Paper Mountain is currently hosting the Book of Belonging, where people of all cultural backgrounds are invited to see an exhibition of works, and contribute their own page to the book. The Book of Belonging is being run alongside Indian artist Tapan Moharana’s The Qube. With submissions for the book closing this Saturday, December 23, JESS COCKERILL interviewed artists Gabby Loo and Aisyah Sumito to discuss their own experiences as culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) artists and how to contribute to the Book of Belonging.
While Perth arts’ scene is blooming, Gabby and Aisyah are determined to make sure that artists with CaLD backgrounds are a part of it. There are many talented CaLD artists in Australia, but as marginalised people they face specific barriers to developing their careers in a predominantly white art world. On top of that, expressing culture is a hard ask when personal experiences of racism or misunderstanding have tended to push for assimilation instead of celebration.
Prior to the KickstART festival, run by Propel Youth Arts in April 2017, there were very few projects dedicated specifically to the development of CaLD artists, and it was with this mission that Gabby established Belonging. Initially the scope of this project was to provide workshops that encouraged young CaLD artists to develop their skills and confidence in self-expression, during the KickstART festival. However, now at the end of 2017, Belonging has evolved into a long-term project that Gabby and Aisyah hope to see continue into the new year.
Why was Belonging started?
Gabby: It’s a community arts project that I began and now Aisyah is a part of. We run it as individuals, but we’re basically making it a platform for CaLD and Indigenous creative people to share their stories and creatively express themselves in any capacity, whether it be about cultural identity or other things… We don’t want to pigeonhole them into specifically representing their culture… but of course if they want to comment on their culture, they want to say things about that, we welcome it. It’s multi-faceted, it can be an exhibition, it can be a workshop, any kind of arts activities.
If you have someone straight up tell you their life story, it’s pretty full on, but if you have a tangible thing, an expression in front of you that has been carefully created and researched and developed, and it contains a piece of someone that means a lot to them, and is put in front of you, in that way you can be connected creatively. And you can do that without even actually having met them.
Why does Perth need a project like this?
Gabby: In everyday situations a CaLD or Indigenous person could be asked “where are you from?”, and that’s the only space they’ve been allocated time to express something about their cultural identity, and it might not even feel friendly. It’s a sense of being interrogated as other, rather than respected and trying to be understood as a human being.
For the first KickstART session, I made people bring in an object from their culture that they felt like they really identified with, that made it an easy transition into discussing aspects of positive and negative thoughts they have around their cultural identity. But of course if you ask someone, what do you think about your cultural identity, out of nowhere, it’s tricky. If they’ve got nothing to reference it’s like, where do I even start? And they might be really shy, specifically the artists with refugee backgrounds.
Aisyah: I was really surprised how little of this there is in the Perth art scene. You’re going up a really steep hill, because nobody really knows about us yet, we don’t have much of a reach, and I think the reason for that is because we don’t really have a network of other groups like us.
Gabby: We want to build a sense of community around Belonging, and carve into the Perth art space, letting it be known that we need to address these specific identities, being CaLD or Indigenous, to make it more welcoming and diverse.
Have your personal experiences as CaLD artists played a part in developing this project?
Gabby: I wasn’t too experienced at the time I started Belonging, even confronting my own cultural identity and perspectives in a public space. My own cultural background is Burmese (Shan) and Chinese, my family moved to Perth in 1989. I find it complicated identifying as Burmese when really, I’m quite white-washed as a result of living in Australia my whole life, and attending euro-centric schools that never encouraged an exploration or preservation of my cultural background. And yet I am still tokenised and othered by my white Australian counterparts.
Doing this project has really pushed me to consider what young CaLD people actually want to learn, and what are the barriers that prevent them from doing that?
With a lot of the people who’ve come to our workshops, you could see that, they hadn’t really tried art before, but even in my experience, my parents haven’t really been very encouraging with doing art. A lot of the artists there weren’t very experienced at all, unless they did writing as an academic thing at university… For many CaLD artists, they know they have pressures from their parents to not follow that path.
Aisyah: Within my own art practice I’ve always wanted to explore my identity as a person of colour, or as a CaLD person, a non-white person, because it’s something that I’m always very undecided about whether I really care about. I’m very disconnected to both being white, and also very disconnected to being a Malay person. I thought it was a nice idea, to give myself an opportunity to pursue that properly, for a reason, for a purpose.
Do you think that visual arts can play a role in creating a sense of belonging for CaLD people?
Gabby: I think we’ve been able to feel more of a sense of belonging to Perth since we’ve been running these activities, that’s how I feel… especially with community work. I feel like we still are waiting to see the results from the people that participate in our activities, our exhibitions and stuff.
Aisyah: Maybe not a sense of belonging to Perth, but maybe moreso as a CaLD person. Like, I guess it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that… I’m not white, but I never felt like I was “not white enough” to be anything of substance, in terms of identifying myself as a CaLD person or a person of colour. So I think this helped me come to terms with that, and being able to connect with others.
Why did you choose a book, rather than an exhibition or otherwise, for this project?
Gabby: I’ve always had a unique interest for books, I’ve always found it more accessible than the white cube. I think books are unique in the way they’re a transportable artwork, it can be as informal as you want. It’s similar to journaling, or visual diaries. I feel like that makes it much less intimidating for people who could potentially contribute to the book. It takes away that pressure to be completely perfect in the way that you express yourself, especially about cultural identity. The book is open to anyone, because we consider it intercultural understanding. At the end of the day, if you’re sharing something about your identity and your history, then that’s fine.
Aisyah: It’s cool that we can have people who are experienced in making art, but it’s also even better if we have an audience of people that aren’t that experienced but are capable of doing arts and crafts activities. And even then, it’s nice to see experienced artists relaxing.
It’s also a really important, having an exhibition in a white cube space like Paper Mountain, to challenge how normal it is to have so many white people in this white cube space… We want to give CaLD artists that opportunity to exhibit in a high profile space. There’s times where you should be making art accessible to everyone, but there are also times where you should be challenging the accessibility of particular spaces.
What will happen to the book?
Gabby: Edmund Rice Centre will decide what happens to it, because they commissioned the workshop and we decided to bring it to Paper Mountain so it would have more contributors. We’ll assemble it now since we’ve got more people who have contributed, and I think we just want to keep building it really, and bringing it out to any other events we have.
Edmund Rice had ideas of turning it into a zine or a book that is reproduced. I’m happy for it to be something that reaches more people as long as it’s got a nice range of perspectives. It’d be so cool if we got to scan all the pages and make it an online resource, because it reflects a sense of people in Perth and how they’ve engaged with Belonging’s aims of exploring cultural identity in Western Australia.
What’s next for Belonging as we go into 2018?
Gabby: Next year we hope to host more gatherings and forum events where CaLD and Indigenous creative people can actually meet up and converse about the work they do. It’s almost like a form of networking but it’s also like people being able to talk to other people who get it. And we have to make a performance showcase happen next year, so really we’re keeping it open to any artistic forms, just based on the artists we meet.
Aisyah: At the moment we’re actually doing a survey, to find out what kinds of art forms people are interested in, and from there we try to think about what realistically people are going to come together for.
Gabby: I also want [Belonging] to get to regional places eventually. When I think of them in comparison to the kids in the city who have come to Belonging, the kids in the city are pretty privileged and savvy. For those further out, it hurts to know that they don’t have that avenue, to find ways to express themselves culturally.
Keep track of Belonging activities in 2018 at facebook.com/Belonging.WA/ and fill out their survey here.