[This article was first published in print in issue 1 of sugarcane in July 2017, which was made possible by the generous financial support of the Fryer Library, University of Queensland; School of Communication and Arts, UQ; UQ Art Museum; and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, UQ.]
We all have demons. 1996 saw Prime Minister John Howard introduce us to a new kind of demon: “illegal” refugees. Unlike those before who arrived on boats, fleeing persecution, these new “illegals” were “queue-jumpers.” Since this fateful rhetoric entered public discourse in 1996, immigration has become one of the most hotly contended of popular political debates. Explicit cultural anxieties surround the imagined guileful intruder who deliberately arrives in Australia without documentation to evade discovery. In reality, however, the new and elusive Australian dream for those seeking refuge is the promise of permanency: a passport proving one’s legitimate place in Australia.
Passports seek to confirm nationality and identity—they validate one’s existence in an era of geopolitical crisis. It is in the pages of the passport that contemporary social and political identities are written. In Afghani-Australian artist Khadim Ali’s The Arrivals #4 (2016) watercolour, gouache, and gold leaf are combined to provide a nuanced vision of immigration in the twenty-first century. Ali has painstakingly enlarged the minute visual codes seen on passport pages, creating intricate patterns coded with transnational meanings. At the top of the work eucalyptus leaves and flowers are rendered in a pattern of tightly bound blue circles—in the top right, mimicking the purposefully unreproducible visual cyphers of passports, is a lizard whose dark grey-blue body is dissected by expanding concentric circles.
Along the left edge is a seemingly infinite, slightly curved field of text: DEPORT DEPORT DEPORT DEPORT. There is rich irony in Ali’s replacing of the legitimising word—“passport”—with a word that signals a verdict of illegitimacy—“deport.” In fact, Ali’s large-scale passport page thrives on the tensions between legitimacy and illegitimacy, and citizenship and statelessness. The visual codes that adorn passports as marks of legitimate documentation—like the heterogeneous patterns on physical currency—are contrasted with the more figurative scene painted into the foreground. If the passport’s visual codes are signals of legitimacy, then the visual insurgency of the six benevolent demons is communicated to us as an illegitimate presence in the visual field. It is for its legitimising security that the passport has become the new Australian dream.
Those fleeing political and environmental terrors are demonised in the Australian political arena: a situation presented by Khadim Ali’s benevolent demon figures at the centre of The Arrivals #4. Forced to flee from the demons of a country or region in crisis, asylum seekers and refugees are doubly tormented: they are forced to flee from demons, and in doing so are themselves demonised. Intricately painted atop the passport page, the expressions of Ali’s six bearded demons are docile and contemplative. Two kneeling figures console a third fallen figure, whose body rests on a patch of vegetation. They gently tend to the supine demon whose angelic wings, unlike those watching over, appear to have fallen. Behind these shirtless brown-skinned figures stand three blue demons. Their bodies materialise from an ether of pale gouache and they stand looking down at the scene below. The prostrate and wingless demon resting on the bed of foliage is daydreaming after a long and tumultuous journey and remembering those lost along the way. The surrounding winged spirits don’t haunt the resting figure, they watch over him. The two other brown figures kneeling beside him speak to lives lost—lost to the persecutions that caused him to flee, the ordeal of fleeing itself, and indefinite detention. The blue demons more overtly allude to other spiritual planes through their colour—ancestral and spiritual guardians.
Yet these demons present no malevolent threat. They are gentle, refuting claims of terror. As the print of the page seeps through parts of the demons, fusing them with the document, they become Australian. Floating above them is an elliptical cloud of red hand-scribed Arabic characters, weaving amongst the surrounding gum leaves. Today the pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalists has poisoned Western visions of all Arabic culture, but in The Arrivals #4 Khadim Ali has subtly suggested unity: the red Arabic script weaves amongst blue and yellow-gold gum leaves. The formal utilisation of the unity and cohesion of the primary colours here suggests a coming together of cultures, a peaceful place where our wing-less demons can rest and be at ease.
About the author: Hilary Thurlow wrote her Honours at UQ on oral history and archives in contemporary art.