-minority-with-carmel-and-konFairfield City Museum and Gallery is currently hosting a solo exhibition of Khaled’s work, Majority/Minority, which Kon  officially opened in January. It encompasses three works which reflect on the complexities of migrant experience in western Sydney and the way in which minorities have gradually become the majority in areas like Fairfield. Kon, centre above, with gallery coordinator Carmel Aiello and Khaled Sabsadi. Top, is a still from Khaled’s two channel video Wonderland (2014), one of the three works in Majority/Minority.

In 2003 Khaled returned to Lebanon for the first time. He was profoundly affected by his exposure to the origins of his Islamic Sufi lineage. Kon considers that some of the Sufi teachings would have resonated deeply with Khaled, “especially an individual’s right to imagine the infinite”. It is generally understood that Sufism predates Islam and was connected to Zoroastrianism. Khaled uses the online name of peacefender and has worked extensively in detention centres, schools, prisons, refugeee and settlement camps. Among many awards, Khaled is a recipient of the Blake Art Prize, Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship and an Australia Council for the Arts Community Cultural Development Fellowship.

In the last year alone he has participated in group exhibitions in Yinchuan City, China; Blacktown Arts Centre, NSW; Artspace, New Zealand; and at Bait Al Shamsi, Sharjah, UAE.  Next Saturday, February 25, from 1pm to 3pm, Kon will be in conversation with Khaled at Fairfield Museum and Gallery. They will discuss Khaled’s exhibition Majority/Minority and some of his recent practice and reflect on the broader role of the arts and cultural sector in western Sydney. You are invited to attend and to participate with questions and discussion. RSVP to museumgallery@fairfieldcity.nsw.gov.au or call 9725 0190 by Thursday 23 February. Complimentary refreshments will be provided.

You don’t havejason-wing-within-arms-reach to look far in western Sydney for other examples of thought provoking work by artists of sometimes demonised minorities. Within Arms Reach was the poignant and haunting work, right, created by Jason Wing for The Native Institute, a 2013 exhibition at Blacktown Arts Centre. Jason is an artist of Aboriginal and Chinese descent, who was evoking the anguish of Aboriginal parents who camped outside the 19th century institute fence in the hope of catching a glimpse of their captive children.

wagana-woodford-academy-with-n-trust-0117Wagana Aboriginal Dancers from Katoomba, under the leadership of Wiradjuri descendant Jo Clancy, continue to explore traditional culture and create contemporary dance works. They are developing cultural knowledge and confidence among their young members and sharing their understanding with local and international audiences. Here they are at their first performance for 2017 at Woodford Academy, managed by the National Trust. Later this year, they will perform at the World Indigenous People’s Conference in Toronto, Canada.

The politically-charged marriage equality debate is the subject of a new dance performance at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. In Difference is a production of Form Dance Projects and Riverside in which leading dance artist Craig Bary in-difference-preparationhas drawn together a gifted artistic team. Here they are working on ideas and choreography, right, in preparation for a brief season, March 2 to 4, at 8pm.

“Marriage equality is a real issue for real people so we are making this work for them, and hope to make a significant contribution to the debate in the most creative and inspiring way,’ says Bary. ‘We will also bring the real life of the performers on stage to create a compelling, vulnerable and open environment for the audiences to connect with.”

We all have a need of connectedness, of belonging. Is there really any difference between the needs of a same sex couple and a heterosexual couple? In Difference promises a penetrating and poignant demonstration that dance can communicate important issues and make a social and political impact.

sydney-world-music-chamber-orchestra-rehearsalOther examples of work that defy the stereotypes and demonstrate the riches that come with experience of individual stories abound in western Sydney. Sydney Sacred Music Festival, now in its seventh year, is under the direction of musician Richard Petkovic. Over time, he has gradually assembled a whole range of highly trained musicians from many cultural and religious backgrounds, who are also frequently refugees. Their explorations of contemporary expressions of ancient traditions is continuous, where they share the transformative power of the sacred as distinct from the potential divisiveness of the religious.

1-dth-media-releaseWestern Sydney Literacy Movement – Sweatshop based at Western Sydney University, will launch associate director Peter Polites’ first novel, on March 5. Down the Hume is queer-ethnic Western Sydney noir, the first of its kind, and is published by Hachette, one of the biggest publishing companies in Australia.

Check out Natalie Wadwell’s latest blog post where she reflects on Resilience, it’s a cultural thing and promotes Jon Hawkes’ argument that culture should be the fourth pillar of sustainability. He proposed in 2001 that culture is not an additional policy or a strategy, but a framework through which we assess social, environmental and economic strategies. Natalie links this to her recent experience of a Resilient Sydney workshop.

National Theatre of Parramatta is just one more of many fine examples of companies that seek to defy stereotypes by presenting stories from diverse cultural communities. Still only in its second year, it has already met with great success.

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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.

Taking a step toward each other through writing and theatre at Bankstown

1-IMG_3203When Urban Theatre Projects’ artistic director Rosie Dennis set out to create Bankstown Live, her goal was to get to know the neighbourhood better where the company works. By offering the opportunity for locals to work with a range of different artists, it was a chance for neighbours to get to know each other a little better and to tell their stories to a wider world. It was a four day event and part of Sydney Festival 2015.

For long established resident David Cranston, Urban Theatre Projects’ Bankstown Live offered the possibility of gently pushing a door open to catch a glimpse of what the future might be. When Rosie met David at his house in Northam Ave, 18 months ago, she found his yard perfect as the stage for the premiere season of The Tribe. Michael Mohammed Ahmad grew up in the area, is director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and a doctoral candidate at UWS’ Writing and Society Research Centre. The Tribe is his semi-autobiographical first novel in which he reflects on family and his Arab-Australian Muslim community as seen through the eyes of a child. David welcomed the proposal.

The Tribe - coverGiven the support of theatre director, Janice Muller, actor Hazem Shamas and composer and performer Oonagh Sherrard, Michael Mohammed adapted his novel for the stage. With minimal props and sympathetic background sound by Oonagh (top photo), Hazem evoked Bani the young boy and traced his relationship with his Tayta, the grandmother central to his young life, through his Tayta’s death and some of his extended family’s experience. It was a vivid, insightful and humorous evocation, just like the book, and greeted by the audience with warmth and recognition.

Director of Emu Heights Theatre Company, Ian Zammit, from the Penrith area, describes Michael Mohammed’s book as beautiful. In light of the Martin Place siege in December and the Charlie Ebdo attack in Paris, Ian is especially drawn to Michael Mohammed’s nuanced response about freedom – “Freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, but there are equally important freedoms – the freedom to love. We may be granted the right to offend, but out of respect we can always choose not to exercise that right.

“I call this freedom, “Taking a step toward each other”,” Michael Mohammed says.

Family Portraits - Joanne SaadThere were many instances of this approach in the different presentations comprising Bankstown Live. Artists worked respectfully with each group. There was no sense of voyeurism or judgement as visitors were invited to share the experiences, hopes and dreams of local residents. Left, multi-media artist Joanne Saad captures Wafa Ziam in conversation with residents in Family Portraits. Joanne created an outdoor studio, using a life-size photo of the interior of four different family homes. She ensured the permission of each participant to publish their portraits and each of the four families hosted the event against the backdrop of their own home on successive evenings.

1 - Dancing Project - Albert OhThrough headphones, local writers shared intimate stories, read by another performer, of their responses to the death of a loved one. The Last Word was created with Rosie Dennis. The Bankstown Dancing Project was another with a generous spirit presented in two parts and developed by Emma Saunders. Emma was delighted to work with local couple Albert and Nancy Oh, whose suggestion of the Rumba 1 set the tone for an exuberant street celebration. Albert, above, puts his heart into the feeling of spring.

1-IMG_3200Left, the second dance was described by Emma as a kind of hokey pokey for the 21st century. The audience was left in no doubt about the dancers’ enjoyment. This dance was performed in front of the Bankstown Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House, which had been lifted, see below, by a willing group of supporters and transported to the other end of the performance area in Northam Ave. This followed Uncle Steve Williams - Acknowledgement to Countrythe launch of Bankstown Live by Aboriginal elder, Uncle Steve Williams’ traditional smoking ceremony and acknowledgement to country, lower left.

The Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House was the work of Filipino visual artist Alwin Reamillo and part of an ongoing collaboration with Urban Theatre Projects. The spirit house was reminiscent of the light structured house1-IMG_3189s of his homeland and the impact of Typhoon Haiyan last year. Bayanihan is the spirit of community action, which can be triggered by devastating events and lead to powerful links in volunteer assistance. Among the many meanings of moving the spirit house described by Alwin were the transience of housing in such climatic conditions, continuing change in the streets of Bankstown, the spirit of cooperation engendered by the need of mutual support and the movement of the house in a “creative spirit of community, diversity and togetherness”.

The spirit house became the backdrop to another new initiative by Urban Theatre Projects – their film debut. Bre & Back follows four Aboriginal women, Grace and Jenny Shillingworth, and Noeleen and Lily Shearer as they head to Brewarrina to visit family and reminisce about their lives. It’s a gentle, meandering film, full of glimpses into the lives of families profoundly affected by the removal of children decades ago, but coming together to reflect and share stories and culture in an atmosphere of humour, acceptance and quiet optimism.

A lullaby project, original songs and a short animated film were further enrichments of Bankstown Live and really required a second visit to fully appreciate the event.

1-Diet FC FinalTaking a step toward each other by different means is The Diet Starts on Monday published late last year in Bankstown. Author Tamar Chnorhokian is another founding member of Sweatshop and an arts and communications graduate from UWS. Drawing on her lifetime in western Sydney and her Armenian background, Tamar says The Diet Starts On
Monday tackles themes of obesity, cultural expectations and body image. “My novel is about the pressure teens today feel to emulate the perfect body image created by the mass
media.” It’s a story told with a light, but poignant touch and plenty of humour. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it.

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.