Community arts and printmaking
Community arts and printmaking
SourceAustralian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.
Country of context
Community arts and printmaking
By Andrew Hill
I’d like to preface my paper by saying that it’s very much a back-to-basics paper, and that what I’m not going to do is sort of open all the dialogue that’s developed around community arts over the past couple of years. What I’m also not doing is giving you a definition of community arts but rather expressing characteristics and issues as they relate to Jenny [Hill]’s work and to my work.
The final point I should make – really a mechanical one – is that we should be showing slides while I’m talking. Some of those slides I’ll talk to and refer to, others I won’t, so hopefully [with] the ones that I don’t discuss there won’t be too much of a disjuncture between what I’m saying and the image itself.
In recent days I’ve been having flashes of déjà vu, and certainly Mandy [Martin]’s presence here evokes the old progressive art movement days, which I was also reminded of when I read Byrne, Lendon, Merryweather and Stephens’ book The necessity of Australian art. In the section on provincialism, and under Cultural imperialism, there’s a pointed criticism of Brian Medland’s ‘…inadequate analysis of contemporary art and mechanistic political economy and class analysis…’
The Medland statement denouncing US imperialism is given as follows:
We reject the nihilism, hedonism and elitism underlying some recent American art. We demand a different art. We demand a robust popular art that speaks from and to the real concerns of the world’s men and women. We reject an art that doesn’t serve the people.
While not wishing to offer favour to either party, let me just say that I believe it’s absolutely crucial, if authentic art production from socially, politically, economically disadvantaged groups is to have the chance of a sympathetic environment for it’s creation, that it receive support and endorsement, which may seem dogmatic and even blinkered in it’s orientation.
It’s absolutely crucial because without what I consider to be principled assertions, as were made by Medland during the early 1970s and are being made today by countless art workers, then the dominant social, political economic and cultural steamroller would all but eliminate the circumstances for the production, distribution and acquisition of work, which could be considered antithetical to dominant control.
This is no idle point–scoring exercise, no simple mustering of rhetoric in order to advance a good argument. For the trade union movement, and for workers operating outside of organised labour, strong aesthetic statements are integral components in building class identity, achieving real social gain, unveiling quite deplorable working conditions, achieving industrial democracy, eliminating unsafe employer practices, gaining migrant rights etc.
The campaigns and issues highlighted in prints from organised labour have traditions bathed in workers’ blood; in misery and injustice. And, while this may seem melodramatic, we should agree that enormous physical and cultural violence has been exercised against working people, against non–Anglo immigrants, against Aboriginal people. Art works are one means, hand–in–hand with other methods; judicial and industrial action, marches etc of lobbying to achieve change, one means of assisting working peoples’ struggles.
Indeed, printmaking has not been confined only to works on paper, but its techniques have been applied to the revival of the trade union banners tradition. South Australian examples of most interest have been the Women in trade unions banner, with a blue printed central cameo, stressing child care as a right, not a privilege, the PKIU banner depicting various industrial occupations and highlighting the symbolism of the, sort of, velvety black ink that we’re all familiar with, that was alluded to so eloquently yesterday by Colin [Lanceley], and the United Trades and Labour Council banner, incorporating a silkscreen border portraying historical points of identity for the Council; minutes of the first meeting, reports of the Council’s formation in The register newspaper, as well as some of it’s more important campaigns over the past 100 years; the World War I anti–conscription battles, the Vietnam moratorium, the equal pay for women workers campaign.
We can only smile when galleries dismiss this work as marginal, peripheral to the mainstream, propaganda, or art prejudiced simply by it being categorised as political. What we can say of such work is that it does present us with a new way of seeing, of knowing and possibly remaking our lives. It values not only individual but collective perception, and it begins to offer multiple viewpoints, which open a plethora of possibilities in cultural interaction.
It certainly undermines the hierarchy of cultures and a one–way flow of culture. Within our current regime, it’s often the case that community groups are framed by dominant institutions so that they are the ones seen to be reacting in a negative fashion, rather than positively constructing a homogeneous, tolerant, conflict–free society or, in aesthetic terms, communities are told they aren’t able to create intense, high–quality artworks with a range of broadly meaningful signifiers.
There’s been a marked tendency, particularly when a community vociferously asserts its rights and is therefore unable to be ignored, for dominant groups to enlist advice from that community or to cursorily include token representation rather than undertake major restructuring, so that community concerns are effectively expressed and actioned.
Because of this pattern perhaps 50% of our energies are reactive and directed towards defending our established organisations, yet the expenditure is essential if wish to protect ourselves against the sense of open–slather exploitation.
For smaller community groups this is an enormous strain on the potential for productive art work. Owen Kelly, in Another standard, the manifesto, has written ‘…within a democracy there can be no assumption that rights exist, for in a democracy there are no rights except those which are openly and democratically made.’
If we disregard assumptions about whether or not we live in a democracy, and look to the substantive matter of obtaining rights then, above all else, I believe that community art is about openly and democratically asserting patterns of access for disenfranchised peoples.
It is about egalitarian cultural exchange, and is about transforming institutional recognition of whole territories of need, expression, moral and social justice.
Recently, I was speaking to someone about the discrepancy between the reality working class, non–Anglo immigrants find themselves in and how, either pre–migration or in the early days or years of resettlement, they visualised their situations should or would be. We agreed on there being a gulf between reality and perception but disagreed strongly on the means of eliminating this displacement. The person’s solution was for society to use whatever means it had at its disposal to demonstrate the supposedly unreal and unachievable expectations immigrants have.
In so doing, invoking private and State apparatus into reinforcing a strait–jacket of dominant values. It would have non–Anglo workers suborned. In other words, what you do is you get immigrants to change their minds. Rather than change the system you change people’s ideas.
My view was, and is, that it’s at this point we need to speak of equality of opportunity, equality of resources, equality of cultures and start to implement sympathetic actions which are openly declared and democratically determined. It’s at this point that we need to develop dialogue, especially visual dialogue, around the contradictions society presents, around those forces which limit community expression.
Turning to dominant institutions, we find that they rarely propagate in arts practice which addresses itself to the complex interactions and philosophical imperatives underpinning community art. Whole constituencies are denied seeing their own culture reflected in these institutions, simply because they are economically and socially marginalised. Significantly also is institutional ability to determine not just their own mores, but to input into the whole ideological construct of how communities see themselves.
Rather than acknowledging cultural background as advantage, dominant training, conservation and exhibiting institutions have used this against those embracing their own culture’s core and peripheral values, and such matters as the interrogation of cultures, the reclaiming of colonised territories, and gaining adequate community self–determination and self–representation within the democratically determined framework I’ve just alluded to, are neglected.
Communities are excluded and the organic relationship that all art workers and their creations have to their communities grows more and more attenuated. As example, many art training institutions will suggest that the only significant difference between production for consumption by dominant groups and individuals, and production for disenfranchised community groups is the site, and that common modes of practice are applied irrespective of whether the work is studio–based or street–based.
We’re all aware of the arguments about audience participation at this level, yet what’s not fleshed out in individual studios are questions of how we work, what skills as art workers we apply or are called upon to apply, and how this fits into a pattern of democratic practice, as well as accurately reflecting the breadth and depth of mono–cross and multicultural experience.
Instead of being surrounded by conservative art works of superficial worth, just because it’s those works which are able to muster institutional support or gain funding from economically advantaged groups and individuals, how do we develop and arts practice which is so integral to community aspirations and experience, that dominant practices are not only themselves marginalised but seen to be so?
Let’s look at a concrete example of how modes of practice alter as we move from an institutional setting to a community context. I’ve chosen a musical parallel because it’s often easier to see basic principles if we step outside of our own immediate context and aren’t faced with having to internally justify what may be apparent contradictions.
A Western classically–trained musician may operate comfortably with traditional structured rhythms. What happens when that musician needs to operate as a musician in the Greek community, where they are asked to work through nine–beat bars incorporating out–of–sync melodies and intertwining harmonies? How has their training advantaged them or enabled them to grow creatively and assist the identified community?
In community printmaking, whenever I’ve worked with a trainee the program’s always involved large components of de–skilling, eroding dominant institutional practices and attempting to build requisite skills to effect community self–determination.
This has meant, firstly, recognising that unequal social relationships exist and that we’re interfacing with a network premised on denying access, and exclusion of community practice. Secondly, the trainee has had to rethink relationships so that role models which are pluralist, inclusive and democratic supercede monocultural, exclusive and elitist paradigms.
Multicultural art should be seen to be not ‘ethnic’ art, nor art from practitioners whose backgrounds are other than English, but a praxis arising out of the close interaction of diverse cultural groups to achieve an unmodelled, revolutionary practice.
In other words, the verifiable outcome in the intellectual and emotional growth of groups and individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds who have worked within a framework of cultural democracy to achieve broad institutional and cultural changes, thus enabling them to accelerate their development towards greater self–confidence, self–knowledge and self–determination.
And thirdly, the trainees had to interact with a sense of belonging and attachment to the community, not something that institutions are renowned for sponsoring. Indeed, skills enhancement, rather than facilitating expression is generally turned into a barrier for those without institutionally sanctioned pedigree.
In many cases, community practice is about demonstrating how ideas may be actualised without submitting ourselves to institutional modes of expression. That will, in all likelihood, diminish the effect of our statements or deny their relevance.
Direct community feedback, almost re–establishing a pre–artisanal or an artisanal relationship, is a key factor in this process and an overriding concern that I currently have is the move towards institutionalising community art, which could have the effect of alienating it from political activity, and I think that (there are) parallels there with what is happening in the South Australian Women’s Movement.
I’d argue that it’s not community members who need to alter their expectations in order to create viable art works, but institutions. The alternative is continued, forced alienation and denial of attachment to Australian culture and, conversely, the withering of our culture as a vital, self–renewing resource.
In my community practice I’ve used photographic silkscreening methods as a deliberate strategy to locate and define experience in terms of authentic physical images and objects, thus sidestepping the translation of those images and objects into what, for many non–Anglo immigrant workers, is a foreign language.
Let’s quickly look at a couple of prints in which community members have used familiar images, even nostalgic images; pre–migration images, to begin the process of locating their lives within a shared culture.
Not always is that culture intact but the work is significant because it portrays an experiential realm with which large numbers of people identify. Demeter Tsounis has said this of a print, Music for living:
I’ve used the image of family and friends making music in the past to show the integral nature of music within the everyday life of Greek–speaking people. Music and dance conveys messages about the life experiences of the people who participate in them; of their hardships and problems, of their plans and hopes for the future.
The modern Greek Leico song Here in this foreign land, which I quote in the print, expresses the downgrading and alienating experience of migration, a reality which has too often been glossed over in the rarefied, stereotypical representations of certain ethnic cultures. Music’s a rallying point for coping with and resolving contradictions that people face in their everyday social life. Photographs and stories of my family and friends show that music was used for this purpose and today it continues to play this role for my generation of Australian–born Greeks.
Other people have been realistic in appraising their parents’ home cultures transferred to a new land where [their] values struggle to survive; are modified or die out. They’ve been caring enough of those values to wish to enter into the struggle, recognising the overwhelming possibility that the dominant culture will eventually prevail.
The representation of a hostile culture, biculturalism and shifting identity, questions of self–representation and self–interpretation, rather than stereotyping, are but a few facets of identity explored in the We helped build Australia project.
The Bitter song project centred on themes of community, working rights and peace, constructed by the Greek community in Adelaide and the Turkish community in Melbourne, saw this territory develop to include the subject of the ‘eternal migrant’, that is a citizen of two countries, always in transition.
Prejudice against newly–arrived and second generation immigrants; the building in the second generation’s mind of an imaginary world based on vicarious experiences of their parents’ homeland, that’s to say, sort of, grandchildren speaking to their grandparents on the phone and building up this imaginary world, and also feelings of unity and common perceptions held by people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
This is the last slide I’ll show, and it’s a print from the South Australia bitter song suite. It portrays Sophia Alexieu, the print’s creator in a triptych. The central panel as she sees herself, the left and right panels are images of herself symbolically distorted to represent stereotyping. This stereotyping creates images of something we are not but, Sophia positively proclaims, stereotypes can be shattered to reveal the truth of what we are.
This is the taking control of our lives and I think this is one of the possibilities that community practice offers.
© Andrew Hill, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.