‘Hey Muhammad, guess what time it is?’ The sound of multiple mobile phone alarms fill the room. It is first period and my eldest son is sitting in his Year 12 English class. As the only Muslim, he finds himself at the centre of a persistent morning ritual. His classmates have their alarms set to 9:11am. The alarms continue to buzz until he recounts the time, ‘It’s 9:11’. On cue, the class bursts into a synchronised, rapturous laughter. What is surprising about this is not the bullying presented under the guise of boys ribbing boys. Rather, it is the raw and sinister energy of Nine Eleven in the cultural narrative of these teenagers, most of whom were barely three or four years old in 2001. Muhammad goes on to graduate high school relatively unscathed, but I have spoken to many young Muslims who haven’t been so lucky. They are wounded by their experiences, confused by the burden they carry; the burden of war and terrorism, and of being questioned almost daily about an event they were neither a part of, nor witness to.
In the paranoia of the current political climate, one where the burden of guilt and fear is marked on the bodies of young Muslims, it is often Muslim men who are viewed with caution and disdain as potential terrorists: violent, uncivilised, unpredictable, unruly and dangerous. Muslim women, on the other hand, are reduced to benign creatures who at once need rescuing from their oppressive Islamic upbringing and from the Muslim men they are held captive by. Historically, these women are portrayed as exotic, two-dimensional creatures, reclining naked, vulnerable, passive, subservient, with little intelligence and no volition. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed tells of how ‘fear sticks to these bodies’.1 While this was once the domain of the figure of the Muslim man, in more recent times similar levels of fear have been directed towards Muslim women. They, too, are seen to be aggressive and deliberately provocative, especially in the wearing of the veil, which has been flagged as a symbol of hate and terrorism, and a reminder of the injuries the West sustained in Nine Eleven.
Muslim women are mischievously portrayed as the interlocuters in this conversation of terror, with veiled women presenting as a visible enemy. Recent headlines depicting the United Kingdom ‘ISIS brides’ tell the tale of young British Asian women from Muslim backgrounds rejected by border officials, their passports revoked, unable to return home to their families. These women, barely beyond puberty, are not seen as girls groomed into making a deeply regretful and lifechanging decision to run away from home into the arms of a powerful and seductive stranger. Rather, they are viewed as Muslim women who were secretly harbouring the desire for terror. Point in hand: every Muslim is surely harbouring such a desire. And with that, the anxiety associated with Islam and Muslims is looped, over and over, and tangled into the lexicon of a generation of children who have grown up not ever knowing the world without Muslim terror.
In the essay ‘Fear of Small Numbers and The Geography of Anger’, Arjun Appadurai speaks to this issue in the context of globalisation, anxiety and the sense of uncertainty that minority communities create within the nation state. Appadurai writes that the ‘history of Muslim minorities in the twenty-first century surely is the dominant tale of this kind of fearful symmetry between the fear of small numbers and the power of small numbers.’2 This fear is further perpetuated in the post-Nine Eleven hyper-politicised figure of the Muslim, which seems to precariously oscillate between exoticisation, othering and the fear and uncertainty of the War on Terror. There are numerous questions that arise when considering the politicisation of the Muslim figure in contemporary society. For example, should one deliberately choose to engage in the orientalising narrative, whether that be to educate, illuminate, challenge or subvert it? Or, should one simply go on, business as usual, and if so, what does business as usual even look like? Either way, there is deliberate reference to Nine Eleven as the vantage point from which the contemporary Muslim identity is viewed. The theatre of the War on Terror as we experience it in the present is just as the founder of post colonialism and author of Orientalism Edward Said described in the past:
In newsreels or news-photos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world.3
This fear is paradoxical. On the one hand, there is a fantastical power and strength attributed to the Muslim minority, as we often see portrayed in the media, and on the other, those who wield power and generate the negative media narrative are part of the system actively colonising, destroying, and striking fear into the heart of Muslim societies. For many Muslims, these fears translate into a hyper-real experience of being the other, which is then confounded by the kaleidoscopic loop of the War on Terror.4 In his essay Let the guest be the master: Border thinking and the aesthetic potential of migrant consciousness, Walter Mignolo critically examines this position in the work of Iraqi born artist Hayv Kahraman through the dual lens of what he calls migrant consciousness. As a child, Kahraman and her family fled the ruins of war-torn Iraq for Europe. For Kahraman, this is a deeply conflicting experience and one shared by many refugees and migrants fleeing the violence perpetrated by the West, into the arms of the West. The irony is painful.
For the collective of Australian Muslim artists, curators and writers, eleven, the power to shift what one sees is manifested through the arts in the way of aesthetic techniques, personal narratives, politics, history and in some instances, spirituality and mysticism.5 This is not something that simply meshes the collective together through a hegemonic discourse; there is a self-determined ethos that acts like a delicate thread subtly linking the complexity of the artists’ work together. As poignantly stated by the founder of eleven, Sydney based artist Khaled Sabsabi, ‘The beautiful thing about the group — we all deal with the issues of our times differently. We can have conversations that are on various plateaus as individuals.’6
For Sabsabi, it was the Queensland based First Nations collective proppaNOW that inspired him to bring the members of eleven together. Although first conceived in 1997, proppaNOW was formed in 2004 and has been actively exhibiting as a collective since 2005. Margo Neale, in her article ‘Learning to be proppa: Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW’, offered this insight into the collective: ‘Individually these artists had reached the limit of their tolerance and the collective became a strategy for cultural survival and a site for activating Indigenous agency. Their voices would now have amplification.’ Neale goes on to unpack the politics involved in the collective coming together:
It comes out of a collectively shared reservoir of other art works, photographic archives, popular culture, even the language of abstract art understood as vernacular. It is thus not a matter of any ‘Dreaming’ in the sense of some esoteric or privileged knowledge inaccessible to its white audience. Rather, in the exactly opposite move, proppaNOW make work out of the most common and widely available cultural materials: the discarded and demotic leftovers that speak to our unconscious desires and impulses... it is here that we can see the real political point to the work: the refusal by the group’s members to play the Aborigine.7
Not unlike proppaNOW, the amplification of voice is core for eleven. As individual practitioners, each of the members are professionally, communally and/or academically engaged in their fields. What is crucial in the understanding of the individual artist’s works within the context of the collective, is recognition of the complexities of the politics surrounding the contemporary Muslim identity and the varying degrees in which the artists engage in the politics and tropes of the post-Nine Eleven discourse, if at all. This engagement inherently includes those who exist at the margins of what Uroš Čvoro, in his essay ‘The Time of Khalas’, describes as the ‘white centre’. Čvoro writes:
If we imagine whiteness as the (invisible) centre of Australian symbolic space, and all the non-white groups structured around this centre in circles, the concept of degrees of whiteness describes performative acts that accumulate symbolic capital in order to get closer to the centre (to become invisible).8
However, what the collective is not, is a project or tool to reform the so called ‘problematic’ Muslim community, or an attempt to appease the irrational fears of the wider community in relation to the presence of Muslims in Australia. Instead, there is strength in identity, in the formation of hybridity, in the right to the reclamation of tradition, in the renovation of contemporary Australian culture and in leading the narratives about our communities and the world around us. Not unlike the refusal to ‘play the Aborigine’, as demonstrated by proppaNOW, eleven recognises and subverts the white centre, making provision for the counterpoint from which non-White artists are afforded x-ray vision. We are able to see and therefore enact the refusal to perform degrees of Whiteness.
What is most compelling about a collective such as eleven, is the ability to articulate what has been excruciatingly present in the everyday. There has been an opacity to the narratives surrounding Islam and Muslims since Nine Eleven, leading to a yearning for clarity and understanding. The Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Thelma Golden, brilliantly articulated the essence of the artist’s work in her 2009 Ted X talk, How art gives shape to cultural change. In that talk, Golden states:
The brilliant playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, wrote a volume called “People Who Led My Plays.” And if I were to write a volume, it would be called, “Artists Who Have Led My Exhibitions” because my work, in understanding art and in understanding culture, has come by following artists, by looking at what artists mean and what they do and who they are.9
Golden draws on her experience as a curator and observer of the development of culture from the perspective of the African American experience; it is from this vantage point, of viewing culture from the margins, that Golden is afforded the opportunity to follow the artists. The rationale for Golden’s curatorial method is drawn upon for the projects eleven engages with as a collective. The first point of call for eleven was the inaugural commission, We Are All Affected, a series of exhibitions and community engagement programs produced by the collective for the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney, 2017. We Are All Affected was a direct result of the work of the artists, engaging the theory of Arjun Appadurai to inform a curatorial methodology that y addresses the fears present both within the Muslim community and the broader community. The first iteration of the project included a day long pop-up style exhibition in the heart of the Western Sydney Multicultural Eid Festival, and the second included a dual site gallery exhibition, held concurrently in Auburn and Fairfield, featuring footage from the Eid Festival and a series of public programs. For the Eid Festival component, a curated exhibition of the collective’s work was installed on site in a disused warehouse and the artists often remained on site, accompanied by a professional videographer, to collect footage and interviews with the community as they wandered into the space and engaged with the works.
Concerns were raised about the effectiveness of contemporary art when dealing with the varying degrees of religiosity present in the Muslim community. There can be significant tension between what is deemed to be traditional art and contemporary practice and, more specifically, whether such artistic practice breaches the religious sensibilities of certain sections of the community. Considering this type of religiosity is not necessarily a determining factor in the way the collective works, or indeed the way a project such as We Are All Affected is approached. However, being aware of the potential tensions at play is vital to understanding pathways to impactful community engagement. Such religious concerns directed towards artists usually range from dogmatic interpretations regarding the use of figurative images (aniconism), to moralising the content of the art through what is deemed to be halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden), to internalised anxiety around the potential backlash from the wider community and government agencies in relation to any socially or politically loaded statements in the art. With the public facing nature of artists’ works, expectations to perform the role of the safe Muslim in degrees of Whiteness are no longer externally enforced upon the Muslim community; since Nine Eleven, these pressures are increasingly seen to be coming from within.
For many of the community members visiting the exhibition, this was their first personal encounter with contemporary Muslim art. This was also their first major engagement with the artists' who were sharing aspects of the Australian Muslim experience in real time and presenting familiar stories back to the community through a creative process. Offering this to the community generated a sense that a Muslim voice, their voice, was spoken aloud and heard. The success of engaging the local Muslim community through the temporary exhibition and the importance of the artists touching base with community members was, without doubt, both a deeply personal and necessary starting point for the collective. This type of genuine connection to community has a specific resonance for Muslims who find themselves in a public facing role and burdened with the unwanted demands of representing Islam and Muslims.
In the expected performativity, slippage occurs between the public and private, between self-identification of one’s Muslim-ness and the public determination of the Muslim figure, replete with orientalist tropes in view. In the production of visual art, stereotypical Muslim imagery is engaged, subverted, or not apparent at all. This is the reality for the migrant and marginalised artist. Just like my son who was expected to perform the dual role of the good Muslim copping it on the chin, while also performing the role of the bad Muslim for being ‘terror literate’, which one must be to engage in the humour at all.
We Are All Affected prompted discussions about these very issues, as articulated in the practice of the artist. This is real, even if it is spliced, staged, carved, poured, performed or painted; even if it came about purely from the imagination of the artist and doesn’t look like anything you have seen before. This is our reality, therefore it is real, and it does not require a White centre to qualify it or quantify it. Artists are, as Golden suggests, critical in leading individual and societal understanding and knowing. More needs to be said about the way contemporary art, and artist collectives such as eleven, operate within the current socio-political climate. Not in reflection of the long standing orientalist discourse, nor even within the confines of the current War on Terror, but rather how we see and can be seen, post Nine Eleven.
Nur Shkembi is a Melbourne-based curator, writer and scholar. Nur is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne where she is undertaking interdisciplinary research in post- colonial theory, material culture and the contemporary practice of Muslim artists in the diaspora..