Sha Sarwari’s National Icon

I’ve written before about serendipity, and how often I experience moments of it. Today, being World Refugee Day, is no exception. I’ve just had the work of Brisbane-based photographer Sha Sarwari brought to my attention, specifically his work National Icon. 

A finalist in the 2015 Churchie Art Prize, the photographic work depicts the artist, an Australian-Afghani refugee, lying on the beach in a red life jacket, positioned a manner that appropriates Max Dupain’s Sunbaker 1937 – which…drumroll…I wrote about earlier this morning. The following exegesis of Sarwari’s image is taken from blog Artists in Contemporary Society because, frankly, they’ve done a great job analysing it!

“Riddled with open-endedness, is it unclear whether the subject is dead or alive; whether he has just been recused or is in need of rescue; or whether he has been welcomed by Australian society or is instead an icon of national contempt. Through appropriating Max Dupain’s Sunbaker, Sawari challenges established notions of Australian identity as well as explores the Australian refugee experience.

Max Dupain’s Sunbaker has been seen to epitomise all that is Australian, however Sawari questions the legitimacy of the image. He reminds us that the sunkissed Anglo-Saxon is not only the type of Australian. He also highlights the Australian which is understood to be easily going, friendly, welcoming and relaxed in Dupain’s Sunbaker, can be in fact hostile and racist towards refugees.

Despite overturning the Australian stereotype contained in Dupain’s Sunbaker, Sawari’s work also serves to highlight that this stereotype remains one of hope for many people seeking refuge in Australia. He also draws attention to the fact that while the beach in Dupain’s work is a representative of a place of leisure, it is in fact a place extreme risk, a place of life and death for people fleeing from persecution by boat.

Sarwari’s National Icon builds on Anne Zahalka’s The Sunbather #2 1989 and Dianne Jones Sunbaker 2003, works which have also appropriated Dupain’s Sunbaker to enable a broader and more genuine understanding of Australian identity. National Icon also  importantly enables a greater understanding of the refugee experience, an understanding which has become even more critical given the recent Syrian refugee crisis.”

With artists like Ai Wei Wei and Ben Quilty now frequently utilising the discarded refugee life jackets as a motif for the global refugee emergency, Sarwari’s National Icon has an added layer of potency that strikes at the heart of Australia’s self image.

National Icon is currently on view at Stanthorpe Art Gallery as part of the Stanthorpe Art Prize finalists exhibition, until 17 July 2016. For further details, check the SAG website.

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