In South Africa when people found out I was on this most epic series of travels and plane rides, and that I was going to Australia next, they said ‘Oh, you will like it. It will remind you a little of South Africa.’ I was excited by this promise. I liked Cape Town and Johannesburg – the vibe and buzz, and also the art. Maybe my expectations became too high then, but so far Sydney and Melbourne (beautiful places!) seem less exciting than I had imagined.
If one were to look for it, I guess there are the obvious similarities: South Africa and Australia are two sprawling countries in the southern hemisphere. Both countries, then, are just beginning their winters. And one is a diaspora of the other. Australia is very much where white South Africa fled to at the end of Apartheid. They needed to escape. They thought there was going to be bloodshed, though a wicked little part of me thinks they were running to the last bastion of institutionalized racism, a place where they could continue to lord it over black people. Oh, I know! I shouldn’t be so wicked! But seriously, it does seem that Australia’s attitude to non-white migration is, to put it mildly, troubling. And there is a fascination with genealogy here – everyone wanting to trace their roots back to good, British, white, criminal stock – Australia being originally a convict outpost of the British Empire.
To be fair, I have also noticed a lot of campaigns challenging these ideas of race and belonging. In Melbourne, for instance, I am staying near the Immigration Museum, and just the fact that something like this exists is clearly a wonderful thing. They have an exhibit up now in which many different faces are saying ‘I belong, do you?’ The problem is, I know the question isn’t addressed to me, but every time I pass I feel myself answering — ‘No. I do not belong here.’
In South Africa, after I had given a talk and the head of an English Department asked, half-jokingly, if I would ever think of teaching in South Africa – I surprised myself by thinking and answering yes. Yes, I actually would. In Australia when a similar question was asked, I wore that kind of nervous, stupid smile that all but says, ‘Not on your life, mate!’
I want to be fair to the place – because both Sydney and Melbourne seem to be alive with a buzz and a certain vibe. It is, of course, in my mind, the normal bustle of cities. What the place is not alive with, is art. The art here is strangely sterile. I have had so much free time in Melbourne that I have just wandered about the city as I usually do in places, and if I happen upon a gallery, I will go inside. Always I am underwhelmed. And suddenly I wonder if it has something to do with what I don’t see in this country. I don’t see much kitsch. It is a strange proposition, I know, but does ground-breaking art grow out of kitsch?
South Africa had its kitsch in abundance, let me tell you! You can just imagine it – cowry shells, wooden masks, cheap batiks of women holding children, sketches and sketches of elephants wandering across a savannah, little wooden giraffes and zebras, animal rugs and bags, and beads – so many beads! And on and on and on. A lot of it probably made in China, and the kind of things you get just as easily in Fern Gully in Jamaica.
But it seems to me that a culture of kitsch gives artists a healthy starting point. It gives artists something to reinvent, something to elevate. It gives artists colour – an interesting palette. In South Africa, a lot of things on display were kitsch, but so much was utterly exciting. I saw there, for instance, an artist by the name of Sandile Zulu. Sandile uses found bits of metal, heats them up, and burns his canvases; then he stains them with water marks, and let’s it dry in the wind. The result is astounding. It looked like nothing I had seen before, and yet it seemed to completely belong to Africa. I am told that Sandile’s next major exhibit is at the Smithsonian. If you’re there, you really should check him out.
Kitsch establishes a continuum that progresses towards ‘chic’ and then even further towards radical. But alas, there is too little kitsch in Australia. It is as if people developed a sophisticated taste all too quickly. Quite frankly, I expected more Kangaroo rugs, and boomerangs, and paintings of koala bears. Mind, it isn’t that these things aren’t here in the souvenir shops. My friend, the Cambodian-Australian writer Alice Pung even encouraged me to go out and buy a wallet made from furry kangaroo testicles. I saw one and was tempted.
But kitsch doesn’t drape Australia’s cities in the way that it drapes Cape Town or Johannesburg. And with such little kitsch, there seems to be little that is being reinvented. There is little that could be called ‘Australian chic’, or ‘Australian ground-breaking’. The ‘chic’ here is European. The art is as well – proudly British, white, probably of convict stock.