Sunday, October 02, 2011


This post has been formulating in my mind for a number of years. It stems from my experiences exhibiting my paintings overseas. Firstly in London in 2002, Dubai 2004, Abu Dhabi and Dubai 2005, Seoul 2007. The Queensland Government's Trade office, Austrade and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade [DFAT] have all assisted me in various ways. The latter through the Australian High Commission in London and the Australian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. There were minor interactions with the Embassy in Soeul. My interactions with these various entities involved my own art practice, on behalf of other artists, and also as an attendee at other Australian cultural events.

                                   Photos from my Abu Dhabi exhibition opening in Gulf News

The Deputy High Commissioner opened my solo exhibition in London, and the Australian Ambassador opened my solo exhibition in Dubai in 2004. The Queensland Government's Minister for Education and the Arts, at the time Hon Rod Welford, opened my exhibition in Abu Dhabi. I did not go to Seoul for the group show I was involved with, however the Australian Embassy, Austrade and the Queensland Government's Trade Office were involved. The Australian Ambassador was meant to open the group exhibition of Queensland artists I was involved with in Dubai 2005.

Mr Khalfan Asst Undersecrety Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, Hon Rod Welford Qld Minister for Educ & Arts, Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox, Alan Lindberg GHD Abu Dhabi, Mr Al Amri Head
Opening of my exhibition in Abu Dhabi- I did not know there'd be a ribbon cutting until I got to the door!
I received an Arts Queensland grant for this exhibition. Also, Australian engineering company GHD provided some sponsorship.

As an artist, I have also had dealings with various Australian diplomatic and trade entities in the US and Canada. I have been a guest presenter at Austrade, Queensland Government Trade Office and Arts Queensland forums, on the topic of creative industry export. For 18 months across early 2006 to 2007 I was Chairman of the Queensland Chapter of the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry [AACCI], a member organisation representing Australian businesses with interests in the Arab League countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as supporting business interest from the Arab League in Australia. As Chairman I had interactions with DFAT, Austrade, affiliate organisations, other Chambers of Commerce, as well as foreign Embassies and Consulates.

I certainly appreciate the assistance I have been given, from VIP presences at openings to grants which contributed to funding a couple of my international activities.

But, particularly my experience in Abu Dhabi, has left me with a feeling that Australia's diplomatic entities miss many opportunities to extend, enhance and enjoy relationships with others, through  cultural activities. I am talking about missed opportunities with regards to art's potential to contribute to  what's called 'cultural diplomacy'; to shift the borders of difference to reveal new perspectives, not only of others but of ourselves. Often called 'soft power', present day cultural diplomacy seems limited to a 'show and tell' attitude, where the flurry of opening night celebrations and photo ops cast aside very real opportunities to generate meaningful conversations, ie: the type of conversations that are not agenda driven, therefore often revealing new pathways for relationship and understanding. [I call these conversations agenda-less, but not direction-less]. The cultural activity or event seems to become a mere backdrop... something nice to do... but from my own experience art [all arts] holds catalytic potential to propel people past superficial and/or self-interested agendas, to places where discovery of similarities cause differences to become less different.


In Abu Dhabi in 2005, I held a solo exhibition at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation. In 2004, whilst my solo exhibition was on in Dubai, the Third Secretary, a remarkable young Australian woman, at the Australian Embassy introduced me to the the Foundation's Director of Arts. This first meeting was a great experience. The remarkable young woman spoke fluent Arabic, plus both she and I knew the protocols for such meetings. When I presented the Director with my business card, which I had had translated into Arabic, he smiled broadly, commented appreciatively, and over cups of tea my exhibition proposal was accepted.

The exhibition was held just before Christmas 2005. I was very grateful to have received a grant from Arts Queensland plus some sponsorship from engineering company GHD. Unfortunately, the remarkable multi-lingual young woman from the Australian Embassy had moved on to other parts of the world, so she was not able to see the show.

I sat with the exhibition each day. This gave me incredible opportunities to engage with people who came to see the exhibition. And, there were lots of them! On a daily basis I had conversations with people from all over the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, plus a few westerners. These conversations, triggered by my paintings, have profoundly influenced me and my work.

As regular readers know, I use the transcultural/religious tree-of-life motif as my visual guide through distances both close and far. I use it to suggest literal and metaphoric multiple perspectives. The -tree-of-life needs no is transcultural and religious after all....and the conversations I shared in 2005 in Abu Dhabi, very quickly bypassed superficiality and mundane commentary, because there was something to propel us beyond these locked gates. Men and women told me about their hopes, dreams and fears. I had men and women return a number of times to share stories with me and introduce me to other family members. I had a teacher who visited my show, return a few days later with her class of school children, and then a couple of these children returned with their parents a day or so later.

                                I had to give an opening talk at the Abu Dhabi exhibition.


What did I learn? I learnt that conversation is a key element of any relationship. I learnt, that these people, who initially seemed so different to me, shared the same fundamental hopes and dreams for peace, environmental sustainability, friendship and understanding. I learnt that as we recognise the humanity in others, the 'other', seems less different. Signs of life, pulse and breath, do not recognise race, colour or religion. The urge for identity flourishes in a diversity of cultures and religions, yet the urge is shared human trait. I realised that prescribed agendas for hoped-for outcomes, limit possibility. I learnt that art is a powerful catalyst to enable open-ended conversation where possibility is limitless. Additionally, the power of age-old symbols, ones that are shared across cultures and religions, still hold potency in the 21 st century - if we pay attention.

                                Unlimited Oil on linen 120 x 160 cm 2006 This painting was in the Abu Dhabi exhibition.

I also learnt that people who value their culture, look to see how others value their own cultures. So, for example, I discovered through conversation, that the people who visited my exhibition wanted to see westerners value their own cultures. It was in the valuing or loving of culture that they look for a connection with others, not necessarily, or only, in the manifestation of performance or exhibition. I suspect many westerners don't really understand this. I suspect, also, that our 'show and tell' attitude, confuses those we aim to impress. Indeed, why do we need to impress? And, where does this need sit with regards to loaded terms like 'soft power'?


Many cultural activities, exhibitions, performances see individual artists and/or groups forge relationships with people in hosting countries. These activities are achieved with or without government funding, but often with sponsorship and normally with significant financial and time outlay from artists and/or their representive/s. Yet, from my own experience, and comments from other artists, the potential for broader and sustained cultural exchange, which could assist in building all kinds of relationships, is lost through a lack of understanding of the arts' potential to provide encounters, beyond the opening night, that lead to new possibilities. And, I don't mean just a lack of funding, because sometimes it is not just about money, but more about listening and thinking divergently. Artists and arts organisations can and do think divergently, but they need assistance to build upon relationships initiated in early exchange. By this I mean that whilst the internet may mean communication continues, the physical ability to return to perform or exhibit...and thus stimulate conversation.... is not be so easy. Often financial returns will not manifest for a number of years, yet relationships cannot have a 'value' placed upon them because their 'value' goes well beyond the monetary.


In this day and age, where we live locally in an increasingly globalised world, it is important to understand varying points of view with compassion for ourselves and others. Invigorated cultural diplomacy that, embraces meaningful and sustained exchange, explores partnerships and connections outside the norm, and expresses to others our love of our own culture, will confidently invite sharing rather than 'showing and telling'. This kind of cultural exchange is not about 'power', neither is it 'soft'. Rather it is confident and compassionate...and exciting!

Forever Connected Oil on linen 120 x 80 cm


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