Review: School of Arts and Social Sciences photographic mural

photographic mural for the new School of Arts and Social Sciences

School of Arts and Social Sciences photographic mural

Commissioned Artist: Ili Farhana

Review: Julian C. H. Lee

Installed 25 July 2008

The photographic mural for the new School of Arts and Social Sciences is a powerfully expressive and engaging work. On the left we are greeted by the minor panel, backgrounded in black. We are presented with a set of images that refer to an array of forms of human expression and movement. These range from the political forms of expression and protest, through to advertisements, down to the basic expressions of the human face captured in the girl and her sister looking at the camera.

In the lower half, we find two of the three quotations that engage us in this work. The first is from Dr Jose Rizal, an enormously important figure deserving of attention, and a Southeast Asian. He was a writer, poet, teacher, patriot and visionary whose ultimate sacrifice became a clarion call for the first revolution of national liberation in Asia. His quote simultaneously makes an important point, referring to the role that people may play in contributing to the world, while, with the unidentified “It” with which the quote begins, causing the viewer to consider who or what it is, only to discover that it is ourselves.d _ Mural third piece

To the right of Rizal, and one of humanity’s most powerful symbols, the tree, we have Emma Goldman. Goldman was an advocate of free-thinking and fought in the early 20th century against the constrictions placed upon her as a woman. She remains an important figure for her contributions to political philosophy and as an promoter of women’s rights. For a school that has such a high proportion of female students, this early pioneer is an appropriate voice. Her quote is also especially apt, as the School of Arts and Social Sciences is indeed about promoting understanding through knowledge long before judgment, if, indeed, judgment is ever to take place.

To the right, a lighter backgrounded montage visits modes of human existence and being. It also makes reference to one of the principle issues that this panel also attempts to address – and an issue regarded as critical to the rigorous conduct of social sciences – that is, the issue of the “subject position”. The subject position is an acknowledgement of where an investigation is coming from, in terms of who the investigator is and what relationship she has with the subject she is investigating. Thus, from the start, the panel is framed by a quintessentially Malaysian scene, that of mee goreng (“fried noodles”) being prepared by a roadside vendor. And behind him is a quiet reference to the suburban location of Monash University.

e _ Mural fourth pieceTo the right of the stall holder is a scene which speaks of a process that is central to globalization – a key concern of the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University – that of hybridization and the side-by-side-ness (if I may) of otherwise ostensibly separated realms. In this case, we see references to Muslim and Chinese-traditional religious worship – with the image of the mosque dome and the Chinese temple. And beside this again, is the image of two young girls, both dressed in the familiar baju kurung, one Chinese and one Malay (recapitulating the theme in the scene before) in a gleeful innocent embrace, symbolizing the humanity’s ability to transcend ethnic and religious divides, and pointing to life as it is lived – in harmony – rather than as it is so often portrayed – in conflict.

And it is worth noting that, behind the two girls there is an easy-to-miss and tactful reference to another aspect of life as it is lived in Malaysia – the mall, in this case, Sunway Pyramid.

Panning further to the right, we find other scenes that are more ambiguous in their origin. Are they from Malaysia, or the Americas, or Africa, or parts of Europe? The ambiguity of these scenes again, points to another aspect of our globalizing world, the convergence and similarity of symbols, landscapes and objects.

Beneath these ambiguous scenes are two more powerful lines. The first, presented by a line of demonstrators – who could be from anywhere in the world – states that “We will not close our eyes”. While this may appear to be a protest, there are different levels at which this line speaks. The first is that university is about learning (ancaro imparo indeed!). What Monash University aspires to do is not just impart facts, but impart paradigms, develop ways of understanding, and making shifts in worldviews. The experience of this is often expressed in the phrase, “My eyes have been opened”. A second level on which this phrase works is that, in addition to bearing witness, it also speaks of the necessity to keep one’s eyes open even when one might wish to shut them. Truths can be uncomfortable and confronting, but must not be ignored. Whether they are truths about one’s self, or about the world in which we live, the arts and social sciences deals aspires to truth without fear or favour.

In the last quotation, we have a line which may be a necessary one for our world today. It emanates from the eminent French existentialist philosopher who spoke it after the most disastrous human conflict in humanity’s history, the Second World War. This line, “One need not have hope in order to undertake one’s work”, needs to be remembered in an age where adolescents and young adults are so often characterized by a sense of hopelessness, a sense that they are unable to affect the world around them. Jean-Paul Sartre told his audience, rocked by the Second World War, that in spite of whatever odds we as humans might be confronted with – and indeed the lot of the Allies did seem hopeless at times – we must nevertheless do what is right.

Finally, framing the right-hand side of the panel, we have references to communications, and journalism, another core part of the School of Arts and Social Sciences. Above the film-maker, we have a broadcast tower. While such a broadcast tower may seem cold, electronic, and in itself silent, we see emanating from it a flock of birds. Birds have in human history been highly symbolic, and they have been long associated with the transmission of messages – from falcons to carrier pigeons. Here we have the most powerful avian symbol in alchemy, the raven, transforming from electromagnetic waves into life, life that spreads throughout the world, and transforms it. As they fly back across the mural, they bring it to a close, reconnecting the pieces, bringing it full cycle.