How does the south appear to itself and how might south appear on the southern stage? The sweep of the south is broad and there are many ways to cross it. Kevin Murray considers the role of nature as a host of shared references for people and cultures of the southern hemisphere as well as ideas concerning indigenous and diasporic solidarity. Murray makes the point that it is on the political stage where the south seems particularly vocal, especially in relation to economic relations between north and south. The flow of traffic between north and south is also discussed, taking into consideration the infiltrating of modernism into Australia via its northern source and the shifting patterns in positioning the exotic gaze that is normally directed south. Murray concludes that, at this stage, the south remains a rare platform that welcomes both indigenous and non-indigenous, both tribes and individuals.
Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it.
There are two elements in the Gambetta. The first is skill to show that I, with my foot, have the skill to do anything – this gives a person dignity. The second is deceit. You have to fool the defender into believing exactly the opposite of what you are actually going to do.
Caliban, Harry Belafonte, Carmen Miranda, Barry McKenzie, Crocodile Dundee, Idi Amin& The southerner appears on the world stage as a comic figure, innocent of social graces. As a type, it confirms the notion of the north as the seat of reason and justice.
But how does the south appear to itself? Like spokes on the wheel, cultures of the south rarely get a chance to meet, other than through the northern centres. There's no denying that structures such as the recent Musée de Quai Branly are inspiring vehicles for gazing upon the treasures of the new world. But the interpretive context for the work is often sacrificed in favour of a primitivist theatre. So how might we do otherwise? How might south appear on the southern stage?
The sweep of the south is broad and there are many ways to cross it. Certainly indigenous solidarity has been important in the lively exchange of Pacific cultures, and this network is beginning to extend into Latin America, where Maori artists are playing a particularly active role. Accompanying this is a dormant non-indigenous dialogue, as descendents of colonisers work out an identity that is more like guest than master. Overlaying this are the diasporic threads of peoples who have been scattered across the bottom of the world, such as Indian, Scottish, Jewish, Japanese, Ethiopian and Italian. This is a realm of lost tribes, distant havens and poor cousins.
While these networks are often exclusive, there are many elements in common between peoples of the south. Nature provides a host of shared references. The Gondwana family of flora and fauna, such as the flightless bird, does not always fit neatly into the northern Linnaean systems. There are more stories attached to the stars of the southern hemisphere than the nationalistic myth of the Southern Cross. And we share natural challenges such as El Niño and the rising water levels.
Though nature has not been left to its own devices. The cross-pollination caused by colonisation has led to a south-south species exchange, including Australian possums in New Zealand, ostrich farms in Australia and emu farms in Chile. The host countries are normally less sentimental about the exploitation of their guest species.
Culturally, there are parallel paths of development. From initial invasion of colonisers there followed for most countries a brutal period of repression in the 20th century, with reconciliation being the shared challenge of the present. During the course of colonisation came the downward trajectories of northern movements, such as modernism and the baroque. While our understanding of modernism in Australia is referenced to seminal moments in its northern source, we are yet to gauge our history according to the parallel modernisms of countries such as Brazil.
Of course, there is traffic in the other direction. Two seminal movements were the rebellion of Sicilian writers in the meridianalismo movement of 19th century Italy and the negritude poets of early 20th century France. Both attempted to counter the hegemony of the north. This continues today, with new strategies developed to address the enduring self-defeatism of colonisation.
A number of artists are exploring possibilities of 'reverse primitivism', which subjects Western culture to the same exotic gaze that is normally directed south. The results are quite challenging, not just for the primitivists in the north but also for the essentialists down south. The Colombian artist Nadin Ospina incorporates consumerist icons into forged pre-Columbian ceramics – Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson become our pagan idols. In a less ironic fashion, globalisation is also encouraging the growth of 'world' cultures, which blend traditional and modern. In this context, craft-design collaborations are beginning to flourish. The recent Circuitas Latinas throughout South America heralded a turn away from the Barcelona style towards design based on local artisanal skills. It's our turn.
But it is on the political stage where the south seems particularly vocal. In 2003, the Fifth World Trade Organization in Cancún witnessed an alliance of the global south to challenge the subsidies of northern economies. This is where Australia's position in the south becomes particularly problematic. While there are elements of Marxism that retain power, there are also alternative humanistic values that underpin this solidarity.
From South Africa comes the spirit of ubuntu, a modern concept with ancient roots. A key element in traditional Zulu gatherings is the consumption of sorghum beer. This is shared by passing around a wood-fired clay vessel, filled with frothing liquid. Before any of the beer is consumed, a portion is spilt on the ground in an act of ubuntu – a sacrifice for the ancestors. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ex-victims of apartheid would perform the ultimate act of revenge against their persecutors by refusing the cycle of violence and recognising instead their shared humanity. The traditional value of ubuntu has evolved into an ethic of globalisation that retains collective meaning.
While on the other hand, emerging from Latin America is the spirit of tango. Supposedly derived from African ritual, the tango emerged as a mournful lament of a young migrant nation. Tango attempts to mask wounded pride with impressive footwork and dandy postures. Its apotheosis is Maradona's goal against England in 1968, which exploited the tango move known as 'Gambetta' – doing the opposite of what your opponent expects.
Ubuntu and tango seem diametrically opposite values. As the two pillars of the south, Africa and Latin America stand for the contradictory attitudes of collective good and individual pride. This opposition is one of the factors that gives south-south exchange its dialogic value – it is better understood as a conversation rather than a single shared position.
And the platform for that conversation? Certainly the South Project is one in a series of moves to develop south-south exchange. Its focus is the shared language of visual culture, including photography, video, printmaking, collective art, design and craft. Behind the scenes, there are other platforms evolving, such as open source software.
While the cold war signalled the end of competition between the two world systems of capitalism and communism, the collective mission survives in the realm of open source software. Linux has been developed as a successful free alternative to the Windows operating system. While Linux is the basic code available for anyone to use, it needs to be packaged in forms that enable ordinary users to install it on their computers. Currently, one of the most popular of these distributions is titled Ubuntu. Their website explains, 'Ubuntu is an African word meaning 'Humanity to others', or 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world.' It's a beer pot for the network age.
But Ubuntu is just an operating system. It needs a desktop interface to engage users. The desktop program bringing Linux to everyday users is titled The Tango Project. After all, it takes two&
At a time when most positions within Western art seem to be taken, south-south dialogue is still in formation. At this stage, it remains a rare platform that welcomes both indigenous and non-indigenous, both tribes and individuals.
Kevin Murray is Director of Craft Victoria, which initiated and manages the South Project.