Dismantling The Australian Dream: How contemporary art can spark social change

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Words || Alicia Scott

‘The Australian dream is rooted in racism. It is the very foundation of the dream, it is there at the birth of the nation, it is there in terra nullius: an empty land, a land for the taking.’

In October 2015, Indigenous journalist and commentator Stan Grant stated these words as part of The Ethics Centre’s IQ2 debate on whether racism is destroying the Australian dream. On the eve of January 26 this year, his powerful speech began circulating through Facebook newsfeeds and media headlines across the country.

Stan’s speech went viral for a good reason; an eloquent, affluent Indigenous man was reiterating the same message that has been maintained by our First Nations peoples since British invasion, only this time non-Indigenous Australia was paying attention.

The Australian dream is based around the idea that home ownership and everything that comes with it – the car, the kids, and the career – is a marker of success, security and happiness. It’s an aspiration that is drilled into White Australia from a young age through advertising, mainstream media, and probably your parents. And while as a society it is important to discuss why it now costs first homebuyers nine times their annual income to afford a house, there is a huge cultural dilemma that non-Indigenous Australians need to address.

“the privilege of building a successful life in a western nation is only possible through centuries of violence, racism, and systemic oppression towards Indigenous peoples.”

The prosperous Australian dream is largely a privileged myth that has been established through the effacing of Indigenous culture, land, and practices. That white picket fence serves a symbol of colonial Australia and a reminder that the privileges of earning a wage and building a successful life in a western nation are only possible through centuries of violence, racism, and systemic oppression towards Indigenous peoples.

This is an uncomfortable yet necessary part of a wider conversation White Australia needs to have in order to take responsibility and ensure subtle and overt racism does not continue to prevail.

Newcastle artist Dale Collier has contributed to this conversation with his latest exhibition titled ‘Racist & Rooted: Dismantling the Australian Dream’ at Watt Space Gallery. Using a range of mediums including canvas, video and acrylic, Dale aims to explore the complex tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, as well as interrogate the themes behind the rise of state nationalism.

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Image courtesy of Dale Collier, www.dalecollier.com.

‘Art just seems the most fertile ground for exploring the illusion of this collective Australian Dream … I work with artefacts, social objects and popular culture in an attempt to reveal some of the cultural biases held by so-called advocates of change. It’s about looking for new ways to interrogate nationalism through the subversion of that brand of Australian identity,’ Dale explains.

In terms of young people being locked out of the housing market, Dale sees the idea of ‘owning’ land that was never ceded by First Nations peoples as extremely problematic. He puts forward, ‘the idea of owning land is preposterous in my eyes; it brings about so many cultural complexities that should be addressed long before considering any financial concerns. Yet it still is a common aspiration … unattainable for most.’

Dale’s exhibition coincided with the aftermath of the Federal Election, which saw One Nation’s Pauline Hanson re-elected in the Senate after receiving nine per cent of Queensland’s vote, a huge step backwards for socially progressive politics.

‘I was lucky and unlucky that things folded out the way they did [with the election] but overall my work gained substance with the amplification of these issues that arose post-election with Hanson’s comeback,’ Dale admits.

“Hanson’s policies are a manifestation of Australia’s deeply rooted racism.”

In her parliamentary maiden speech delivered in September 1996, Hanson warned that the (white) Australian dream was threatened from being ‘swamped by Asians’ and that Indigenous Australians experienced more privilege than ‘ordinary Australians’ due to watered-down advancements in land rights. Today, it is Australian Muslims that suffer most from her framework of ‘othering’ specific minority groups against the white norm.

Hanson’s policies are a manifestation of Australia’s deeply rooted racism, which is something that an increasing number of contemporary artists are exploring through the lens of decolonisation. Indigenous Australian contemporary artists Richard Bell and Gordon Bennett (who passed away in 2014) are two big names that continue to influence artists’ approaches to cross-cultural art practices.

Richard Bell’s ‘Pay the Rent’ (2009) canvas interrogates the core of the Australian dream and demands colonial Australia to pay back rent to Indigenous peoples for occupying Indigenous land. Similarly, in his latest exhibition Dale incorporates colloquial phrases including ‘Not For Sale’ and ‘Buy Me Dinner Pay My Mortgage’ into close cell foam. And while these renowned artists have influenced his approach in exploring Australia’s cultural volatility, Dale is frequently inspired by social interactions with contemporary artists in Newcastle’s dynamic art scene.

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Richard Bell, Pay the Rent, 2009. http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/203.2010.a-b/

Dale says, ‘A lot of the inspiration for this show came from my engagements with the abundance of artists and curators challenging Australian culture at a local level – Una Rey, Adam Geczy, Adam Hill, Tess Allas, to name a few. Newcastle has really jumped on board with cross-cultural engagement in art. Our regional institutions are shifting social norms and that’s something I really want to contribute to.’

Above all else, Dale positions his interdisciplinary art in a wider framework of political activism and sees the potential for art to help create a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to tackle injustice in a country that remains deeply divided.

As an advocate for socially engaged practice, Dale asserts: ‘Whether it is in contemporary art, music, politics or sport, I see participation as a key element in activating social change. What I’m interested in is a space between the perspectives of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. How can we deal with the clash of these cultures to better represent collective progressive values? Is it even possible?’

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Image courtesy of Dale Collier, www.dalecollier.com.

As a person who was born into a position of privilege, Dale acknowledges his own biases when discussing racial and cultural tensions while recognising the voices of First Nations peoples and minority groups should be at the forefront of discussion.

He professes, ‘I’m a typical straight white [cis] male. I’m the product of colonisation. I’m the beneficiary of a violent and fraudulent western account of Australian history. No, I’m not proud of it. No ancestors, governments or Gods can ever bring undone the weighted pain of the past, but I feel like we can try to redirect the future. I’m always learning how to expose these ideas effectively through art.

‘Racist & Rooted: Dismantling the Australian Dream’ is Dale’s latest instalment that forms part of his PhD research where he is investigating the potentiality for decolonised practice to mediate Australia’s neglected histories.

Dale remains optimistic but realistic as we witness a rise in nationalism, specifically in regional towns, the continuation of indefinite detention of refugees, and the torturous incarceration of Indigenous boys in the Northern Territory under a system that is truly failing.

Dale says, ‘There is so much unlearning to be done and resetting of so many things that White Australia has maintained for centuries as the beneficiaries of oppression. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if decolonisation is the ideal … a generational change needs to happen where it’s approached differently. I would love to be able to contribute to that discussion or maybe just challenge a few people here and there that are within my audience reach to think differently.’