Steven Durbach, Cecilia Hwang & Gail Murphy Photo: Chris Peken

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BY JAMIE APPS

While many people would rather not admit it, racism is still alive and rampant within Australian society, as evident by recent comments from Pauline Hanson and Sonia Kruger. Thankfully though our vibrant arts community is creating works that combat intolerance and attempt to bring us together as a single unified community.

My Place + Your Place = A Better Place, is an art exhibition currently being held at the Waverley Library. This exhibition brings together artists from the Jewish, Aboriginal and Korean communities in a multicultural exhibition which curator Estelle Rozinski hopes will allow “people of different backgrounds to experience the idea of ‘same but different’ and realise that we all have things that [are] universal regardless of culture.”

“Art is one of the few remaining things that brings us together,” explained Aboriginal artist Gail Murphy when asked about the importance of this exhibition for the artists involved.

Jewish artist Steven Durbach added: “It’s about generating conversations and art is quite a non-threatening way to do that.”

By placing the exhibition in a public library rather than a traditional gallery the hope is that it will be much more accessible to the wider community. While the aim of the exhibition as whole may seem incredibly lofty, Estelle will be satisfied if the exhibition can simply “expose one person to a different culture and have them take the time to engage and think”. As Korean artist Cecilia Hwang says: “small gestures can start something much bigger.”

Sydney’s arts community also hopes to help change attitudes through a performance piece by Powerhouse Youth Theatre in conjunction with Griffin Theatre Company titled Tribunal.

Tribunal brings together Aboriginal elders, refugees, activists and lawyers in a work which takes the form of a peoples court and conveys the parallel story of Australia’s indigenous community with that of refugees.

Tribunal was the brainchild of creative director Karen Therese following conversations over the course of almost a year with the members of the cast. “We had to be very committed to letting the project simply evolve out of our conversations,” she explained. “We’re not looking to traumatise people or push an agenda. The work is simply about being kind to people, listening to their stories and not judging.”

One of the stars of the show is refugee and “boat person” Mahdi Mohammadi, who explained how important being a part of this show has been for him. “I’m still waiting on the outcome [of my application for refugee status] so the hardest part has been living in a limbo situation for the past three years. This project has been really good for me because I’m not just telling my story but I’m talking on behalf of many refugees, which makes me feel strong.”

It’s not just refugee stories that this performance conveys, it also brings in Red Cross social worker Katie Green to speak about some of the hurdles refugees face and also the emotional impact their stories have had on her.

“It was a real privilege to be in that position and hear their stories but it was also incredibly stressful, overwhelming and traumatic,” reflected Katie. “It made me realise how lucky I was to be born in Australia and have all the rights that go along with that.”

Breaking down problematic myths is key for arts projects like these to bridge cultural divides within society. Katie says the most commonly held misconception is that “asylum seekers come here and get given houses” when in reality “a couple of years ago they didn’t have the right to work so they were forced onto a government benefit, which was 89% of the average Centrelink benefit, which for a single person amounted to around $450 per fortnight and had to cover everything including rent.”

With that fact in mind it’s incredibly disappointing for many of the artists involved in both of these shows when they hear comments like those from Pauline Hanson and Sonia Kruger. 

“Comments like that make us afraid and promote hate,” said Karen Therese.

Gail Murphy however says: “I don’t even get angry anymore, I just feel sorry for people like that.”

Aboriginal elder Aunty Ronda Dickson added: “You can’t help but laugh. It shows just how ridiculous and racist these types of moments are.”

Steven Durbach may have put it best, saying: “Art gives us a common vehicle and reason to talk to each other. Whenever you can find that common ground you can go past culture and race to realise that people are just people and they’re generally lovely.”

My Place + Your Place = A Better Place
Until Sep 7. Waverley Library, 32-48 Denison St, Bondi Junction. FREE. Info: shirmadness.com/artexhibition

Tribunal
Aug 12-20. SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St, Kings Cross. $30+b.f. Tickets & info: 02 9361 3817 or griffintheatre.com.au