I’m not the first filmmaker to use Broken Hill as the staging ground for a statement about national identity. Wake in Fright, Mad Max and Priscilla all chose Broken Hill as a microcosm for Australia, with good reason. Broken Hill embodies the myth of the Real Australia. Its story is Australia’s story, a tale of luck, generosity and fear. My mission in Broken Hill was to celebrate, amend and improve that myth, and in doing so reclaim Australian identity, just as Pricilla had done twenty two years ago.
In 1883 the chance discovery of a $300 billion mineral deposit attracted sudden, mass migration to the arid lands of the Wiljakali people of remote NSW. Just like the gold fields, Broken Hill was distinctly multicultural and part of its mix were the Cameleers, because camels were the only animals that could meet the challenge of transporting goods in a desert continent.
One of the most successful Cameleers of Broken Hill was Abdul Khalik. Born in Karachi, he was twenty years old when he arrived in South Australia in 1880 to work under contract to Elder, Smith & Co. He lived in Australia for 48 years with every opportunity to return to Karachi, he even visited a few times to bring his family to Australia. When he died in 1936 he owned 50 camels and the people of Alice Springs named Kharlic street after him. Surely Abdul Khalik was an Aussie! But Australia’s identity is as complicated as it’s history.
During the White Australia Policy the cameleers were so important to Australia’s economy that they were granted special exemptions, allowing them to leave the country and return without racial exclusion. It was in the exemption records of the Australian National Archive that I found the ID photograph of Abdullah Khalik and his two children Abdullah and Wizaree. They had made their application so that the two Australian born children could travel with their father to Karachi and meet their stepbrothers. I like to imagine those two children on the street of Karachi in 1923, such a long way from home.
The aim of my work over the last year has been to pose a question about the casual assumptions that underlie Australia’s identity; does ‘Aussie’ describe the people who wrote the white Australia policy, or does ‘Aussie’ have more to do with the people who survived it? I see more to admire in the courage of those who chose to make Australia their home, despite the racial discrimination of its government.
It’s a shift in thinking that’s very similar to something I first experience two decades ago. I was twelve years old and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was on TV.
As a sequined Guy Pearce pranced across the iconic Australian landscape, previously reserved for the likes of Crocodile Dundee, I could feel my assumptions crumbling. Here was the best Aussie larrikin ever put to screen, and he couldn’t be gayer. Together with Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, Bill Hunter and Sarah Chadwick, the film deployed a cocktail of humour, pathos and ABBA that seduced and educated Australia, and the world.
What made Priscilla so clever was it’s generosity. It chose to celebrate the conquest of fear, rather than indulge in the currency of victimhood. ‘Their courage can be our courage’ it seemed to say in an offering to all Australians, and that method of persuasion has always stuck with me.
Twenty two years later it all seems distinctly out of step with the character of contemporary social debate in Australia, with its hysterical fear and compulsory outrage. Beyond the fear and the shame lies the inevitable coming together, and it’s there that art has a role to play. Through boundless spirit of humour and generosity, the performers of the Broken Heel Festival carry the torch fabulously!
I attended the inaugural festival last year and it’s becoming a yearly pilgrimage. There’s something very special about seeing locals get up on stage who have suddenly found the safety and courage to be themselves. Mostly it’s a lot of wigs and glitter and fun, but it can be quite emotional. There are moments at the Silverton fringe event hosted by Jimay Falcon and Sh’ Gazey when you realise that, for some locals, it’s far more than entertainment. For some, it’s their chance to be accepted. It’s the personal connections of this kind that motivate all artists.
For me those rewards came from meeting The Shamroze family, decedents of the Cameleer Shamroze Khan. At the Afghan Mosque, a very small building built in 1891 and now a museum where visitors sometimes worship, Randal Shamroze explained to me how his Australian-ness is occasionally thrown into question, even today. “I just tell them I’m a descendent of the Australian Cameleers” he says with a quiet pride that would give pause to the Pauline Hansons of this world, if only they were listening.
I left Broken Hill with a sense of optimism that’s hard to find in the city. Having launched my balloon carrying posters of the Khalik family, I felt as though I’d made a quiet statement of my own. Watching the balloon disappear into the sky I quickly realised that all that space never ends, and just as quickly realised it was time to go home.
All photography by Jessica Clark
Thanks also to Camel Treks Australia
A few sources of inspiration from Australian films.
I am currently traveling Australia sticking up 1000 poster of Monga Khan, the Aussie folk hero.... The photograph of Monga Khan was taken 100 years ago in Australia. He was one of thousands of people who applied for exemptions to the White Australia Policy. Cameleers, Hawkers and other traders were granted exemptions because their work was essential to Australian's growing economy. For 70 years they played a crucial role... I'd like to celebrate their contribution to Australia.
The aim of this project is to turn Monga Khan into an AUSSIE FOLK HERO and, in doing so, use mythology to embrace our neglected histories and expand Australia's identity.
Through crowd funding I’ve now raised more than what I need to complete my original goal of sticking up 1000 posters. With the excess funds I am commissioning artists and writers to join the project. The resulting body of work will be published as a book of short, fictional stories, poems and artworks that reimagine the life of Monga Khan, as an 'Aussie Folk Hero'. It’s important to point out that this will be a work of historic fiction. Following that tradition, I hope that mythology can continue to act as a vehicle for history, as it has done for thousands of years. I've begun making short films about these collaborations (see below).
At the beginning of 2016 Monga Khan had been hidden within the Australian National Archive for 100 years, and with each passing year his story fades. This project aims to reimagine his life as a symbol for all those who survived the White Australia Policy. By sharing his story we can begin to revitalise what it means to be 'Aussie.'
Minna Leunig donated this reworked poster of Monga Khan which raised $510 at auction, with all the proceeds going to the Asylum Seeker Recourse centre.
I was lucky enough to work with 10 great students from Adelaide Secondary School. I asked them to use drawings to tell me about where they'd come from, how they got to Adelaide and what they'd like to become in the future. I gathered up their stories animated them for a surprise projector show in the city... I absolutely loved working on this project.
A huge thanks to Angelique Edmonds, Joanne Cys, Paul Coats and Fran Rydon for making it all happen.
For this project I installed 1000 posters around the country that carried the slogan “Real Australians Say Welcome”. The poster was inspired by the often forgotten second verse of the National Anthem that calls upon our “courage to combine”. That ‘courage’ seems strangely absent from Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
It began with this Pozible Campaign
Currently, anyone who arrives here without permission has no chance of making Australia their home, regardless of whether their claims to asylum are genuine or not. Instead they’re imprisoned until they agree to resettle in Papua New Guinea, a country that’s set to take $577 million in aid from Australia, up from $502 million last year.
If the Australian Government is genuinely determined to break the people smuggling business model, as it says it is, why aren’t the enormous costs associated with the “Pacific Solution” being used to create better legal avenues for asylum seekers to reach Australia? The short answer to that question is “Islam”.
Since starting this campaign I’ve been overwhelmed by support, but I’ve also spoken to plenty of people who are openly afraid of Muslims. Most of these people aren’t bigots and they’re not racists, they’re just ordinary Australians whose idea of Islam is based entirely upon the 6 o’clock news. They have no Islamic friends so they feel comfortable saying things like “they don’t intergrate”. Isolated within a media bubble, their fears only grow.
Then along comes the Government to service those fears by offering so-called safety to Australians by disregarding the human rights of a few asylum seekers, whose faces we’ll never see. The final irony is that, in the long run, this policy is anything but safe because it only widens the gap between Muslims and those that fear them.
The truth is that Islamic migration to Australia began 150 years ago. Starting with the Cameleers of the Burke and Wills expedition and the thousands more who followed them to create outback trade routes that would have been impossible without camels. Islamic Cameleers were such an essential part of the Australian economy that Muslims were even granted exemptions to the White Australia Policy. They could come and go from Australia as they pleased.
The point is that Muslims have a long history in this country. To further disregard and damage that connection for political gain is not only irresponsible, it’s also cowardly. But as long as politicians are willing to exploit the base fears of the electorate it’ll be up to us rise above the fear and isolation that politicians exploit. I don’t blame ordinary Australians for feeling isolated and fearful but at some point we each need to make a simple choice and ask ourselves whether we have the courage to combine.
Personally, I’m sick of Australia’s identity being hijacked by cowards. Since starting this project I’ve received a mountain of support from people who seem to feel the same way. I think it’s okay to be afraid of people that seem different, it doesn’t make you a bigot or a racist. When confronted with an unfamiliar culture it’s natural to feel fear. How we choose to respond to that fear is where people, and nations, find their character.
*originally published in CityMag
The idea for this project started during Australia’s 2013 federal election. Both major parties were promising to ‘stop the boats’ that carry asylum seekers to Australia. I designed this poster to parody the policy and began installing it around London’s east end . After living overseas for almost a year I’d noticed in myself a growing concern towards Australia’s conflicted national identity. To put it simply, I wanted to feel proud to be Australian without ignoring the facts. I decided to confront the issue when I returned home.
Back in Adelaide I made contact with the community group ‘Circle of Friends’ who gave me a great deal of help in the process of entering the Inverbrakie Detention Centre where I was able to meet asylum seekers. I began meeting one family at a time, explaining my idea for the project and hoping that I might find someone who liked to draw. This went on for several months until I’d collected several few sketches.
I decided to include participants who had recently left detention and were living in the community on bridging visas. On Australia Day I attended a large community picnic held by various community groups that support asylum seekers. It was there that I met Ali Rezai Muhammad. He told me his story and that he loved to make art. For the first time I felt sure that the project would be a success.
I began to install the posters in the first week of June. It took two weeks to install all 36, at the end of which time some had already been removed. The project received an overwhelming public engagement and support. I took great pleasure in letting Ali know just how much his story was appreciated.
One thing I’ve learnt from this project is that the individual stories behind migration are more nuanced than the politicised stereotypes, from both sides of the debate. It’s difficult to empathise with people when you can see that their story has been filtered through a political agenda. So I tried to stay an impartial.
On the original question of national identity, I still believe that everyone wants to feel proud of the country they belong to but every nation is, at times, unjust. So it’s impossible to avoid a conflicted sense of national identity and the task of resolving that conflict is perpetual. The willingness to accept that task, however, is something we might all feel proud of.
Thank you to everyone who helped throughout this project, especially Ali.
Having made illegal street art for years without being caught I’d started to forget that it was a crime. So when I was finally arrested I began to think more seriously about its criminality. This interest grew into a ‘side project’ which quickly blew out into the largest street art campaign I’ve undertaken.
I started by searching through the police documents at the South Australian State Records. The photography of the early 1920s stood out immediately for its technical qualities so I narrowed my search to the record GRG5/58/unit103.
I began selecting criminal’s mug shots based mostly on the immediate impact of the image. Whether through their defiant pride, amused irreverence or shamed humiliation some faces drew me in and those where the ones I chose. I was also attracted by the more innocuous offences, especially those that have since been decriminalised. Judging by their expression, the dubious offence of ‘idle and disorderly’ seemed as laughable then as it does now. Likewise, the supposed ‘offence’ of ‘attempted suicide’ or ‘sodomy’ seemed to confuse the convicted as much as their criminal classification offends us today.
By evoking the power of nostalgia and the notion of historic value I knew I could use these images to confront the idea of the criminal as an outsider, especially in the context of street art as a criminal act.
I began pasting up the posters at night before I realised it would be much safer during the day dressed as a legitimate worker. This approach also seemed more fitting to the theme of questioning the criminality of street art. So when I donned the high vis vest and went about my business I didn’t feel like a criminal, I felt as thought I was performing a public good.
Each paste up stood 2.5 meters tall and included the criminal’s full name, conviction, sentence and date. Overall I pasted up 42 individual mug shots (21 sets of 2) to the cost of AU$1170 in printing alone. The project was entirely self funded.
Eventually I was contacted by the Adelaide City Council and I admitted the posters were mine. The council agreed to stop removing the posters if I would take steps to legitimise the whole project through their ‘pilot project’ scheme. So I filled in an application, promising to track down every property owner and request permission to do what I’d already done (still in progress). I was also told I would have to remove the criminals surnames so not to connect surviving relatives to their criminal past. I’ve since been contacted by several relatives who actually enjoyed connecting the dots and were very encouraging towards the project as a whole.
Despite these obstacles I was very pleased by Adelaide City Council’s allowing the images to stay on the street long enough to be seen by the public for whom they were intended. I hope their open mindedness can extend towards the work of other artists.