Immigrant Nation

by Mark Calderwood

If there is one thing conservative “middle” Australia distrusts and disdains more than the arts, it is migrants. And yet immigrant artists have shaped the art of Australia- the very thing that reflects the nation’s identity back to itself.

In 2005, Zehra Ahmed’s digital installation Permission to narrate showed a young man in an kurta dancing against a backdrop of Arabic graffiti, caught between worlds and exhausted by the effort to communicate. Taken from the writing of critic Edward Said, the title alludes to the dominant media portrayal of Islam as inimically hostile, inherently benighted and reinforces the idea that Muslim societies cannot be “modern.” It’s a phrase that a decade on, cuts to the racist bones of contemporary Australia.

Permission to narrate revealed the “ambient fears” which pervaded Australian society in the post-9/11 world and fuelled the rise of authoritarianism over freedoms. Ahmed lays bare the “us and them” assumptions on which national identity is built, and challenges the complicity of the public- especially in the progressive, multicultural society Australia once believed itself to be.

Nine years later, those ambient fears have blossomed like a malignant flower into open, unreasoned, institutionalised terror of brown people arriving by boat to Threaten Our Way of Life. More than ever is there need for art like Ahmed’s, the need for other voices to be heard in a climate of growing prejudice.


Fearful denial of others’ cultural validity is not, sadly, a new look for Australia. When prewar émigrés arrived on the fatal shore they brought with them modernism, abstraction and industrial design, first-hand knowledge of art movements and artists that were redefining what art meant- a world away from the conventional script of golden soil and wealth for toil that was the mainstay of Australian painting. This influx was dismissed by critics as “outsiders pursuing threatening abstraction,” – but artists on the inside were taking notice.

Polish Jew Yosl Bergner was especially influential to Australian artists like Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, John Perceval and Sydney Nolan. Arriving in 1937, Bergner painted the urban poverty and ever-present racism of Depression Australia; uniquely in Australian art of the time, they also addressed the plight of displaced Indigenous peoples. His sharp sense of alienation found its way into Australian landscape painting, culminating in Russell Drysdale’s famous images of figures isolated in an ominous, desolate landscape.

Bergner’s impact was unmistakable in Tucker’s nightmarish wartime figures, and Boyd’s interest in the world of the half-caste Aboriginal, that rejected by both black and white societies, Boyd saw as symbolic of Australia’s sundered personality. Boyd also drew on European symbolism to cast the landscape as a new Eden, a crucible for Kafka-esque Bible stories and creating new legends.


Perhaps Bergner’s most important legacy was in the art of the Antipodeans and Sydney Nolan, whose Ned Kelly paintings are among the most iconic in Australian culture. Aiming to foster a mythology for a “young” Australian identity, their work certainly assumed national stature in providing (White) Australia with myths of its own in a “primordial and curious land”. Despite this there remained a touch of the cultural cringe as Nolan, the Boyds, Blackman and the rest unwittingly perpetuated the colonial view of Australia as the antithesis of Europe, adrift in a strange landscape without a heritage able to stand on its own.

In Sydney, Hungarian painter Desiderius (Dezso) Orban was shaping another generation of Australian artists, established an art school in 1943 that would operate for the next twenty-eight years. Inspired by the approach of the Bauhuas, Orban held that art could not be taught; rather, he aimed to release the creative impulses of such promising students, and later prominent artists as Judy Cassab, Margo Lewers, James Clifford and John Olsen.

And still, these developments did not find acceptance. Australia before the 1960s was intolerant, anti-intellectual and insular to the point of xenophobia, and under the infamous “White Australia” policy, assimilationist attitudes were ingrained in ethnic communities themselves. The art establishment was no better- critics who did not understand the art dismissed it as “unpleasant pictures by foreign named artists” according to critic Mary Coringham in 1954, which might be remedied “when the newcomers are assimilated.”

If painting got short shrift from critics, design was sneered at as a mere trend devoid of ‘serious’ content…even though it had already crept into Australian culture through interior design, graphic design, architecture and fashion.  The acceptance of industrial arts in European schools stood émigré artists in good stead, allowing them to work in these fields while the fine arts lagged behind. One such was German Gert Sellheim: although trained as an architect, Sellheim made his mark in as a graphic designer, and is responsible for one of Australia’s most recognisable symbols- the flying kangaroo emblem of Qantas, designed in 1947.

In contemporary art, Hossein Valamanesh meets the dialogues of place, identity and otherness in postcolonial Australia. Academically trained in his native Iran, Valamanesh emigrated in 1973. Shortly after arriving, he visited the Aboriginal communities at Warburton and Papunya and was deeply affected by the spirituality and connection to the land in Aboriginal art, finding threads of continuity in response to the desert which surrounded his own culture and childhood memories.

Following the Papunya elders’ advice, Valamanesh delved into his heritage to create a symbolic language for his work that is both intimately personal and seemingly universal. Intriguingly, the body appears in the traces of its absence in shoes, handprints, shadows or silhouettes, reflecting both sides of the migrant’s mode of being- both the experience of severed identity and those things which sustain the struggle to re-negotiate that identity within a new cultural context. Often drawn to found native materials in his work alongside Persian objects and calligraphy, Valamanesh explores a sense of place as both an insider and an outsider, finding the connections between nature, culture and memory.

Hossein Valamanesh, Untitled, 1999, lavender bush, oil lamp, 80 x 58 x 82 cm

The political subtexts of multiculturalism and postcolonialism inevitably circle like sharks around Valamanesh’s work; and although surface similarities exist in his quest for points of commonality and communication between cultural viewpoints, they operate on a much deeper level than the inauthentic “ethnic art” promoted by Australia’s multiculturalism initiatives in the 1980s. (Although an ostensibly progressive move to embrace cultural diversity in the community, multiculturalism was hampered by a lack of understanding of transcultural arts practice- and hamstrung by its governmental framework. In the end, it lamentably achieved little of substance beyond providing colour and movement for white Australia.)

Somehow, Valamanesh has been able to sidestep these petty political tangles; although his work undermines colonial assumptions of less “civilised” societies, its redemptive aesthetic avoids postmodernism’s usually traumatic narratives of cultural dispossession and fragmentation. His art is instead imbued with a kind of yearning romanticism that plays against the melancholy of loss, and a Sufi-inspired, numinous quietude that goes beyond simple cultural interpolation to speak to identity and culture on deeper levels.


Asian artists have fared even worse. Despite a career of national repute before emigrating from China 1989, Jiawei Shen has received attention only relatively recently for his 2005 Archibald portrait John So, Lord Mayor of Melbourne. The Chinese-Australian So, resplendent in his (European) robe and collar of office draped by a (Tribal Aboriginal) possumskin coat was claimed by the artist to be “a new landscape of Australian political life in the twenty-first century”. Certainly the painting may be read this way- but the conventional Eurocentric semiotics of the portrait overwhelm the ethnic traces of the sitter’s face and the possumskin coat, reducing them to tokenistic ornament. The materiality is no different, consciously painted in a palatable modernist technique rather than Shen’s own skilled realist manner. The portrait is an image of imitation and assimilation, revealing an acceptance of the other only in cultural conformity. 

That an Asian artist’s work is accepted only in assimilation is underscored by Shen’s subsequent commission from the National Portrait Gallery to “capture the Australian-ness” (yes, really) of that most culturally challenging figure…Princess Mary Donaldson of Denmark.

ah xian blue

More recently, Ah Xian’s situation is reversed, but no less problematic. Arts writers make much of his prominence as a contemporary artist, themes of urban displacement and cultural remembrance, and his “bringing traditional craftsmanship into a contemporary art context”- and blithely disregard that his work, undeniably and extraordinarily elegant though it is, is predicated on its cultural idiom. Traditionally crafted porcelain, lacquer, cloisonné, dragons, carp, blue-and-white porcelain: a culturally exotic Orientalism, a contemporary chinoiserie. As well as being a palpable presence in the Australian artistic landscape, winning the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award in 2009, Ah Xian is a new kind of “globalised migrant”- not caught between two worlds but moving between them by professional choice.

A country that has 48% of its population as first- and second-generation immigrants, yet clings whimpering to Anglo-Celtic provincialism and condones the most repellent acts of racism is a culture used as a political football and a nation whose identity is an outright, wilful lie. Dragging Australia back to a place of genuine cultural growth entails the recognition that whether displaced Jews painting unpleasant pictures, or scary brown and yellow people giving voice their experiences, immigrant artists are responsible for the art, and thereby the culture, of this wide brown land.