Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

TALK | Creative Conversations

On the afternoon of Saturday 3 November, Harbinger’s John Armstrong opened the inaugural exhibition of Creative Conversations, Art Talks. The exhibition presented works by artists who are refugees and now living in Brisbane. Here, we publish John’s opening speech, which encourages us all to reflect on memory and belonging. John has spent some of his working life in conflict zones and has first hand experience of the tearing of the social fabric which results from such hostilities. He has also worked with community organisations which provide support and resettlement programs to refugees. Art Talks continues until 11 November at the State Library of Queensland.

I wish to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet and I acknowledge the Elders of our communities – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and the non-Indigenous Elders who share their wisdom with us all in such a generous way.

This exhibition features over 30 artists and performers, originating from many countries around the world and presents us with glimpses into other worlds where colours hover and merge, where spaces contain hints of complex richness and shape is given to thoughts and feelings that are sometimes impossible to talk about.

These artists have experienced traumas and sufferings and pains and losses that those of us who are not refugees cannot even begin to imagine. These artists have now made Australia their home but that doesn’t mean they have forgotten their original homes and it doesn’t mean they don’t miss their original homes because feeling homesick is a reality – it’s more than a desire for what once was – it’s a powerful force that can evoke dizziness or nausea, stir up periods of loneliness and depression, it can provoke a smile, it can result in tears, and it can kick up memories. Feeling homesick, in an instant, can transport us to another time and location, whisking us thousands of kilometres away and years before, while we are standing in exactly the same place.

Even the subtlest reminders of home can induce an acute moment of homesickness. Triggered by a smell, a taste, a sound, sensory memories spark cravings for sensations intimately tied to what we know as home; the smell of fresh laundry, a recollection of a boyfriend, a perfume or scent of a flower, or oil, the feel of a hot car, security, freedom, or a scratchy wool blanket, the taste of a fruit, an ocean, a tree, the lined face of an old man, the sound of rain, a song, a colour or laughter.

And yet, while the yearning for another place, another time, another person, can be paralysing, it can also be a driving force for creating something new using traces of what we remember from before. Being homesick triggers an aching for something familiar, but also inspires us to create the very medicine that helps pains fade as we reinvent a version of home yet to be experienced.

Viewing these artworks can give us an impression of what lies beyond the canvas or paper because an artist works with the appearance of things, not their objective correctness, and in doing so creates new appearances of things and I suspect that’s what art is all about.

These artists take memories and give them form – they take massive events and subtleties and give them shape and colour and they take sometimes painful experiences and ideas and both lived and intuitive understandings and give them power and presence.

These artists are probably rescuing wandering memories and giving them a context – a new place to be that allows us, as viewers, to experience them and to use them to construct our own rememberings.

Most of these artworks deal with the stuff of lived experience and, if such a thing exists – lived thought – things we carry as the relics of thoughts past – the stuff of history – highly charged personal and individual and human scaled history.

But it is interesting that research into memory goes against the commonly held opinion that memory is much like a tape recorder or camera and basically captures what’s out there.

Really, it seems that your memory of an event is something you construct from lots of bits and pieces – from what you saw and heard and experienced and felt at the time – from what people told you afterwards – from suggestions and thoughts and implications – all filtered by your attitude, by who you are.

Memories for individual events resemble jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from many pieces – in a similar way to how we live our lives, as REMEMBERERS we knit together relevant fragments and feelings into a coherent narrative or story – we desperately try to make sense of it all because that’s what we need to do!

So rather than thinking of yourself as the sum of your memories – the end product of everything you’ve ever experienced – the reverse is more likely to be true – your memories are the end product of all you’ve ever thought and done, filtered through your perceptions and opinions.

Who YOU are is shaped by YOUR memories, and YOUR memories are shaped by who YOU are. And these artists have generously given us some potent stuff for our memories by allowing us access to their stories.

There is a story told in different cultures around the world that asks:

‘How many ways are there of behaving towards people?’

The answer:  ‘Only two. The first is the behaviour that makes people want to stay with you. The second is the behaviour that makes them want to go away. There is no behaviour that conveys anything other than this, friendship or hostility.’

And that’s what makes the difference between some places and others. And I reckon it makes the difference between some art and other art too.

These artworks are starting points for conversations – images that we can experience as images but also as reasons to start talking with others. The artists have provided short statements next to their works that give glimpses into their thoughts and experiences that inspired the works.

Some of these artists have been making art for years and some have just started making art but they all are part of Creative Conversations the volunteer-run community arts project based here in Brisbane. The purpose of Creative Conversations is to give artists with a refugee background the chance to pursue their creative goals by helping them build networks and contacts within the Queensland art scene. And networks and contacts can only happen when people talk with each other and when art talks to people and this is an ongoing conversation.

While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives. And it takes courage to be creative – it takes courage to engage in conversations and it takes courage to share ideas because sharing ideas makes for new ways of thinking and presents alternative points of view and that’s what art does so well.

This is a marvellous opportunity for all of us to gain from these artworks, we all have the opportunity to add to our memories and we all have the opportunity to share creative conversations.

It has been said that you can’t use up creativity because the more you use, the more you have. And we look forward to being part of more and more creative conversations with these artists.

The exhibition looks terrific and I hope there will be many more exhibitions from these artists and others who will join Creative Conversations – and don’t forget that the artworks are for sale.

So, thank you to all the artists for their generosity in sharing their stories, thank you to the State Library for their marvellous support, thank you to all those who have worked to make this exhibition happen, thank you to Cindy Beumer and Towfiq Alqudy for making a vision a reality and thank you all for coming along to be part of the conversation today.


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