Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the “present”… we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion...
One of the defining aspects of Vivienne Dadour’s art practice is her commitment to making art that speaks about the important issues of our times. She is influenced by Lucy Lippard’s suggestion that ‘one’s own lived experience, respectfully related to that of others, remains … the best foundation for social vision, of which art is a significant part.’ Her work during the period 1992 to 1998 explored how the events in Sarajevo were defined by ethnic essentialism, cultural intolerance and the politics of identity. In Invisible Realm she returns to these concerns through the autobiographical study of her Lebanese migrant family where prejudice was directed towards them because of their different physical characteristics and customs.
Her ancestors came from Beriut and its surrounding districts and were Maronite and Melkite Christians. They lived with other Lebanese in Sydney in an area of Redfern and Waterloo, which was then known as the “Syrian Quarter”. An article in The Illustrated Sydney News of 1892 titled ‘Syrians in the South, A Colony at Redfern’ praises the way that these Syrians have adapted themselves to their neighbours and fellow citizens, and admires their Arabic hospitality and their temperance, which accounted for their clear headedness and success in business. The article describes these migrants as ‘not an undesirable colonist, and that he is willing to promote the general trade and industry of the community…’ and should not, as many suggested, be categorised with others such as Afghans, Indians, Greeks and Italians who were characterised as diseased and lazy.
Lucy Lippard describes place as ’the latitudinal and the longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there.’ The recent riots in Redfern again located Redfern as a place of racial and cultural conflict.
Physical and cultural dislocation characterised much of their lives as they lived with underlying contradictory forces — on the one hand, economic internationalisation and the formation of ‘global culture’ and, on the other, political fragmentation based on regionalism, ethnic separation and extreme economic polarisation. During this period Australia was marked by a sense of exclusive nationalism expressed in the White Australia Policy. Prior to the onset of World War I her family members were naturalized as British subjects to avoid beingclassified as enemy aliens. Even though they were naturalised they were continually pressured to “assimilate” and had to endure restricted lives. These early pioneers did not abandon their roots, but infused their cultural heritage — different traditions, values and experiences, into their Australian lives. Their children were educated at their own school in both Arabic and English. They built their own church St Michaels, in Redfern where Roman Catholic mass was celebrated, according to Greek rites and with an Arabic choir of male voices. These migrants formed their own hybrid Arabic/English place in the colony.
In Invisible Realm Dadour uses text and image to contrast the attitudes displayed outside, in public life, with those of the far less visible realm inside of migrant experience and memory. This exhibition confronts viewers with the political and social issues underlying negative attitudes towards certain migrant groups. Her images evoke the experiences of her ancestors who were reviled and made invisible in the homogenous and Anglo-Celtic culture of nineteenth century Australia. All migrants must again locate themselves in a new home but continue to treasure memories from their previous homeland. Chambers indicates that being cut off from the homelands of tradition, and experiencing a constantly challenged identity, ‘the stranger is perpetually required to make herself at home in an interminable discussion between a scattered historical inheritance and a heterogeneous present.’ This is a drama, which they rarely freely chose; it is also the drama of the stranger.
In order to survive, Dadour’s ancestors placed great importance on the extended family, which helped to overcome some of the isolation problems experienced by new migrants. Her images show fragments of her forebear’s social life — in street scenes, as they participate in family celebrations, offer hospitality to visitors and through their Christian religious iconography —as they search for a new understanding. Larranaga argues that ‘Migration is never just translation or transfusion. The migrants re-placing starts a difficult process of search, understanding and construction of a place out of the remembered, the possible and the desired, articulating actions, notions and intensions’. They were determined to preserve elements of the past but needed to conform to new realities. Her family have strongly participated in the growth of Australia through taking risks to achieve their valued goal of independence, which they have achieved through their entrepreneurial businesses, their contributions to commerce, and by entering the medical and scientific professions.
For Dadour her images are always shadowy and partial, as she chases her elusive representations of family. As a consequence, these works are the result of interplay between her imagination and information gained from the reproduction of family and media photographs of the period. These photographs have been digitally manipulated, with the addition of text, drawing and painting. These artworks juxtapose two elements: the brutality of racist agendas and the identities of migrant people. The texts incorporated in these images are from official documents that questioned the right of her family to be considered Australians so that word and image contrast law and public life with the intimate and ‘visual’ realm of experience and memory. These images have the curious quality of prolonging a past in order to reveal a previously suppressed reality.
The politics of migration and race in Australia have been marked since 2001 by a resurgence of the same racism and anti-migration sentiment as expressed in the White Australia Policy from one hundred years ago. Racist attitudes have again emerged in Australia. This is in contrast to the rhetoric of universal welcome articulated in the second verse of the National Anthem —Advance Australia Fair — “For those who’ve come across the sea we’ve boundless plains to share.”
Ironically, as Dadour worked on these images the same racist slurs of ‘rag-heads’ and ‘carriers of disease’ that were aimed at her relatives a century ago were again being applied to a new generation of Middle Eastern boat people. Mandy Thomas points out ‘diaspora identities, rather than being situated in a place of the pasts or moulded into a utopian future, are enmeshed in the constraints and the opportunities of the present. At the same time these identities unravel historical chronicles and images of the future.’ Most of these new migrants have now been grudgingly permitted to settle in Australia to begin their own migrant journey.
Elizabeth Ashburn, 2004.