By KIERAN FINNANE
In the Javanese city of Jogjakarta, where Akiq Abdul Wahid comes from, “everything happens in the street”. In Alice Springs, he has noticed, the street is a place for getting to what is happening.
If there’s something to observe in the street – apart from our mostly lack-lustre urban environment – it’s the social tension. This has meant that the artist, who works with photography, video and installation, has not photographed people – “because I still don’t understand”.
Akiq (pictured) has been here for two months, a guest on an exchange residency program put together by the University of Melbourne’s Asialink, Cemeti Art House (in Jogjakarta) and Artback NT, with local support from Araluen Arts Centre, Watch This Space and Charles Darwin University.
A show of Akiq’s photographs at Watch This Space is one of the exchange’s fruits. At least one other is the connection now between the contemporary art scenes of our small town and ‘Jogja’, a city of more than three million inhabitants.
Given the contrasting sizes of the two, it is interesting that Akiq, as a motorcyclist, was at first unnerved by the traffic, finding it “very fast” – he puts this down to everyone “knowing the road rules”.
He has also noted the time pressure in people’s lives: “People here are very busy,” he says, suggesting that people’s relationship to time is the greatest “border” between them.
Border is the title of his exhibition. His eye alive to the detail that expresses his theme, he shows a lot of the hard face of Alice – the gridded and fenced spaces, the multiplicity of ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ signs – and then the overlooked or forgotten traces of something softer, more vulnerable.
If he has found the social tension between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people “frustrating” and something that people are “afraid to talk about”, he has distilled it in an acutely observed image of a clamp bonding layers of metal to a dot painting. Locals will recognise in the image one of the dot-painted rubbish bins, whose unfortunate connotations and poor production (not of the paintings but the bins themselves as a surface for them) have lead to their steady demotion in the hierarchy of objects in the town centre.
Akiq has also made a number of images at the edges of the town, where it meets the surrounding bushland. At times the view is wide, encompassing something of the landscape’s grandeur relative to puny human-made intrusions. At other times, the view is in tight on the ragged border between the two, where control gives way to the haphazard: the forgotten work glove on the buffel-infested verge; the cluster of winged leaves – or are they tiny moths? – around the bottle top cast aside on the hard-baked track; the valiant bush that seems to be drawing its struggle onto the corrugated fence at its back.
This work accomplished in Alice has its antecedents in work in his own city. There Akiq is part of the Mes 56 collective, formed in 2002 to disseminate ideas about and produce photo-based art. Parallels with the artist-initiated Watch This Space are obvious but it was interesting to hear that 12 years down the track Mes 56 remains a self-funded enterprise: premises and program are supported by the artists at their day jobs.
The collective has a strong social change and outreach agenda. For instance, one of the early workshops offered by the all-male group was focussed on involving more young women in the arts – there are apparently few female practising artists in Jogja. The collective have since re-visited the focus in their steady program of workshops and residencies as well as curated shows and visiting exhibitions.
Infrastructure is lagging – the gallery spaces Akiq showed at his artist’s talk were adapted from other uses (as is Watch This Space, of course) – “but there’s still a lot happening, a lot of interest”. He put this down at least in part to a high proportion of students in the population and a cosmopolitan mix, Jogja being easily accessible from cities like Beijing and Singapore. A post on Facebook is all that is needed to get a strong turnout, whether for an informal discussion or participation in a project.
This is not say that everyone is on board. There’s quite an age gap – the over-40s are not engaged or else opposed – as well as a culture gap. Akiq’s own father, whom he described as a “radical Muslim”, rejects any representation of the human form, and will not display Akiq’s work in his home. The collective is roughly half Muslim, half Christian, but this does not reflect the population mix, where Muslims are in the majority.
Little wonder then at Akiq’s sensitivity to borders, those zones where ordinary people struggle, and sometimes prevail, in face of greater forces – political regimes, natural disasters, popular culture, urban development; where the survival of the natural world too is in constant play.
Into these zones in Jogja an artist from Alice Springs will soon venture, Akiq hopes. He’ll be talking about Asialink residency opportunities this Thursday evening, 5.30pm at the Old Courthouse (home to Film NT). An Asialink representative will also be present.
Border shows at Watch This Space till this Saturday.
By KIERAN FINNANE