Artists: Mona Ibrahim, SHivanjani Lal, James Nguyen, Khaled Sabsabi, Phaptawan Suwannakudt.
I’ve only lived in Sydney for four years, but I know Paddington isn’t really a place you go looking for the migrant experience of five brown Australian artists. Even though the galleries clustered in the area have always been relatively welcoming, getting to them feels like trespassing where I don’t belong. Walking through Five Ways from Oxford St, I feel like Katniss Everdeen walking around The Capitol. Places like this aren’t for people like me – they’re too nice, and I’m not entitled to anything in them. This accumulative feeling of being an intruder means that I experience an amplified sense of relief when entering the latest exhibition at Cement Fondu.
Between Suns features the work of Mona Ibrahim, James Nguyen, Phaptawan Suwannakudt, Shivanjani Lal and Khaled Sabsabi. Curator Megan Monte writes, ‘[The exhibition] explores anxiety as a universal emotion that is foregrounded and heightened in migrant experiences.’
What I find is compelling and familiar stories of displacement, and a series of thoughtful meditations on belonging and place. In an area that seems to buzz with a sense of entitlement, here is a sanctuary of exploratory practices of artists who know – and have always known – that, like me, they don’t really belong.
The first work in the centre of the main space speaks directly to the title of the exhibition. Khaled Sabsabi’s reimagining of his 2005 work Ali or Eli leads you between two banks of nine screens each, one side depicting a sunrise and the other a sunset. A soft soundtrack places you in a bustling Arab street, and as the dueling suns reach identical spots on their horizons, the soundtrack builds to a crescendo. One scene has the sun rising over the Pacific, shot from the eastern most point of New South Wales, and the other is shot from Lebanon as the sun sets over Palestine. Despite being worlds apart, the same sun is rising in one land and setting in another. The work speaks to a disparate connection for the artist between these places: never wholly in one place, some part of self always remaining in the other.
Upstairs, Shivanjani Lal has taken an introspective look at her relationship to place and heritage. A video screen in one corner of the installation shows the artist performing a series of prostrations in a lush, green, tropical yard. Reminiscent of my own mother’s village in Malaysia, the environment is wild and overgrown, yet definitely well lived in; at one point a young boy can be seen riding his bicycle down the street in the background. The awkward performance of these ritual movements speaks of a certain type of dislocation and an inherent longing to reclaim something that has been taken away.
In the centre of the installation Lal has placed a black and white family photograph, held vertical in a small heap of turmeric on top of a short stack of folded fabrics. Around the fabric a large ring of turmeric has been spread on the floor, infusing the space with an all-too familiar smell. For me, this spice is an immediate access point, bringing me back to the familiarity of my own childhood. Part of me wonders how a work like this will be read by Cement Fondu’s aspirational well-off neighbours – but then again, it may just not be for them, and that’s fine with me.
Continuing the familial theme, James Nguyen’s video installation makes interesting and funny use of a live iPhone stream of a bubbling steam ornament. This amalgam of objects and technology turns serious while watching his second screen, where you discover that the water in the steamer has been sourced from a part of the Parramatta River that has been polluted by dioxins, a key ingredient in Agent Orange. The video follows Nguyen and his grandmother as they wade through the mangroves, placing pieces of charcoal in a ceremonial act of cleansing. The charcoal soaks up the toxins, improving a region and space that Nguyen’s family now calls home. The cyclical nature of repairing an environment spoiled by a product that devastated his own ancestral homeland channels a sincere, reconciliatory effort that anyone can admire.
The exhibition Between Suns is a slow, consistent burn. It feels out of place on a street whose inhabitants might consider a night out in Newtown a risky foray into the west, but that makes it all the more powerful. If they want to see themselves reflected all they have to do is turn on the television or read the news out of parliament. For a person like me, to see any reflections of who I am, I need to go to exhibitions like this.
Abdul Abdullah is an artist from Perth, currently based in Sydney, who works across painting, photography, video, installation and performance.