Catalogue Essay: Shift 1

In Residence: Shift 1 at Morris Street, Paddington 02.04.16 / Photo by Annelize Mulder

Words by Meg Slater & Sarah Thomson

If the environmental rapport of an individual is altered, there results a shift in perspective. The person may feel a strangeness within [themselves] so that [their] identity or [their] actions no longer seem real, or [they] may project [their] sense of unreality upon the outside world.
-Annette C Washburne

Shift 1 is an interdisciplinary exhibition that explores the the physical and psychological repercussions associated with displacement. It features the work of four emerging artists from different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds: Ahmed Idam Adam, Ebony Harrison, Emily McGuire and Annelize Mulder. Each artist has created a site-specific work that responds to the theme by drawing upon instances in their life when they have been impacted by displacement. For Adam and Harrison, displacement is tied to their ethnic identity. Adam is a first generation Maldivian immigrant and Harrison is a second generation Indian immigrant. They form a part of an ethnic minority in Australia and have been subjected to racial prejudice, causing them to experience feelings of dislocation and alienation. Many of these sentiments are mirrored in the work of McGuire and Mulder, who have chosen to link displacement to place. These artists are currently in a unique period of transition, in that they both made the bold decision to uproot their life and move abroad. By physically displacing themselves from a familiar environment, each artist has experienced feelings of disorientation, anxiety and nostalgia. This essay considers in further detail, the link that exists between displacement and ethnic identity, and displacement and place, and how these ideas are represented in each artist’s work for Shift 1.

Displacement and Ethnic Identity

The displacement of ethnic minorities within society can largely be attributed to the fact that the multidimensional nature of ethnic identity is frequently overlooked, resulting in the categorisation of individuals on the basis of simplified, superficial characteristics like skin colour and/or dialect. This practice is highly problematic because it groups people together and labels them ‘the same’, leading to the suppression of individual ethnic identities. Assimilation has a similar effect. When individuals immigrate to another country, they are generally expected to modify or discard their ethnic identity in favour of the values and beliefs held by members of the dominant culture. Racially stereotyping individuals from a multi-cultural background and/or coercing them to prescribe to a particular set of shared ideals has a significant impact on the formation of their ethnic identity. These practices are what lead to the physical and psychological displacement of ethnic minorities, an issue which is explored in multimedia and video works produced by Adam and Harrison for Shift 1.

The work of Adam and Harrison aims to push past cultural boundaries and stereotypes in order to address the relationship between identity and culture. They both use digital media to express their attempts to resolve the tension between their cultural identity and the dominant culture that surrounds them. Harrison’s glitch work looks to pop culture and the imagery that saturates global digital culture, a space with no physical boundaries. Harrison sees herself as a ‘glitch’ in the colonial system and uses this metaphor to manipulate pop music videos that cherry pick parts of her cultural identity and present them as mere aesthetic trends. Her glitch work video #iggymosh takes on the trend of cultural appropriation and the collapsing of cultural identities into one-dimensional fashion trends as illustrated through pop singer Iggy Azalea’s use of traditional Indian cultural signifiers like the bindi, sari and holi coloured powder. Similarly, Adam has reclaimed the imagery often associated with his home country as a popular tourist destination by using photographs taken on his most recent trip to the Maldives, examining his changing perspective of his culture as both a citizen and a visitor. The work that he has created for Shift 1 presents a unique perspective that challenges stereotypical views of the group of islands, exploring how his experiences growing up in the Maldives and his continuing relationship with his home country has shaped him as a person and formed part of his identity. Being of multicultural backgrounds, both Harrison and Adam’s works deal with the difficult confrontation of two sometimes-conflicting cultures and identities.

Displacement and Place

People find comfort and security in belonging to a particular place and having an in-depth understanding of their immediate environment. Displacement ruptures this connection and sense of stability that we so often take for granted. Individuals who volunteer or are forced to leave their home and relocate to an unknown environment have therefore been physically and psychologically displaced. The psychological ramifications associated with moving to another country are significant. This can be attributed to the fact that a person’s surroundings contribute to the formation of their identity. The sudden loss of the exterior world that is responsible for shaping our identity and familiar spatial routines is thus often perceived as the loss of the self. It is unsurprising that both McGuire and Mulder have experienced feelings of disorientation, nostalgia and alienation at different points during the relocation process.

The works of McGuire and Mulder for Shift 1 emphasise the psychological effects associated with moving to another country, and how the link between memory and identity is strengthened when a person is displaced in unfamiliar surroundings. Mulder has drawn on personal memories of her home, childhood and family in her mixed-media work. McGuire has chosen to use textiles, a material deeply ingrained in her practice as a fashion designer and consumer. For McGuire, some of the few items she has been able to bring with her to London are clothing, and she notes that these objects help her feel less displaced by providing a link to her identity. McGuire not only draws on her own memories but on a shared collective memory engrained in the fibres of clothing, particularly second hand clothing. She does this in order to look beyond her personal connection with second hand clothing and address its displacement within the fashion industry due to unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. Overall, it is clear that McGuire’s response to the theme of displacement is multi-layered. By drawing attention to broader issues pertaining to the unethical practices associated with recycled clothing within the fashion industry, McGuire has created a complex work that addresses the theme of displacement on both a personal and global scale.

In a similar vein, Mulder’s mixed-media work addresses her physical displacement from her home country by reflecting on her memories and how they have formed her identity. In moving from South Africa to Australia with her family in 2007, Mulder was met with the challenge of re-establishing an identity in unfamiliar surroundings. She began to look back to domestic environments from her past, her physical and psychological ‘home’, to resolve her feelings of displacement. Mulder’s work attempts to remember increasingly hazy places and moments from her past, recreating and reimagining memories that have faded with time. Interestingly, in trying to resolve feelings of displacement when relocating to a foreign environment, both artists have chosen to focus on the basic human necessities that provide a sense of familiarity, and how their memories help to form and enforce their identity. McGuire and Mulder demonstrate that the clothes on one’s back and the roof over one’s head can strongly influence one’s identity and the strength of these physical objects as symbols and retainers of memory.

Shift 1 features the work of four artists from diverse sociocultural backgrounds, who have approached the theme of displacement from different perspectives. Adam and Harrison have drawn upon their multicultural backgrounds in order to respond to the theme, which have played a significant role in both shaping and hindering the development of their ethnic identities in the Australian context. McGuire and Mulder have approached the theme from a different viewpoint. By using recycled and memory-laden materials and referencing their relocation to different countries, they have established a connection between displacement and place. Adam, Harrison, McGuire and Mulder have generously drawn upon their personal experiences and beliefs in order to produce four unique artworks that represent what displacement means to them.