Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Should governments fear diversity and dissent?

Brian McKinnon
Class Brothers 2008
Acrylic and foam on canvas
152 x 91cm
(Artwork courtesy the artist and Indigenart — Mossenson
Image © the artist, courtesy Indigenart — Mossenson

THERE is a visual artwork by an Aboriginal Australian artist, Brian McKinnon, called Class Brothers. It is a striking political poster art, and has a Black Panther-like urgency to it. Two Aboriginal men face each other in conversation, and one says, “Difference between (Australian Prime Minister Kevin) Rudd and (former Prime Minister John) Howard.” The other replies, “With Howard you knew what you were getting.”

The artwork is confronting for a Malaysian journalist, whose first good impression of Rudd was that he finally apologised to the Aboriginal Australian population for the wrongdoings of previous administrations. This was in supposed contrast to Howard, who endured criticisms and ridicule for refusing to extend the same apology. Was McKinnon now implying that Rudd might actually be worse than Howard?

But that is not the most astounding thing about this artwork. What is more astounding is that it is proudly on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia‘s exhibit of the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards 2009 (25 July-15 Nov 2009).

And what is most astounding is that the awards and exhibition are supported by the government of Western Australia through its Department of Culture and Arts. The awards are the richest in Australia, with the national award valued at AUD50,000 and the Western Australian award valued at AUD10,000.

In effect, this is how things work out — the government of Western Australia is proud to support Aboriginal artworks, including those which unreservedly criticise the current federal administration.

Certainly not all of the artworks on display are political in nature. That is, after all, not something that can or should be demanded of art. But the exhibit certainly has its fair share of artworks that are both beautiful and politically engaged.

Take Christopher Pease‘s Law of Refraction, in which he recreates a historical print by topographical artist Louis de Sainson. The painting tells the story of a local Aboriginal, a Minang of the Nyoongar nation, who spends a couple of days on board a European ship, where he is dressed in European clothing and given presents. The painting depicts the Aboriginal man showing his other Minang friends a gift, a mirror, which they have never seen or used. The artwork asks questions about what happens when two cultures meet — what took place before, what happens after?

The power of art

Christopher Pease
Law of Refraction 2008/2009
Oil on canvas
123 x 214 cm
(Artwork courtesy the artist and Goddard de Fiddes Gallery
Image © the artist, courtesy of Goddard de Fiddes Gallery
Photo: Robert Frith)

Perhaps it is this essential property of art that the Western Australian government prizes so greatly — its ability to arouse not only the senses but the critical mind. Certainly, Colin Barnett, the premier of Western Australia, does not discount the “significant economic, social and cultural benefits” of the awards for indigenous artists, their communities and the Australian public. But in his foreword to the exhibit, he also values that the exhibit provides “a platform for artists to express their experiences and concerns within contemporary Australian culture”.

Imagine this, then. What if the National Art Gallery of Malaysia commissioned a series of artworks by indigenous artists in Malaysia, including those which were directly confrontational towards state policies and political leaders? What if the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia commissioned a series of artworks by Shia and Ahmadiyah artists depicting how they have been marginalised and targeted by the Islamic authorities in Malaysia and other countries? Or how about publicly-funded exhibits on violence against women, which would include depictions of how police negligence has sometimes led to women being abused or killed in the home?

Can we even imagine such exhibits in Malaysia? Can we even imagine a Malaysia in which the government — federal or state — funds such artworks?

Brian McKinnon
Making a stand 2008
Acrylic and foam on canvas
152 x 91cm
(Artwork courtesy the artist and Indigenart — Mossenson
Image © the artist, courtesy Indigenart — Mossenson

This is not to say that Australia is a flawless democracy which is free from racism and all other kinds of discrimination. The current refusal of the Rudd government to take in asylum seekers from Sri Lanka is a case in point. And certainly, McKinnon would not be saying in one of his artworks, “Sorry not f_c__n good enough Mr Kevin f_c__n Rudd,” if all was well with indigenous communities in Australia.

But here is one important point worth noting about states that recognise the importance of upholding freedom of expression — they try to correct themselves. There will be groups of people wanting to disregard history, or to impose their will upon others. But the state will also facilitate the debate so that other voices and views are heard.

And the state will recognise that not all development is about the speed of a broadband connection, or the length of paved roads in the country. A developed society requires developed and critical minds to be able to ask, “How do we become a better people? How can we be honest about our history and move forward together?”

What about 1Malaysia?

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is now on an earnest mission to convince all Malaysians that 1Malaysia is about inclusiveness and a celebration of diversity. “People first, performance now” is his oft-repeated mantra. But does the formula for 1Malaysia factor in the crucial principle of freedom of expression for Malaysian society to be truly inclusive and diverse?

Will the prime minister encourage art exhibitions about the migrant experience, about political Islam, about gender equality, about combating homophobia, about indigenous communities, about a whole host of issues that “1Malaysia” should be concerned about? Favicon

Shanon Shah was selected and sponsored by the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to visit Perth as part of its International Media Visits Program. The visit was mainly to cover the Fifth Regional Interfaith Dialogue, but also included other appointments and visits, including this one to the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Four other journalists were also selected, from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.

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2 Responses to “Should governments fear diversity and dissent?”

  1. Anonymous Coward says:

    I’m convinced that 1Malaysia is simply a slogan and massive ad campaign amounting to propaganda; there are absolutely no policies being conducted in line with the idea of 1Malaysia. Worse, we don’t even know what the PM means by it; is he trying to re-appropriate Lee Kuan Yew’s Malaysian Malaysia concept, or what?

    I can concede that perhaps we are not yet ready to dismantle such deep-seated sentiments and institutions, but if he is seen to be working towards that goal, it would help make me feel that 1Malaysia is a tangible concept.

    Unfortunately, with the toppling of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Perak coupled with the “us versus them” mentality that the federal government has towards those in or supporting the opposition, it’s hard to believe in 1Malaysia.

  2. Azizi Khan says:

    Australia is not a perfect democracy. No country is. But there are things Australia does right and there are things it still doesn’t get right.

    In Australia diversity is celebrated. Equality is mandatory. When I apply for a job here, I am not Malaysian. I am not Malay. I am not Muslim. I am a skilled person and I am the best at what I do. I get the job based on my skill and merit.

    This is something that Malaysia needs to work towards. Why are shopping centres filled with Chinese Malaysians working there? Why are government offices filled with Malay Malaysians? Why are Indian Malaysian and everyone else “dan lain lain” are pretty much “pariah”? Why? Because we have racist policies. Each and every race. The effect of it? We have an entire nation looking at each of our own interests rather than working with our skill and ability.

    No wonder we are getting nowhere! We can blame politicians all we want, but sooner or later we have to accept that we voted in those politicians. Which means that Malaysians in general are racists. We are comfortable with the segregation. We want to be looking down at other races. We find all and every excuse under the sun to differentiate people.

    And then we want unity? PM Najib shouldn’t talk about 1Malaysia. He should talk about 3.356 Malaysia. Maybe 15.9Malaysia. Because thats about as close as we are going to get to unity.

    Look on the bright side. If we add our racism into our tourism guide, we can get niche tourists from the days of the apartheid.

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