A heatwave, a house and a whole lot of stories
Artist Residency Reflection
Driving down Mollison Street in Brisbane, you may fail to notice the old Queenslander wedged between the high-risers. The house in question was built in 1927 in the now trendy suburb of West End. As the suburb expanded, houses were snatched up by developers to make way for new buildings, all except 42 Mollison Street. The owners of 60 years refused to sell to developers until 2015. The property is currently leased to House Conspiracy and operates as a hub for artists musicians, writers and performers. I was fortunate to participate in the first cycle of curate residents to enter the house in February 2017.
It was the peak of a Brisbane heatwave and my South African-born body was suffering. One decade after moving to Brisbane, I still struggle with the humidity. In preparation for the residency, I contacted other migrants requesting responses relating to their experiences of home and belonging. I have a vivid memory of starting to work in the studio on day one, sitting with the whirr of the skew-standing cheap Bunnings fan next to me. The unbearable heat reminded me of my foreignness, not only in this house but to this country. The physical discomfort I was experiencing seemed like an appropriate scenario to address feelings of dislocation experienced by the participants. The intention of the project was to initiate dialogue beyond my own understanding of migration. My art practice continually questions the impact migration has on my perception of home and belonging. The resolution of the project was purposefully ambiguous to allow a process of discovery to unfold. The only aspiration was to engage with the stories of other migrants and to engage with the environment.
West End is a culturally diverse suburb deeply engrained with Indigenous history. I decided to venture into the neighbourhood each day to find inspiration. I established a bit of a routine, starting my day walking through the streets and finding respite in an air-conditioned coffee shop. On one of my morning walks, I met an inspiring local who operates a non-profit restaurant that provides employment to African refugees. Over the course of three weeks, we engaged in regular conversations as I passed her by. One morning I saw her sweeping the restaurant veranda right up to the kerb. In an instant, I was transported to memories of South Africa. A practice that I had forgotten about. Back in the studio, I researched the history of yard sweeping and found it to be a daily routine in several cultures. Sweeping the entire yard each morning has practical implication but is also considered a symbolic gesture of preparing the way for the family and potential guests. In that moment I was reminded that our cultural connections are often most prominent in the simplest of actions. It remains within us, regardless how long we have been removed from our origin.
Each day I mulled over the responses from other migrants. The responses varied. Some were serious and reflective, while others just plain hilarious. At first, I was unsure how to connect these diverse experiences. How was I going to tell the story of the Israeli boy reflecting on his childhood playing with bullet casings in a compound? Then, changing direction to the comical anecdote of the British man disposing of a dead possum found on his deck shortly after arriving in Australia? I started to extract sentences from their responses, wrote them on brown paper with ink and stuck them to my studio walls. My routine of morning excursions and mulling over responses repeated for several days. At times, I felt lost. Where was this going and what is the grand finale going to be?
One day I cleared out my studio out of sheer frustration and laid on the wooden floor staring at the ceiling. My eyes drifted to each page I wrote. Although the participants had diverse backgrounds, they shared common themes. Food, mothers, childhood memories and adjustment to Australian life surfaced in most responses. I continually attempted to resolve the information I extracted. It took a completely different form than my sculptural installations I usually create. No answers appeared. Instinctively I knew that resolving these text pieces would be a forced effort and would destroy its potency. Forcing it to ripen would yield an ineffective result. However, something else also tugging at me. The morning ritual of sweeping the yard allowed deep rooted connections to place to surface. I felt compelled to include this component of my residency experience into the final exhibition. Barefoot, with a broom in hand, I swept the yard in preparation for opening night to create a filmed performance work, The Swept Yard.
The text work, Exchanging Breath was installed in my studio accompanied by a sound recording of the extracted text interpreted in a poetic tone. The audience interacted with the text works in an unexpected way. Some stood pensive, while others pointed and laughed. The Swept Yard, evoked intrigue into an unknown cultural practice. Two separate works, yet connected by a reflection on cultural connections. The process of discovery and contribution of others produced valuable departure points for new works to be created. Our creative approach is often challenged by unexpected challenges and time constraints. My adventure in the old Queenslander amidst a record-breaking heatwave infused my art practice with many new avenues to explore. A precious time shared inside this feisty old house making its presence known in an iconic Brisbane suburb.