Pilgrim’s Palm

by Mark Calderwood

The gentle arc of a palm leaf seems to float before the gallery wall, its lower frond teased into a delicate fringe, its upper skillfully woven into the contours of a reclining, silhouetted figure. Untitled (palm leaf) (2002) is a characteristically poetic work by South Australian artist Hossein Valamenesh. Unlike the strident demands for attention that typifies much of contemporary art, Untitled (palm leaf) quietly reaches out to enfold the viewer in its meditative and deceptively simple presence.

The palm leaf engages the imagination, conveying a wealth of exotic symbolism redolent of Valamanesh’s homeland. In the middle ages the palm was carried by pilgrims in token of their journey to a shrine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the palm was collected as an exotic botanical specimen, cultivated  as a curiosity in Europe and still seen planted, isolated and separated from its environment, along the drives of suburban Australia. It is an age-old sign of sanctuary, offering rest, shade, water and fruit in a desert oasis to sustain the traveller, suggested by the sleeping silhouette shaped from the leaf.

Exploring themes of belonging, memory and identity with rare deftness and delicacy, Iranian-born Valamanesh has come to capture the dialogues of place and otherness in postcolonial Australia. Valamanesh emigrated to Australia in 1973; visiting the Aboriginal communities at Papunya shortly after his arrival, he was deeply affected by the spirituality and connection to the land in Aboriginal art, finding commonalities in response to the desert which surmounted his own childhood memories.

Valamanesh explores his personal and cultural identity in relation to place and displacement, delving into his own heritage to create a symbolic language that is at once intimately personal and yet easily understood. In doing so, he eloquently expresses the conditions of loss, loneliness and change felt by the thousands of Australian emigrants and refugees separated from their homes. The signs of the body in its absent traces- shoes, clothing, silhouette- reflect the migrant’s experience of displacement and sundered identity, and the struggle to re-negotiate heritage within a new context. By incorporating native and found materials in his work alongside Persian objects, Valamanesh is able to directly explore a sense of place as both an insider and an outsider, forging a bond with his adopted homeland which plays on the connections between nature, culture and memory.

The materiality of the palm leaf links the work to an earlier companion work, Homa (2000). Here, a plaited palm frond hangs beside a photograph of Valamanesh’s grandmother, an important figure from his childhood. Suggesting a woman’s plaited hair, the plaited leaf becomes a deeply personal, and deeply tender, evocation of personal memory, made universal in its appeal. To look on the photograph of the artist’s homa, an intimate object offered in a public context, we are inexorably reminded of our own family relationships, drawn to think about those people who have loved and shaped us, who gave us our first and most personal sense of belonging and planted the seeds for our wider perspectives of identity. Like a pilgrim’s relic, in this work and Untitled, the palm leaf comes to stand for the memory of family love, of belonging to a home and a culture, of those things which sustain us, émigré and native alike, in the search for our sense of identity and meaning in a world of constant change.

Although embracing contemporary forms such as installation and assemblage, Valamanesh’s work slips away from easy categorisation. His work is postmodern in its address of the translation and filtering of memory, undermining boundaries and recovering identity within the processes of imperial colonialism; yet is not characterised by referential mimicry or subversion of artistic heritage, nor by engagement with a narrative of cultural dispossession, commodification and fragmentation typical of postmodern artists such as Imants Tillers. We immediately recognise that his work, in concept and execution, is not self-consciously and drily rational. We sense that it is tactile, connected, and genuinely heartfelt, and respond instinctively to the communication of that genuine quality.  Valamanesh instead imbues his work with memory and desire, yearning romanticism paired with the melancholy of loss. It goes beyond simple didacticism and cultural interpolation, to still the viewer, the natural, communicative aesthetic drawing them into a reflective state and a numinous quietude.

The sociopolitical contexts of multiculturalism and postcolonialism circle like sharks around Valamanesh’s oeuvre. Surface similarities do exist,  in Valamanesh’s identification solely as Australian (though his Persian filiation is fundamental), the quest for points of commonality in his work’s symbology and materiality, and its capacity to facilitate communication between cultural viewpoints. These attributes, however, occur on a more personal level than the disingenuous state-sponsored “celebration” of fetishised and culturally inauthentic otherness promoted by Australian multiculturalism; a policy which in its inception was in reality intended as a cynical governmental mechanism to manage inter-ethnic relations rather than foster a truly pluralistic dialogue of cultural interaction which would aid in the re-conceptualisation of Australian identity.

(Although nominally a progressive embrace of cultural diversity, multiculturalism was hamstrung by its political framework, which privileged existing government structures and accommodated the interests of the ethnic middle class. The legitimacy of art produced in alternative traditions was negated by arbitrary distinctions between “contemporary” and “traditional”, a differentiation which did not allow that migrant and ethnic artists were capable of working in contemporary artforms. Being unable to truly question privilege, the celebration of multiculturalism achieved little in the short term beyond providing colour and movement for White Australia.)

Valamanesh’s work deftly avoids these entanglements, standing quietly but confidently on its merit as work by a contemporary artist, regardless of his ethnic origins. The understated and redemptive aesthetic of his work resonates across cultures and social backgrounds. It speaks to us all on multiple levels, broadly and yet intimately and individually, to questions of personal, cultural and national identity. It subtly leads us to reflect on how we see ourselves, how we see others, and most of all, what makes us who we are.

Published Artemesia, 2010