A unique artistic sensibility

Migrants have made a significant impact on the arts in Australia and they are arguably the reason we have a unique artistic sensibility that incorporates aspects of indigenous, anglo-celtic and migrant culture.

Arts academic Dr Ian Pringle says that without the input of migrants, Australia’s artistic life would be anchored more closely to British and American zeitgeists.

“In the English speaking world, Australia comes fourth or fifth when it comes to artistic and cultural weight,” Dr Pringle said.

He said that migrants in the art have given Australia a point of difference in the arts.

“The fact we have so many migrants here has really created something unique. We obviously have talented people who have come here as migrants but also the whole story of migration has been fertile subject matter for the arts,” Dr Pringle said.

Through this diverse array of talents, with influences from all over the world, Australia has become a nation which has much more to offer than a culture rooted in vegemite and ‘shrimps on barbie’.

Anh Do has cemented himself as an Aussie favourite over the years by becoming a household name through his involvement in television series Thank God You’re Here and Good News Week, along with his contributions to the Australian literary, stand-up and art scenes.

However, behind the smiling face is a story not many Australians know. In 1980 Do and his family fled the country they called home in order to escape the two decade long Vietnam War.

The Vietnamese-born author, actor, comedian and artist arrived in Australia after a five day trip in a leaky fishing boat, nine and a half metres long and two metres wide, packed with 40 fellow Vietnamese refugees.

During the trip the boat was attacked by not one, but two lots of pirates who stole their engines and would have left them for dead if they had not flung the gallon of water on board. Finally they were rescued by a German Merchant ship.

In his 2010 autobiography The Happiest Refugee, Do tells this story of how he got to Australia, and contrary to the title it is not necessarily a happy tail.

The Happiest Refugee has won Do many awards, including the 2011 Australian Book of the Year, Biography and Newcomer of the Year, and Indie Book of the Year Award (2011).

But it wasn’t always the arts that Do wanted to pursue as a career; behind his belt is a dual business law degree from the University of Technology Sydney.

It’s not an easy thing when after years of study and debt collection you decide to change your career path to something completely different.

Instead of taking any of the 60-plus hours a week jobs he was offered in law, he opted for a career in stand-up comedy instead.

Now he chooses to focus on his art, becoming a finalist in the Archibald Prize in 2014 and 2017. Do has become a smiling face many Australia’s have come to know and love.

Many other migrant artists have come difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Osamah Sami is another migrant who was forced to leave his home country due to dangerous circumstances but has made light out of unfortunate events with his new life in Australia.

He is contributing to Australia’s cultural diversity in a number of influential ways as an award winning actor, writer, director, comedian and spoken word artist.

Iranian-born Sami is the star and writer behind the Australian film Ali’s Wedding –shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Don McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Mrs Doubtfire), under the helm of award-winning director Jeffrey Walker (Modern Family, Dance Academy).

Sami’s screenplay earned him an Australian Academy Award, an Australian Writers Guild Award along with multiple film critic awards.

In-line with his writing is his memoir, Good Muslim Boy, which not only earned him multiple literary awards, but he has also adapted the book for the stage through Malthouse Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company.

What the memoir and now screen play outlines, however, is the undoubtedly traumatic events that led to his family fleeing of Iran to find refuge in Australia.

At just 13, Sami and his family fled war-torn Iran to Australia in search of a better life. In his memoir Good Muslim Boy Sami intertwines warm, often comic and relatable scenes of family life and cross-cultural misunderstandings in Melbourne suburbia with moments of sudden, shocking violence from which they fled in Iran.

A public execution, a suicide, a death of a young sibling when the family home was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war are just some of the tragic events Sami lived through.

Even though life in Australia was a welcome change for the family, living in Melbourne’s suburbs was not so easy for Sami after 9/11 – and sharing his first name with the most wanted terrorist in the world didn’t help.

Migrants’ contributions to Australia’s cultural and art scene have not been limited to the last two decades. Australia has become a representation of hope, a new life and safety for migrants for over a century, and consequently has seen many talents arrive on our shores to enhance our cultural landscape.

Mirka Mora was born in Paris in 1928, and since coming to Australia the 1950s the visual artist has contributed significantly to the development of contemporary art and culture in Australia.

In 1942 Mora and her family were arrested during the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv – a Nazi round up of Jews in Paris.

Her father managed to arrange for her and her mother’s release from the concentration camp at Pithiviers (Loiret) just before they were scheduled to be deported to Auschwitz. The family managed to evade arrest and deportation from 1942-1945 by hiding in the forests of France.

Having survived the holocaust, in 1951 Mora and her husband (whom she had met after the war) decided to migrate to Australia and found themselves in Melbourne, thanks to Mora’s research.

It wasn’t long before the Mora’s became key figures in the development of Melbourne’s cultural scene.

Her husband Georges became an influential art dealer and gallery owner and the family helped introduced European-style dining to Melbourne, opening three of Melbourne’s most famous cafes: The Mirka Café, Café Balzac (the first Melbourne restaurant to receive a 10pm liquor licence) and Tolarno – all of which soon because focal points for Melbourne’s bohemian subculture, where the couple were known to feed and home artists.

Consequently, their social circle was immense and included many Australian artists such as Ian Sime, Charles Blackman, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester.

Most memorable though was their close friendship with renowned arts patrons John and Sunday Reed and spent many holidays at their famous home and artists’ colony ‘Heide’ (now the beloved Heide Museum of Modern Art).

It has been argued that Mora’s history and cultural influence kicked off Melbourne’s cultural boom – transforming it from a quiet, provincial town to the sophisticated multicultural city it is known for today.

Not only was it through prominent art galleries, cafes and restaurants throughout Melbourne and their elite artistic social circle, but also through Mora’s own art.

The artist’s multiple public works including mosaic murals at Flinders Street Station and St Kilda Pier and a painted tram have helped enliven the city – along with a collaboration with local clothing brand Gorman to produce a line of clothing loved by many Australians.

Mora, perhaps above all others, is the artistic embodiment migrant have made to Australia.

By Portia Conyers-East