Deeply committed to the social relevance of art, Vivienne Dadour has long regarded the issues of nationhood, cultural diversity, ethnicity and the politics of identity as among the most pressing problems of our time.
The important 1997 exhibition Sarajevo, which she both curated and contributed to, showed how ethnic essentialism and cultural intolerance were among the primary causes of the terrible four year siege of that city during which over 10,000 people including 1,500children were killed. (1)
Since that time her work has continued with a more autobiographical examination of the experiences of her Syrian-Lebanese ancestors, who first settled in the Redfern, Waterloo area of Sydney in 1888.
Using digitally manipulated archival photographs and documents she conveys the feelings of displacement and the efforts to survive which characterised the life of her family and their community when living as a minority group in a society, which rejected them.
By bringing the personal history of her family into the present, she hopes to initiate a dialogue about issues of emigration and racism in our present era of intense globalisation and migration.
Dadour’s interest is twofold; she is interested in how migrants maintain their identity with links to their history and their culture within a new dominant culture and how they avoid ethnic separation, political, economic and social fragmentation.
Dadour’s ancestors were Maronite and Melkite Christians from the area around Beirut. They migrated when there was no country called Lebanon and they had little in common with the oppressive Ottoman Empire. Their loyalties were centred on village life, family and Christian belief. (2)
In the predominantly Anglo Celtic country to which they had moved they were not considered European and coming from the Eastern side of the Mediterranean were classified as Asian. They endured both social and official discrimination including employment restrictions and at the outbreak of World War 1 were classified as enemy aliens.
The tract of land around Redfern and Waterloo, where they settled and which became known as The Syrian Quarter allowed them to belong somewhere, to connect with their past and gain the support of a like-minded community as they strove to become a part of their new land, amidst the prevailing alienation.
The fragile layering of Dadour’s digitally manipulated photographs depicts fragments of her family’s personal and community life. Juxtaposed, at the base of these images is the racist wording of text extracted from the New South Wales Parliamentary Debate which preceded the establishment of the White Australia Policy of 1901(3)
Mostly based on a triptych format her work has a transparency of overlay and fragmented detail which echoes the intricacies of life within two cultures. In many works there is a direct gaze from the subject to the viewer – an invitation to communicate. Softly focused these works drift in and out of memory and place but can be seen as a direct counterpoint to the racist text.
A work which includes images of hospitality, work and The Lebanon Ladies War Comforts league of Australia is juxtaposed with the text “inferior in civilisation…in instincts, in traditions, in usages” (4) Another which includes images of street scenes in Waterloo and a family picnic in Redfern Park is pitched against the text “What about the undesirable Assyrians, who have enclosed one side of Redfern Park and put up a series of buildings which are a menace to the public health, to say nothing else? Could they not be dealt with?”(5)
Members of Dadour’s family have lived in the same house in Waterloo for the past 90 years, their memories and place have been a part of her lived experience .By pitching this against her own research of official documentation she has been able to visualise cross-cultural connections and confront the audience with different public and private realities which are contingent on the migrant experience.
These are works which have a strong aesthetic and ideological basis. They have particular relevance in today’s world encouraging dialogue, scrutiny of government migration policies and fostering tolerance of religious and cultural diversity.
Bathurst Regional Gallery, 12December1997-1February 1998
(2) Paul Convy, The Lebanese Quarter Redfern, time, place and extent. Australian Lebanese Historical Society Inc.2009 p10
(3) Texts were extracted from N.S.W Parliamentary Debates on Immigration of Inferior Races, 1894, Vol70 p1482, Legislation affecting Aliens1895 Vol 78,p7731. Coloured Races, Restriction and Regulation Bill, 1896,Vol85, p3960-61.
(4) NSWPD Immigration of Inferior Races 1894
I am most grateful for the interest shown and publications lent by the Australian Lebanese Historical Society Inc
Christine France 2010
Instincts, Traditions, Usages Ed 8 Photo/digital media on Ilford pearl paper 70 x 140cm 2010 (Private Collections)