True to its name the exhibition Bamiyarra Not So Still(s) has been far from still. Over the past year it’s been seen in three galleries, two in Victoria and one in New South Wales. It has no doubt created ripple effects beyond view and become, at least for me personally, the proverbial long goodbye – my studio now home to the remaining 145 boxes, from an original 200, that formed the feature structure of the exhibition. For five days they had stood in theatrical splendour at the Walker St Gallery in Dandenong (23 – 27 Sep 2013), more than likely the last time this version of Bamiyarra Not So Still(s) will have been seen with all its component parts in tact. And it was for me the most poignant, the most meaningful of the three installs.
The first exhibition, held at Signal in Melbourne (3 – 11 August 2012), was by far the most exciting and communal of installs. And rightly so. The entire team, including our artist mentors Werner Hammerstingl and Yandell Walton, team Bamiyarra themselves, volunteers, our partners, the crews from Viola Design and Signal were all involved in staging the work. Early on the morning of 3 August, prior to our launch event that evening, around a dozen of us arrived at Signal and assembled 200, shaping them into two opposing walls on which our photo essay series would be applied. The boxes were held fast by nails no less, pressed from the inside, through four layers of cardboard, fastening each box to another below. It was demanding, exacting work which by mid-afternoon saw the entire array completed.
We had the added advantage of having custom designed the exhibition for Signal including the 2 channel video projections that could be seen from the exterior of the building accompanied by a soundscape amplified along the Yarra River between Flinders St Station and Signal. It was nothing short of epic!
The launch was attended by 120 people from all over Melbourne with special guest presenters reflecting on the contributions asylum seekers make to the City of Melbourne and popular Hazaragi musicians joined in to entertain us. It was a festive affair that would not be repeated.
A little under a year later Bamiyarra Not So Still(s) was included in LANDLOCK, a group exhibition hosted by the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (CPAC) in outer western Sydney (30 March to 12 May 2013). The exhibition was carefully packaged, parts of which were at my home in Hurstbridge and the rest in a warehouse in West Melbourne, and shipped to New South Wales. I drove up and spent a week resident at CPAC assisting at first with the install and then to participate in artist talks and presentations.
The install was on an industrial scale. A single wall of boxes was carefully arranged; in fact, masterly designed on the go by Khaled Sabsabi (Creative Producer, Community Cultural Engagement) with myself as apprentice. The wall was fashioned into a complex fugue of near woven angles. When completed exhibition staff arrived with a scissor lift and recreated our efforts, this time with glue guns perfecting the angles sought after.
The following day I spent much of it applying the photo essays. Unlike Signal where the entire exhibition went up in less than a day, here I had the luxury of two full days pretty much to myself. The other installation components such as video and sound works had been installed prior to my arrival. That day with the photos was terrific actually as I’d had the opportunity to speak about the work to three different school groups. Each arrived with an open mind, their teachers talking up the fact that they were meeting “the artist!” The gallery space was so large, its ceilings almost cathedral like, it was a treat having kids in there with me… and I encouraged them to touch the artworks, to ask questions and generally enjoy their time. From all accounts I believe they did. As the last group left a young boy pointed to one of Muzafar Ali’s photos and said to his mates “This is my village… it’s where I come from. I played soccer here…” “That’s cool…” replied one of his friends. And with that they left.
Leap ahead five months and I found myself assembling 145 boxes at Walker St Gallery in Dandenong with some folks from team Bamiyarra. Habib and Murtaza pulled dozens of boxes into shape. Najib arrived later but couldn’t stay. We had a brief chat about life since we’d last seen each other and whether we could do another project together. I think it was Habib that said they would if I were around the make it happen. By 1pm they’d had to go so I was left for the remainder of the day to complete the install. It was during that afternoon, Sunday September 22, the 15th birthday of my label Secession Records, alone with boxes, a terrific video projector, a battery powered hoist, the photo essays and our video installation that I found a tremendously poignant relationship with the work I’d not had before.
In the stillness of Walker St’s theatre space, where the exhibition was being erected, I began to consider about the boxes as a surface for our video projection. It seemed so obvious that I could project straight on them, integrating the photo essays with the abstract underwater images we had shot at Melbourne Baths merged with and that of the paper boat that had been cobbled together in this same space well over a year ago, and as the video was accompanied by a soundscape based on the poem that ties the entire exhibit together, it felt even more obvious that it had to be set up in this way. Every component came together more deeply than ever.
I then set out to stack the boxes as three separate walls, three individual surfaces, that some how remained not only symmetrical they added to the conversation that naturally takes place between each of the photo essay panels. The left panel was a single flat wall. The second was a smaller flat wall shaped into a cornice with the third, zig-zagging to the right of the space in a uniform line. And more so now that I am familiar with every single image that they became some how more significant that I’d not identified.
When it came time to lay out each of the photos I found a distinct difference between the gaze of many of the people who appear in those taken by Muzafar Ali in Afghanisation and those of the photos of young Hazara taken in Melbourne, most significantly those by Najib and Anisa as theirs were directly inspired by Muzafar’s.
Muzafar’s subjects, from the Daikundi Province, go about their daily lives. The youth are at their makeshift schools, others are bearing under heavy loads. Many look to the camera. As I hung those stills I imagined these people looking beyond their homelands, through the lens, deep into the far world where their relatives had sought refuge. I placed those ones at near eye-level to meet the gaze of viewers. Some were welcoming, almost joyful. Others expressionless, looking beyond their uncertain lives into, of all places, an art gallery in Dandenong, whilst the complimentary series from Melbourne I soon realised not a single person in any of those photos acknowledged the gaze of the camera, let alone peered beyond it. They were engrossed in their activities whether it be at school or in the workplace. Here were the youth that had safely sought refuge to gain the education they all desired. No time for looking back. An ABC journalist described our young Hazara as looking to the future whilst remembering their past. They may remember the past, but in these photos they are distinctly focused, or committed rather to the present and their futures.
With the wall of boxes now in a new orientation I found I’d placed all Muzafar, Najib and Anisa’s photos together on the flat surface. Sahema’s, Kobra and Zia’s were placed on the zig-zag surface where they revealed themselves and their narratives the more one spent time with them.
Several days later I stood in the gallery by myself. Occasionally viewing the photos from side on, from the ground up, from various angles. All up I’d had around 2 hours with the work, just me and it. And all the while the soundscape played, the poem reminding me of the tragedies it spoke of and the shameful attitudes the Australian Government displays towards asylum seekers.
The longer I spent with the exhibit the more the images sought new associations with each other. Specifically those that peer at us from Afghanistan seem to say, to me at least, that you and we, we’re in this together. Their smiles, their curiosity and the ill they have seen speaks to us through their eyes and their gestures momentarily paused. You and we are, in spite of our geo-political, cultural and historical differences, we are in this together.
Even Zia’s portraits are richer now than I had perceived them earlier. The young man seeks to be identified and / or acknowledged by his new found home land, demonstrating success and confidence in both style and movement because these are a people on the move. The portraits of Khan the shop keeper and friend to Bamiyarra, are of a man who supports his community, creating jobs through his enterprise of grocery stores and ensuring cultural connections are sustained through his entrepreneurial endeavours. Kobra’s were even more surprising to me because in her collection the portraits of adults do look to the lens and beyond. And Sahema’s series about a young man who’s younger brother was assassinated and how his memory of the brother fades… a powerful reminder of how a few images can arrest emotion and understanding without blame.
I’d not had time for such insights nor reflections in previous iterations and dare I say not many people who have seen the work would! Bamiyarra Not So Still(s) gained fresh gravitas. It wouldn’t have happened had not the Walker St Gallery offered up their space to these works where they could be shared with the Hazaragi community in the Shire so many have made their home.