• Dr. Kelsey Ashe

Australian Inter-Culturalism; Hybridity, Diversity and Globalisation

Updated: Dec 26, 2021

[Excerpt – Imaginary Aesthetic Territories, 2018. PhD Thesis] I examine the source of my cross-cultural fascination, namely, traditional Japanese design, and track the emergence and influence of inter-cultural and Japanese arts on Australian material culture and identity.

The encroachment of bland globalisation and erosion of distinctive diversity in design was identified and commented upon in 1955 by Victor Segalen in Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity when he proposed that exoticism[1]could ‘protect contemporary life from the relentless banality wrought by the transformation of capitalism’ (Harootunian 2002, vii). Segalen’s essay was an early consideration of colonialism and alterity, and the processes of contact between cultures. He recognised the ontological value in exoticism, seeing it as a way to preserve that which he saw to be humanity’s most precious possession; its diversity. He defined exoticism by the sensation and charm of difference and its ability to instil visual pleasure, to ‘revitalise and beautify everything’ (Segalen 2002, 19). Segalen died before his essay was complete; however, it was published in 2002 and recent attention to Segalen in a range of fields, including post-modern sociology, post-colonialism, literary criticism and anthropology, indicates his role as a theorist is of contemporary relevance (Forsdick 2011). I have found his theories useful, particularly in relation to my final works of creative practice for this project.

Orientalism has helped designers to understand the need to avoid essentialising cultures; however, what is helpful in Segalen’s essay is the consideration of how to use the visual pleasure of the motif to preserve aspects of diversity and not lose them altogether. This idea is evident when considering Jenny Kee’s approach in the 1970s and ’80s where ‘exoticism in her work was evident … through ethnic pastiche’ (English 2010, 87); a purposeful seeking of the unique in Australian symbols which teased out the colours, motifs and patterns that represented a distinctly Australian sensibility, constructed into new forms and conserved through design. In this sense, Kee has been extremely influential to my practice, not necessarily in terms of what she produced, but in her creative thinking.

The contradictory forces of desiring to depict the diversity of fused cultures even as they seem to be blended into sameness suggests that the consequences of cultural globalisation could result in either homogenisation or, its opposite, heterogenisation. This indicates that the Western desire to depict aspects of the exotic as a method of preserving diversity could do the complete opposite – blurring cultural interpretations into an indistinct mass. This theory presents uncomfortable contradictions for the artist interested in ‘other’ cultures if in fact that very interest or yearning for the cultural ‘other’ accelerates the erosion of world cultures through the process of globalisation (P. Burke 2009).

Anthropologist Johnathan Freidman asserts that identity of a culture can be mapped within territorial boundaries and defined within a ‘place’ as distinct from ‘another place’ (Friedman, quoted in Papastergiadis 2005, 50). In this way, cultural identity is seen to be deeply fixed in landscape and geography. Friedman argues that once the cultural producer (artist/designer/writer, for example) drifts outside those borders, the resulting new hybrid creations are paradoxically ‘lacking authenticity’ and part of the force that is ‘attacking traditional and national cultures’ (Friedman, quoted in Papastergiadis 2005, 50). This problematic narrative leaves no space for the negotiation of cultural difference or interaction, and this narrow view would be at the expense of a wide variety of cultural forms and result in the possibility of whole societies being fixed and atrophying, unable to flourish.

These paradoxical and contradictory forces are difficult to navigate when attempting to locate a position for art practice. Professor Nikos Papastergiadis calls for an urgency in developing a new model for understanding the effects and processes inherent to hybridity. In ‘Hybridity and Ambivalence: Places and Flows in Contemporary Art and Culture’ (2005) he contends that scholars have not provided a philosophical framework for artists to organise their ideas and make sense of their experiences and desires, particularly for diasporic and indigenous artists. An alternative to either fixity or mobility in contemporary culture needs to be defined that allows creative producers to reference instances of cultural alterity. As ‘artists were carefully and imaginatively working with the complex symbols that circulate in everyday life, developing new ways to combine traditional and contemporary media, and teasing out the survival of cultural ideas in alien contexts’ (Papastergiadis 2005, 39), there have also been criticisms that these new visible forms of fusion are neutralising the subordinate culture. How, then, is an artist to dodge these censures, to understand alien cultures? Contemporary artists are consistently moving across boundaries or engaged with issues not solely tied to their locales or places of birth, which propels a continuous examination of the conditions of belonging and points of difference. This quotation by Papastergiadis is apt;

Critics who expect indigenous artists to confine their cultural imagination to the territorial boundaries and ancestral techniques of their homelands will be forever disappointed and disapproving of hybridity. (Papastergiadis 2005, 43)

Papastergiadis outlines points which help to level the field of competing discourses, providing a new starting point for discussion. Firstly, that there is no way of going back and gluing together first nations’ ‘authentic culture’ decimated by colonialism. Secondly, there is also no way of addressing or balancing out the perceived dominating force of Western hegemony because horizontal forms of exchange are occurring rapidly which are entirely impossible to pause. Thirdly, nations cannot ‘wait to play catch up’ to have the equivalent power required to stand in equal terms with their dominator. Instead, a ‘new common humanity’ is proposed as an urgent task of ‘rebuilding a new kind of universalism’ in an age which is undoubtedly and irrevocably multi-cultural and multi-faceted (2005, 58). It is a Utopian vision, but one that at least makes possible a position to interact and respond to cultural interaction through art. For Australian artists interested in hybridity, it may be helpful to think more along terms of a universal humanity, or at the very least an Australasian[2] one. Hybridity can reveal how diverse cultural forms and symbols of one society can be ‘reconfigured as they are internalised by different people’ (2005, 43). For myself, I am Australian born[3], although I lived for several years in Polynesia and have travelled extensively in Asia. Australia, for me, is a geographical crossroad of these areas and accordingly that is translated into my artwork; it is the outward manifestation of this ‘internalisation’ posited by Papastergiadis.

Cultural exchange is a process that has been occurring for centuries, not just in the form of art and design, but in syncretic religions, eclectic philosophies, languages, cuisine, architecture, music and, of course, people. It is a necessary unfolding and one that would be impossible to halt. Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge Peter Burke (2009) points out that no single culture can remain pure. He also outlines that there will always be negative and positive attitudes towards hybridisation. In the process of fusing cultural symbols, some things can be lost in the process of hybridisation (P. Burke 2009), but so, too, can new things be formed.

Whilst notions of national identity are constantly being constructed, a nationally distinct imagery is most often recognised or defined by depictions of landscape and symbols which are inhabitant to it.

In view of my desire to avoid both negative associations of Australiana/Appropriation and globalised neutrality in my design and art work, I have reviewed contemporary forms of inter-cultural Australian Art and Design and introduced theories from Victor Segalen who proposes the adoption of an exoticism that seeks points of unique difference, and Nikos Papastergiadis who advocates an approach of humane universalism. I have suggested that embracing an ‘Australasian’ vantage point when creating hybrid cultural art forms may be helpful.

[1] Scholar Alden Jones defines exoticism in art and literature as the representation of one culture for consumption by another. (Oshinsky 2004). Exoticism is not a movement necessarily associated with a particular time period or culture (such as orientalism). Exoticism is often linked with fantasies of opulence and may take the form of primitivism or ethnocentrism. [2] In 1877 Marcus Clarke coined the term ‘Australasia’. Encouraged by groups of neo-imperialist British-Australian visionaries who imagined the vast area from the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand as a new empire (Willis 1993). Proposals for the ideal of Australasia began in the early 1800s; however, early settler hostility towards Asia quashed the idea. Physiographically and geopolitically, Australasia is now defined as New Zealand, Australia (including Tasmania) and Melanesia, namely, Papua New Guinea and neighbouring islands north and east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean.

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