HERE & NOW is a series of annual exhibitions at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery on the grounds of the University of Western Australia. This year (2016) Hamida Novakovich curated HERE&NOW16/GenYM (GenYM) Hamida began studying law before switching to anthropology where she found that her experience as a volunteer and then employee at the Berndt Musuem in Western Australia gave her the desire to apply anthropology in a practical way. This provided the impetus to working in the museum context and from this point she has broadened her curatorial practice into an investigation of contemporary art, identity and politics Hamida is Muslim with mixed heritage – Indonesian (from her mother) and Montengrin (from her father’s side) and is uniquely positioned to explore issues that are impacting young people in a post 9/11 world. She speaks with Sharmila Wood.
Sharmila Wood: How did you become interested in curating Islamic Art?
Hamida Novakovich: I noticed Islamic art was becoming really big in Australia through contemporary design and home-wares and people were just really interested in using Islamic art as a way to build bridges with the wider community post 9/11, they were almost overstating the power of art. I thought it was fascinating; it was almost reactionary to the context of the day. I decided in anthropology to write my Honours thesis on how Western Muslims use Islamic aesthetics to explore their identity within a Western context. Through the production of contemporary art, these artists reconnect with a heritage of Islamic arts, which until now were inaccessible to many. This renewal of faith inspired art has become a shared language from which stories of faith, spirituality, identity, migration and heritage are told. After I finished that thesis I was able to get into the Masters of Curatorial Studies and I switched schools to the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. I did that part time and worked at the Berndt Museum, I went back and forth from Melbourne and Sydney, and looked at what’s happening over there, at all the different developments.
Sharmila Wood: What were the developments you were seeing?
Hamida Novokovich: A few young Muslims were starting to vocalise issues they were facing in humorous and public ways- on local TV stations like Salam Cafe, comedy - like Fear of a Brown Planet and artistic groups like Crooked Rib Art. Some were supported by government, others weren't. But they all had this freshness and assertive quality about them, which inspired a lot of young Aussie Muslims.
Sharmila Wood: Did studying anthropology inform your curating?
Hamida Novokovich: I think my community work, community events, and working with people has been the key to my curatorial practice, rather than anthropology. A lot of the theory in university is very removed from the real world. My anthropology was dealing with different multicultural communities -Somali. Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian… new migrants that were African. Then working with young people on my own time, over 10 years. This is what I brought into curating. It was all my own work. I’ve instigated things like open mic’s, art events… I’ve put in a lot of time and energy as a community worker and doing mentoring work; trying to do things for the younger generation who look up to you. From my work with the community I've noticed that you gain credibility through rolling up your sleeves to work (so to speak) rather than simply talking or theorising.
I think university studies grounds you in theory, in process and time- instead of just wanting the end result. Even if you have access to people you can’t rush the theory behind it, you need to be able to consider, what does this movement mean in greater terms, you need years to sit back and see that.
Sharmila Wood: Are there any curators or art movements that have influenced you?
Hamida Novakovich: There has been some amazing projects in the Middle East, which I think could apply to the Australian context. The curator, Catherine David from New York City did this exhibition called, Contemporary Arab Representations (2001) where she went to different Arab countries and asked people to create their own self made exhibitions, it happened over years, and this was taking the artwork out of the white box. I think that’s very cool because I don’t always think the museum or gallery is the most effective way to reach audiences. That has been my experience at GenYM, it has reached some Muslim audience and the usual gallery goers, but I still think there is a place for curating with different communities.
I was given a space for GenYM to create an exhibition, which is good for people who are taking time off to go and visit a gallery, but I wish the exhibition could reach and impact more people, especially young Muslims which the exhibition speaks about. GenYM, really talks about are issues that are internal dialogues within the Muslim community and external dialogues between the Muslim communities and the wider community, so those intra-dialogues are very important. I didn’t have art when I was growing up and that was the experience for a lot of Aussie Muslim kids growing up.
HERE & NOW16/GENYM weaves together the voices of nine contemporary Muslim artists who are all members of Generation Y or under the age of 40 (which is Islam generally refers to the age of ‘youth’). This exhibition explores multiple voices, not necessarily of being young and Muslim today, but from young Muslim artists today. - Curator, Hamida Novakovich (Excerpt from HERE & NOW16/GenYM Published by the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at the University of Western Australia)
Sharmila Wood: How did you come to do the GenYM show? Who were the artists you were working with?
Hamida Novakovich: Professor Ted Snell heard about my work and approached me to put the show together. After I wrote my Honours thesis The Creative Ummah: Exploring religion and identity through contemporary Islamic art in Australia I looked at international artists, such as El Seed, and Australian artists, and at the different ways they produced Islamic art, from the grass roots, to commercial work. I met over fifty artists, and saw so many different types of artwork and artists- men in their fifties that were producing Islamic art, women doing their own thing, people who dabbled in art, young people who mixed it with hip hop and grass root movements, people more influenced by comedy and writing, artist like the Abdullah brothers who were doing their own thing and really advanced. There were so many different types of artists and practices that were thrown at me.
I began to study the different types of exhibitions around the world, such as MOMA’s Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking (2006) which was a big exhibition; Here and Elsewhere from the New Museum which I saw in 2014; Dis(Locating) Culture: Contemporary Islamic Art in America at Michael Berger Gallery; No Added Sugar: Exhibiting Australia Muslim Women Artists in Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, they all focused on contemporary Islamic or Muslim artists who were all Muslim and post 9/11. Some were hit and miss, some were criticized because they were too narrow in who they presented or the terminology they used- people always criticize the terminology Contemporary Islamic Art, or Islamic Art or Muslim Artists, because of the limitations and issues of representation. Taking into account these shows and the reactions they got influenced how I named my exhibition and what I wanted to look at- which, was Gen Y artwork, but conceptual fine art, no hip hop, no street art, no comedy.
I called the show GenYM so there is no term ‘Muslim artists’- it does say Muslim artists on posters and materials, but that was the choice of the LWAG for marketing purposes. There were a lot of discussions with the artists to okay the usage of ‘Muslim Artists’ because they wanted to be contemporary artists in their own right, not Muslims who dabble in art.
Sharmila Wood: How does identifying as Muslim and being Gen Y influence the artwork and exhibition?
Hamida Novakovich: Being Muslim in Australia is not black or white, it has various manifestations, whether its from Islamaphobia, to personal, spiritual enlightenment, it’s all part of the experience of someone being Muslim and part of being Gen Y. In working with the LWAG marketing team, they wanted to state the show was about growing up Muslim in Australia, it’s not. For instance, Abdul Abdullah’s work is not about childhood memories, it’s based on the anger shown by young people who are isolated today, not necessarily about himself but what he sees in the media- the Cronulla riots, freedom fighters in Egypt, or Palestine. Fatima Mawas films are about Palestine, it’s not about her growing up Muslim in Australia, her film for the public program, Fighting for Air was about a Queer young Muslim woman who was involved in illegal boxing. This film was about growing up Muslim in the 1990’s, but her films in the show, Fiddler on the Roof Part 1 & 2 are about her experience going to a refugee camp in Palestine and how experiencing her Palestinian home, heritage, and ancestry relates to her as an Australian. This also translates to Zahrah Habibullah’s work, Palestine Keys and Family Heirloom series where she talks about her search for her ancestry and belonging with Palestinians who have inspired her and her husband’s work in Gaza in recent years. So this is about how people mix their own identity with those of others. Some is direct and some is indirect, it’s all mixed, so in that sense, I had to correct the marketing statement that its not necessarily about growing up, its about being Muslim. These nuances need time to carve out; otherwise it doesn’t fully represent the artists and their work. As a Curator you don’t want to have an agenda and try to make the artwork fit into that agenda.
Sharmila Wood: It’s complex and can be difficult not to simplify. Was your selection of artworks to give a broader overview of the types of work that is done by Gen Y artists?
Hamida Novakovich: The fame of the Abdullah brothers has been fantastic and so is the conversation they have brought for young Muslims in Australia, especially since there is an age gap between them, so they look at the before and after 9/11. It’s like a mirror, because both about family, both about heritage but how can two guys represent the voices of all Gen Y. But I thought why don’t we put the Abdullah brothers with their peers, other Muslims who hadn’t had such a strong profile, but have done some good exhibitions in places like Auburn and Lakemba. As emerging Gen Y peers lets put them together so they can have a conversation together. It’s important to see how other artists play into that conversation, Australia has a lot of Somali refugees, so you’ve got two artists who are Somali, we have a big Arab population, and refugees are part of this too. I went to a Muslim School, so for me Gen YM is like a pie of the people who were in my Muslim School, you had a lot of half Australian/Malaysian, Australian/Indonesians, people that came from different socio economic structures, people with professional parents, single parents, struggling families, all in one school, all sharing the experience of what it means to be young and Muslim - listening to rap music, studying at university, that is the experience of being a young Muslim today, this crazy experience of different cultures and everybody sharing in the experience of being part of a Westernized culture.
Cultural marginalization does exist in Australia. I’m adamant about standing up for who you are. There needs to be more curators who can cross over between different cultures - and, I believe I have that privilege.