A video-art project by Mayza Hamdan, Joanne Saad and Marian Abboud Artistic Director: Vahid Vahed Artspace 30 Sept - 23 October
There is a moment of transition in the video Humanity by Joanne Saad. A moment when it seems as if we cross a border and trade realities; leaving behind the planes of the city, Saad tracks with her viewfinder as a pixilated blur. When we arrive, at a standstill, under the seamless blue of the Aussie horizon.
The tension of this moment is acute. On the one hand claustrophobia, alienation and subjectivity as Saad reduces the moving image closer to its digital code and the camera which frames it. On the other, the delusion of release as the artist plays out the camera's false promise of unmitigated vision, depth of space and panoptic objectivity.
Crossing borders and trading realities is important in Messengers from the West an exhibition featuring the work of three Arab-Australian women from Sydney's western suburbs. Initially conceived as a community cultural development project by its artistic director, Vahid Vahed, the exhibition uses a local stereotype as the starting point from which to explore more pervasive myths.
For the uninitiated, Sydney is a city fixated on its harbour and a handful of beaches stretching north, south and east of the CBD. West of the CBD is often cast as no-man's land: a site of otherness with all the cultural clout of a toxic dump. Great for airports and Olympic stadiums but lousy for postcard dreamings. In the most entrenched stereotype of local culture 'Westies' are often clumped together as two-dimensional characters at the peripheries of class and culture. Too bad if the majority of Sydney's population inhabits these hinterlands. And much too bad if this population is one of the most culturally diverse and complex in Australia.
Taking a sardonic stab at the centre-periphery model of power bequeathed Australia by colonial Britain, Messengers from the West begins by posing the question of where these messengers, and their messages, come from. Which west is that? Sydney's western suburbs where the artists live and work? Or the West which gave us our national language while it bound Arab and other Oriental women to projections of desire; projections which screen in visual media as diverse as 19th century paintings, documentary photographs and Sunday night soaps on the ABC?
Claiming place and identity through decoding stereotypes is one of the aims of Messengers from the West. However, undermining stereotypical representation can be tricky business. Mimicry, used to make explicit the bias of prevailing representations, can sometimes be mistaken for bias itself.
Which may explain a difference of opinion between myself and an Arab-Australian friend who viewed the exhibition with me. Where I found an eloquent, intelligent and provocative triptych of moving images creating a narrative which explored the themes of subjectivity and vision, my friend found offence in what she considered to be patronising replays of the stereotypes she has had to contend with throughout her life.
Most ambiguous in the exhibition is the open-ended Stereotype by Mayza Hamdan. In this work Hamdan recreates the cropped vision of desire in a sequence of images which move across the screen like a seduction; measured out slowly and often superimposed on each other as if the after-images of some voyeuristic trance. Beginning with the image of a hand curled passively in space, like a gesture of supplication reproduced from a Renaissance painting; Hamdan mimics the particular gaze of patriarchy which has catalogued the female body as so many accessible parts. Hamdan, however, averts the gaze to hands, arms, neck and mouth; to the face of a child; water the feminine element; and the cinematic cliche of a close-up of a woman's mouth drawing on a cigarette.
Stereotype is an elegant work with edge if you consider that Hamdan, a practising Moslem who wears hejab, uses her own body in her work.
If Hamdan first draws attention to the gaze then Marian Abboud throws back it back in your face in Confusion. Her black and white work tears the body apart in a volley of images that are sarcastically anthropological. A woman stands in a shower; the voyeurism of the moment made grotesque as unidentifiable body parts pulse across the scene. The projected image clings to a naked woman's body; carving her skin into a pattern of lines and light; dissecting its form with an artificial veil. And finally, in a climactic moment, Abboud fills the screen with a woman's face which glares back at the viewer as she mouths "Fuck you".
Out of synch a distorted voice presents the same message like a stretched tape set on replay.