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These words by Lewis Carrell, taken from Sasi Victoire's recent exhibition, Alice in the Interface, present a stinging but alarmingly relevant allegorical reference to cultural values in contemporary Australia. What 'madness' indeed, that a society founded on colonialism and migration, has itself become so intolerant of difference, and is disturbingly self-righteous about the emergence of discriminatory culture hierarchies.
This paradox is an underpinning theme of Alice in the interface, a personal and complex visual narrative about migration, displacement and the search for personal identity in the 'interface' between cultures. In the exhibition, the familiar allegorical framework of selected illustrations and texts from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, are interspersed with family portraits and personal memorabilia to examine the artist's Indian culture heritage, her childhood in the British colony of Malaysia, and her subsequent migration to Australia as a young adult. Drawing, painting, print-making, machine embroidery, collage, applique and computer generated imagery applied to suspended panels of silk fabric, are all used to introduce events and ideas. The show's muted colours contribute to a prevailing sense of suppression throughout the exhibition.
The general effect of this use of mixed media is to create a diverse tapestry of cultural motifs representative of the artist's own experiences and transitions while moving between changing cultural boundaries, particularly the 'miscegenation' of disparate lndian/Anglo values and lifestyle. As such, Alice in the Interface presents a perspective of white Australia that has had limited previous expression in the 'Far North', despite the region's diverse cultural make up.
Entry into the circular exhibition space is through a small parting between golden-tasselled silk panels, surrounded by brightly gilded (aluminium) mango leaves, traditional Indian symbols for 'good luck'. This reference to Alice 's plunge into the White Rabbit's burrow continues with the placement of a small table immediately inside the exhibition space, displaying a sign which reads: 'drink me' and which is accompanied by four phials marked 'respect', 'love', 'compassion' and 'tolerance'. Sadly, these wistful affirmations are soon abandoned as one progresses along the exhibition story-line.
According to the accompanying catalogue, the exhibition's distinctive construction 'alludes to Indian oral traditions of [cyclic] story telling'. This also enhances a sense of intimacy, further evoked by the judicious introduction of exotic perfumes, spices and incense which are intended to help viewers access 'shared memories' of the artist's childhood. One cannot help but wonder if the closed circle and inward focus is not also intended to reflect the cultural insularity and sense of exclusion obviously experienced by the artist as a non-Anglo migrant to Australia. The first series of panels (each separately titled and numbered), introduces the artist's family tree and initial experiences of 'home, a warm and fuzzy myth ... where the realm of memories ... provides a sense of security where none exists'. They also introduce three key images of the artist: an illustration of the young colonised 'Aiice ' of Wonderland (reproduced from Lewis Carrell's story), her alter ego, a drawing of the 'exotic' Alice of Kerala, Southern India, and a third, more disquieting photographic image of Victoire as a young, wide-eyed child with what appears to be an immigration identity code stamped across her chest. These images each reappear at intervals throughout the exhibition and emphasise the ultimately unresolved theme of defining personal identity within a changing social context. 'Who in the World am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle', we are told.
Identity Crisis (panel 10) documents the initial shock of emigration, when the reality of change so often does not match up with long hoped for dreams and expectations. 'So she sat with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again and all would change to dull reality.'
It is interesting to note that from this point in the exhibition, a rope links subsequent panels and has attached to it, letters, text, names and pieces of paisley fabric contributed by the artist's friends, commenting on the nature of their relationships. This metaphor for the 'threads of friendship' at once highlights the importance of individual relationships in providing a 'life-line' and validation of self, when as a migrant, aspects of one's own identity are submerged, even rendered anonymous, by a dominant 'other' culture.
Victoire holds no punches in the following panels addressing Australia's so-called multicultural policies. In Multiculture we are greeted by a cigarette ad (circa 1950s), featuring a row of unnervingly crude caricatures of non-Angle migrants, underneath which is an illustration of the white rabbit dressed as herald, with the words 'multicultural policy' hanging from his trumpet and a 'citizenship certificate' in his paw. In the very next panel 'One nation and the Queen of Hearts' who (in Queensland), could fail to recognise the reference to Pauline Hanson in the illustration of the Queen, pointing to Alice in a trembling rage and shouting: 'Off with her head! '. Mad Hatter offers a more oblique comment on government (arts?) funding policy, implying that racism is often entrenched and sometimes naively well-intentioned, rather than overtly suppressive. Wearing his 'multicultural' top hat, the Mad Hatter is depicted pleading with the hierarchy, 'I can go no lower ... I'm on the ground as it is'.
A reassuring touch and perhaps an appeal for reconciliation in the wake of this confrontational 'mirror' of contemporary Australian values, is the inclusion of a panel featuring rows of small pockets into which viewers are invited to place a signed tea bag; a small but compelling gesture which adds an interactive aspect to the exhibition.
The final panel entitled Footsteps, offers a somewhat unconvincing, or perhaps premature conclusion to the exhibition, particularly in view of the crescendo of emotions and issues presented and which are left far from resolved. Printed underneath a pair of tiny, worn Indian (attached to the panel), we read : ' .. and home we steer, a merry crew beneath the setting sun'. This is either more biting irony or a return to the opening's wistful, but, thus far, unrealized optimism. Perhaps 'the road goes ever on' (Tolkein), would be more apt closing phrase, as there is little sense of merry camaraderie and one feels that the artist's personal quest for identity is likewise unresolved.
Sasi Victoire's show exhibits courage and out-spokenness about issues which certainly opened my eyes. Perhaps the precedent initiated by Alice in the Interface will lead to further dialogue and debate about cross-cultural issues here in Far North Queensland, a region which is home to over fifty-seven different, yet still largely 'hidden', cultures.