Ancestry and Identity: Term 3 Art Exhibitions

Exploring the themes of ancestry and identity with your students

This article is about exploring themes of ancestry and identity with your students. There are four art exhibitions on during Term 3 that relate well to this area of study:

  1. “How we see country” at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative (to July 24);
  2. “Refugees” at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (July 29 to September 11);
  3. “Diaspora” at MOP Projects (June 29 to July 24);
  4. “Home Land” at Mu Studio Gallery (July 16 to August 7).

See end of article for more details.

In the VADEA members area, under critical and historical studies, there is a resource on My Le Thi who is an Australian/Vietnamese artist. This short .pdf about her work with Melville High School students is a great starting point for this topic, and gives you all the necessary keywords:

Diaspora; heritage; life experiences; outsider; family tree; class, ethnicity; culture(s); identity; member of a group; imagery; signs and symbols; histories.

“How we see country” is a statement, not a question: it does not ask how you see country, and in a way it does not want to know. This exhibition is about how we see country. Who are ‘we’? In this particular case, it is a group of indigenous artists showing their work at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative. Be careful not to trip up and say that ‘we’ are ‘aboriginal people.’ Postmodern discourse of the 1980s worked extremely hard to institute the idea of relativism, and stamp out all generalisations and collectivisms.

In their investigations of these Australian artists’ ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social heritages, your students should come to appreciate the tensions that arise in identities that are rooted in two or more different cultural traditions. They might even find out that sometimes the ‘we’ does mean ‘aboriginal people’ (because anything is better than postmodern relativism!) To emphasise to students that ‘aboriginal art’ is many different things, you can also refer to the exhibition “We are in Wonder LAND: new experimental art from Central Australia,” which was on at UNSW Galleries in 2015. It is important to expand the discussion quickly from tourist merchandise to relevant contemporary forms.


No one could have ignored the floods of humanity that started moving across continents last year, from the East and South, to the West and North. The images of wet, dirty, ragged people trudging along, carrying their possessions, babies and elderly relatives were on our TV screens, on the front pages of newspapers and of course all over the internet. Do not think that our young people did not notice this, or have thoughts and feelings about this massive historical migration. It is imperative that engage them in discussion about the serious and important issues going on in the world: the art classroom is a good place to workshop these complex ideas, through reflecting, talking and the cathartic effects of making things with one’s hands.

This might be their first lesson in global political economy: why the ‘West’ is prosperous and peaceful, and why certain types of economics and conflict have rendered large tracts of the world virtually uninhabitable. Students could start by finding and studying a range of media reports about refugees, migrants and ‘boat people∗.’ They could also study the SIEV X Memorial Project in Canberra, which is made up of student artworks and commemorates the 2001 sinking of a refugee vessel where 353 people perished.

Aside from the heavy politics, it does not take a lot of effort to find examples of the positive contributions refugees and so-called ‘boat people’ have made to societies overseas and right here in Australia. Firstly, you can find the story of Alidad Afzali on Facebook here and here. Afzali arrived in Australia by boat: he was 16 and alone. He wants to study art, and if the video of him painting is anything to go by, we will see more of his work in the future.

In another local example, students will probably know the very popular comedian Anh Do, who wrote a book, “The Happiest Refugee”, about arriving in Australia by boat from Vietnam. They might even know that his younger brother Khoa Do, who is a filmmaker and community service volunteer, won Young Australian of the Year in 2005.

Finally, Western Sydney University has in recent times run a series of evocative ads called “Stories of Unlimited.” One is about Deng Thiak Adut who is a WSU Graduate and a defence lawyer in Blacktown. However, Adut arrived in Australia as a refugee from Sudan, and his story is both disturbing and inspiring.

It is important and timely that “Refugees” at Casula Powerhouse ”celebrates the invaluable contribution of … world renowned international and Australian artists who share a refugee background.” Included in the show are Guo Jian, who spoke so candidly at the 2016 VADEA Conference, and Judy Cassab who escaped the Holocaust, and became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize in 1960.


“Diaspora,” has historically referred to the Jewish Disapora. However, in the postcolonial period (post-World War 2), it has come to denote the spread of any people from their original homeland. We have just witnessed the makings of new diasporas, with the mass movement of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Kosovo to Western Europe.

Depending on the demographics of your school, you would be hard pressed not to find several students whose ancestry links to some diasporic wave of people to Australia. The 1850s gold rush brought a wave of Chinese migrants; the ‘White Australia Policy’ dictated immigration between 1890 to 1950, and in 1947 refugees were brought in from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; post-1950 more and more immigrants were accepted from the Middle East; and, then through the 70s and 80s, came a second large wave of Asian refugees. Australia has always been a settler nation, with an existing Indigenous population: in the face of school bullying based on racism or xenophobia it is good to remind students that all non-indigenous people are settlers from other lands. However, also remind them that the Multicultural Australia Policy is about sharing this vast, safe, rich and beautiful country, regardless of whether you were born here or not.

Yang-En Hume is a recent graduate from the National Art School (2013), and her show at MOP Projects is called “Diaspora” because it creates “a pastiche of intertwined lives and stories that traverse geographic and historical boundaries” (emphasis added) Her installations are made up of collected and scavenged materials, mixed media, and ideas sourced from museums and libraries. She engages volunteers in the collaborative making of lace to evoke and re-enact the ‘craft’ and ‘domestic’ work Parisian embroiderers, adding photos and letters to (re)imagine their lives. Her work is a lovely mix of historical fact, imagination and tactile materials. Students could do a project called ‘fact, imagination and materials’ and start by looking into their ancestry to see what foods, songs, crafts, clothes, social customs, religious practices or rites of passage form part of their cultural identity.

Home Land

It is very fitting that “Home Land” comes at the end of this article. “How we see country” is a love letter to these artists’ home and land; where as “Refugees” and “Diaspora” speak of people who have had to leave their homeland. Surprisingly, there is a shared melancholy amongst the different subject positions, and students should reflect on why that is the case in the Australian context.*

Tony Wong Hee states that, “In these works, I have attempted to express the concept of families living with the dichotomy of being locked in and locked out – of home, land and a normal life.” This idea speaks to the experiences of indigenous people, diasporic people and refugees: aspects of ancestry, identity and lived experience can keep you “locked in and locked out of home, land and a normal life.”

While the Delphic maxim declared “Know thyself,” and Socrates urged that “An unexamined life is not worth living,” it is much more interesting when explorations of identity expand from the personal to the communal, and even global. So, while students might start with a very immediate and personal interpretation of “know thyself,” it is important to then contextualise that self by situating it in the cultural and familial matrix of “lives and stories that traverse geographic and historical boundaries.”


Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative
55-59 Flood Street, Leichhardt 2040.
(02) 9560-2541.
Wed-Sun 11.00 to 4.00.
To July 24 How we see country featuring works by Bundjalung Artists – Euphemia Bostock, Burri Jerome, Bronwyn Bancroft, Tracey L. Bostock, Jai Walker, Nicole Renee Phillips, Graham Walker, Deborah Taylor, Oral Roberts and Brittany Hegedus. Curated by Bronwyn Bancroft.
Solo shows in front galleries: Kim Healey and Nicole Renee Phillips.

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre
A cultural facility of Liverpool City Council
1 Powerhouse Road, Casula 2170 (access via Shepherd Street, Liverpool).
(02) 9824-1121.
Free entry.
Ample parking available or alight at Casula Train Station.
Mon-Sun 10.00 to 5.00.
July 29 to Sept 11 Refugees – a landmark exhibition that celebrates the invaluable contribution of these world renowned international and Australian artists who share a refugee background. Drawing upon the past 120 years of artistic practice, across a number of continents and conflicts, this exhibition will present a powerful contribution to this highly politicised subject matter.
Featuring work by Khadim Ali, Frank Auerbach, Yosl Bergner, Christian Boltanski, Judy Cassab, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud, Mona Hatoum, Guo Jian, Anish Kapoor, Inge King, Dinh Q. Le, Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack, Nalini Malani, Helmut Newton, Yoko Ono, Aida Tomescu, Danila Vassilieff, Ai Wei Wei and Ah Xian.

MOP Projects
2/39 Abercrombie Street, Chippendale 2008.
Wed-Sat 11.00 to 5.00, Sun 1.00 to 5.00.
June 29 to July 24 Diaspora by Yang-Em Hume.

Mu Studio Gallery
Headland Park Artist Precinct, 8 Read Place (cnr Best Avenue), Mosman 2088.
(02) 9960-1777.
Tues-Sat 10.00 to 4.00.
July 16 to Aug 7 Home Land by Tony Wong Hee.



∗ “More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.” –BBC News, UK

Under a controversial policy instigated by Labor, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are held and processed offshore at Manus Island and Nauru, and permanently denied refuge in Australia… The measure was announced in July 2013, a month when 48 boats arrived.” –Sydney Morning Herald, September 25, 2015



Author’s Disclaimer.

A lot of art is political. A lot of art is about identity and belonging, or not belonging. A lot of art is about race, gender, sexuality and religion. A lot of art is about things that one is not supposed to discuss in polite company. A lot of art is about the personal, and as the famous second-wave feminist slogan says: the personal is political.

Not only is art political, it is decidedly “left leaning.” Artists argue for the rehabilitation of criminals, they support the LGBTI community, they oppose “stopping the boats”, they advocate for freedom of expression, they help youth living in poverty, and they try to make a difference in the most underprivileged communities. Arguably also, to go to “Art College” means to be exposed to the full gamut of freedoms, concessions and ideas (and ideologies) associated with the liberal arts. As a teacher of first year university students who are recent school leavers, I know how surprising the new liberal imagery and language can be to them.

As much as I have internalised these values and ideas as natural, and so obviously deserving of support from artists, it is necessary to state that these values and ideas are not universal. All schools have their own ideologies, values, morals and codes of behaviour, and teachers need to abide by the rules of their employer. As teachers we have to evaluate whether certain themes of race, gender, sexuality and religion are appropriate to bring into our particular classrooms.

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    By: Emmi Nevalainen

    Emmi is the 2016/2017 Resources, Research, and Publications Project Officer.

    She calls herself a learning-addict, and as such has completed a double bachelor degree, an Honours degree, and a PhD in Arts/Art History and Theory and a Graduate Diploma of Education in Secondary Visual Arts.

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    Teaching FYFS
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