“These images grew from
my personal encounters
as a migrant in Australia”
IN A NATION where 97% of the population are of immigrant stock, what does multiculturalism mean in practice? Does the striving for a ‘national identity’ that notionally binds us into a community distinct from other sovereign states, put pressure on Australians to adopt some recognisable collective behaviour emblematic of allegiance? And what, in a country that came close to voting Banjo Paterson’s ode to a suicidal sheep-stealer to be its national anthem, are those traits?
The classic dichotomy is presented as ‘mosaic’ versus ‘melting pot’. The mosaic understands the bigger picture of a nation in terms of a variety of elements of diverse form and hue. And individuals understand themselves both as having a distinct cultural heritage and being part of the bigger picture of a country that is, even now, still in the making. The melting pot is a euphemism for assimilation, where difference is blended away like the bright colours of plasticine as they merger to form a homogeneous grey lump.
Hoda Afshar is of Persian descent. Her series ‘The In-Between Spaces’ stages a series of parodic masquerades in which clichés of the Lucky Country are enacted by characters wearing traditional Middle-Eastern dress. Vegemite, the pungent spread of treacly consistency that so divides its devotees and detractors; the barbecue with its snags and prawns; the surfer who rides the waves like a biker burning up asphalt; footie of the oval-balled variety; the Hill’s Hoist throwing its arms wide to the heavens like a satellite dish; and beer, which, as Benjamin Franklin noted, “is proof God loves us” but often engenders behaviour of a less divine nature in those that consume it in quantity.
A jolly swag of Aussie iconography…
The figures who engage in these rituals of new nationhood are presented in poses and costumes drawn from traditional Persian miniatures depicting alfresco soirées set in the sanctuary of a walled garden; bounded and protected. Such gardens were places of spirituality and sensual leisure and, in time, the enclosure of the walls became a metaphor for the totality of the universe; a self-defining place without recourse to what may or may not lie beyond. A trope that could also be applied to the aspirations of the sovereign state in the modern world.
In the ancient Iranian language of Avestan, the word for an enclosed space was ‘pairi-daēza-’, a term that was adopted into Abrahamic mythology to describe the Garden of Eden as ‘paradise’.
HODA AFSHAR’S IMAGES set two paradigms in contradistinction: the earthy Aussie, rough ready and ribald, and the refined Persian, sensual spiritual and sophisticated. Both are reductive and neither can describe the complexity of an individual, let alone a community of individuals. Behind the humour of these images lie questions not simply about the ethics of expecting immigrants to be reborn into some abstract parody of a national character, but the tendency of the émigré to idealise their homeland from afar. We live neither in paradise nor by luck, but together, by our own hands and in all our wonderful variety. We may draw on our histories and cultures; we may adopt or resist the clichés of character expected of us; but it is together we make, for better or for worse, the world that is to come.
 Banjo Paterson ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (1895) lyrics here
Images (from the top):
© Hoda Afshar ‘A dog’s breakfast’ 2011
© Hoda Afshar ‘As Australian as a meat pie’ 2010