Thursday, February 7, 2008

Defining freedom

Independence and personal freedom are often hot topics for multi-cultural, multi-faith societies. In a joint exhibition, Malaysian and Australian artists question what it really means to be free.

IT seems more than fitting that The Independence Project, a collaborative exhibition featuring works by contemporary Australian and Malaysian artists, is held in the lofty, wide spaces of Galeri Petronas, in the Twin Towers. While the buildings signal the growth – and increasing independence – of Malaysian’s economic and political standing, the artwork within reflects how individuals see their own personal freedoms.

Jointly curated by Gertrude Contemporary Art Space director Alexie Glass and Galeri Petronas’ senior curator, J. Anurendra, The Independence Project brings together recent works from seven Australian and nine Malaysian artists.

Part of an untitled series by Boatpeople.

The exhibition is broad and diverse in its scope, reflecting the predominant theme of Independence and Freedom itself: as artistic boundaries are pushed, the artists also have the opportunity to kick start new dialogues on what independence can mean on a personal, emotional scope.

Among the videos, paintings, sculptures, photography and installations, the artists explore how the notion of independence can vary depending on cultural, sociological, traditional and personal contexts. There are triumphs within the works – where personal freedom finds its place amid oppression – but also frustrations, boundaries and challenges.

Issues discussed range from the personal “restrictions” of conflict, to what seems like the insurmountable social challenges of racial and religious equality.

An untitled series of archival giclee prints, paired with a flag, by Boatpeople, forewarns of the dangers of extreme nationalism in multi-cultural societies. As if in premonition of the Cronulla riots of Sydney in 2005, the images of people’s heads wrapped in Australian and British flags mark the effacement of all personal identity and belonging in the face of establishing “national” identities.

A tongue-in-cheek look at the phenomenon of debt brings out the irony behind the bright and colourful future that money lenders promise us. Hundreds of neon flyers advertising loan sharks and debt repayment schemes are pasted together to construct the word “DEB”. We are attracted and mesmerised by the colours enough to overlook the seriousness behind what it actually all means – just as every contemporary Malaysian consumer overlooks what it actually means to overspend.

Mark Hilton’s lightboxes explore aspects of tragedy, conflict, crisis and human behaviour.

In addressing the contemporary global discrimination against Muslims, Australian artist Zehra Ahmed constructs a mixed media installation that speaks strongly for both contemporary Australian and Malaysian Muslims. “Permission to Narrate”, comprising a video projection, sound and acrylic paint, features a dark man in a kulta break-dancing over a beat box accompaniment; the words “permission to narrate” in Arabic, are interspersed behind the video.

Borrowed from the works of Edward Said, Zehra explains that, “the notion of requiring ‘permission to narrate’ alludes to the dominance of media and academic stereotypes surrounding Islam and the Arab experience.”

By fusing Islam and hip-hop, high and low cultures meet to challenge the established binaries of “us” and “them” to create new spaces for other voices, narratives and personal, social and national identities to be constructed and shared.

Then, in the midst of all seriousness, there is the overlooked aspect of play and the personal freedoms that are all too often forgotten in the search for the larger social, ideological or material freedoms. Independence can be something as simple as reserving the right to be silly.

Vincent Leong’s “Shut up! You’re not Real” installation features images of talking lips projected on stationary soft toys. Born out of self-professed “boredom”, Leong’s artwork is about seeking out ways to create something fun and entertaining.

The prejudices against Australian aborigines are challenged in Richard Bell’s work.

“Entertainment, as part of play or having fun at work is often overlooked as a vital aspect in art making. This installation challenges the emphasis on being ‘practical’, ‘sensible’, ‘serious’,” explains Leong.

In its vibrancy, the works in The Independence Project bring a pervasive light-heartedness to the whole exhibition, in spite of the largeness of the subject matter. It opens up dialogue and, through its creative range of multi-media works, encourages the viewer to look at life, love, debt and restrictions with a little more humour. For how else can we really overcome the obstacles to our independence?