LIGHT ON THE LANDSCAPE
An initiative that aims to bring art into civic spaces is having a bright impact in Western Australia, writes Victoria Laurie
Karim Jabbari stands at the top of a steep cliff near Albany, making graceful arcs with a handheld flashlight in the ink-black sky. Behind him is his SLR camera, programmed exposures to capture every prick via long of light.
A few people stand nearby to ensure the Tunisian artist doesn’t step back and disappear into the waters of the Indian Ocean. If he did, one of the world’s great living calligraphers would be lost.
Jabbari is a calligrapher and “lightgraff” artist whose work is inspired by antiquated Arabic scriptures. Lightgraff means drawing or writing with light, and Jabbari embellishes his chosen settings — whether windswept cliff edge or old lighthouse — with the radiant flow of light.
The resulting images are hauntingly beautiful. He light-draws an Arabic saying that hangs in midair, a line of classic Kufic and Maghribi text that reflects his desire to keep alive the dying traditions of North Africa.
So what exactly was Jabbari, the son of a Tunisian political dissident, doing earlier this year on a clifftop at the southwestern tip of Australia? Provoking others to look afresh at the southwest coast’s beauty, says Lynda Dorrington, executive director of Western Australia’s dynamic design organisation FORM.
FORM’s PUBLIC festival is a gathering of artists from six countries who draw inspiration from the dramatic landscapes of WA’s southwestern corner. Its motto is: bring the world’s best artists to the most inspiring places in WA, and see what happens.
“I’d seen Karim’s work online, and I knew I wanted an artist who worked in a different medium,” says Dorrington. “He’s incredibly sensitive to the landscape, and I wanted people to see Albany in a different light.”
Jabbari loved it all, from clambering over cliffs to exploring derelict buildings that date back to Albany’s birth in 1826 as WA’s first white settlement — predating Perth by three years. Working with local photographer Chad Peacock and filmmaker Bewley Shaylor, Jabbari juxtaposed black human silhouettes with light paintings in nature.
As well as ephemeral shots, Jabbari left a permanent calling card on a wall in the heart of Albany town, a photographic mural depicting fire and stone and illuminated Arabic text.
“It’s using a light calligraphy I did back in 2011 in my neighbourhood in Kasserine, Tunisia,” he writes about the work. “The photo with the fire highlights the importance of Albany as the first settlement in Western Australia. The wall says: ‘The beginning was Albany and Albany was the beginning.’ ”
Jabbari loves working with people. He runs workshops in Tunisia for children to entice them “away from the modern-day technologies, and back to healthy exploits” like reading, painting and workshops that bring children “to the beauty of the world through art”.
His own salvation lay in art during extreme hardship as a child. His father was held in jail for 13 years by an oppressive political regime and the family suffered.
“We were isolated from the exterior world; nobody wanted to come in touch with us,” he told an interviewer. At school, Jabbari’s talent for calligraphy helped with friendships. “I had nice writing and it brought people around me … I felt alive again, that I exist. I felt I had importance.
“That’s why I’m so thankful for this disci- pline … I want people to get attached to this art that is really magnificent.”
“Karim finds threads and bridges that unite cultures,” says Dorrington, “and Albany is the ideal place to stimulate the imagination with its rich history, breathtaking coastline and welcoming community.”
The cultural landscape of WA has been transformed by projects like this. Dorrington is the insistent, often formidable force behind FORM, the not-for-profit body she refashioned out of the former WA Crafts Council in 2001.
In its current three-year PUBLIC program alone, FORM has brought to regional towns and Aboriginal communities more than 200 artists who have created 166 artworks in public spaces. It has garnered more than $830,000 for these public art projects.
Some 300km further east along the coast, at Ravensthorpe, FORM has installed another eclectic artist to turn the rural town’s gaze outward on the region’s biodiverse plant life. Netherlands-born street artist Amok Island, who now lives in Fremantle, will soon start painting a 25m high mural inspired by wildflowers across three CBH silos in town.
Urging him on will be the local grain exporter CBH Group, which last year paid for eight grain silos in the state’s wheatbelt region to be decorated by US street artist HENSE and British muralist Phlegm. It became the largest installation of urban art in WA.
“The project has had a positive impact on the profile of the region,” says CBH Group chief executive Andy Crane. “It’s fostered a sense of community pride and the opportunity for sustainable cultural tourism in the areas in which CBH operates.”
Such praise for FORM is due to Dorrington’s almost subversive approach to injecting art and design into landscapes. It works by assembling teams of urban designers, community leaders, business investors and artists; they move in to transform often uninteresting Pilbara mining towns or artist-rich, resource-poor Aboriginal communities.
The best FORM projects have left a legacy of good public sculpture, vibrant civic places and the seeds of a craft or culture-based industry.
In the case of Ravensthorpe, a calculated aim behind the floral motif is to promote the town’s main tourist event, the Ravensthorpe Wildflower Festival, which displays 700 species of local flowers each spring.
Dorrington’s next cultural offensive will target Perth’s elite suburbs, and Jabbari’s Albany light visions will play a part. Next month, an exhibition of his work The Core will open in FORM’s new headquarters, called The Goods Shed and Old Stationmaster’s House, a renovated train station complex in the affluent suburb of Claremont.
Until now, the majority of FORM’s work has been in Aboriginal communities and regional towns. Yet most corporate executives and middle to upper-income families live in a handful of suburbs west of the CBD. Now is the time to infiltrate a “very staid and safe” sector, says Dorrington. Karim Jabarri’s work illuminates a clifftop near Albany in WA, top; The Goods Shed is FORM’s new headquarters in Perth, below
“Western Australia is a suburban culture, and the ‘influencers’ live in the western suburbs.” She says Perth’s wealthy classes are generous to a fault in donating to medical science and child health yet fewer put their hands deep in their pockets for the arts.
“We have failed to see the value of culture even though we have great talent here … Instead of seeing the arts as a lens through which you view society, here it’s viewed as a nice addon, something you go to during summer, like the Perth International Arts Festival.”
Dorrington hopes FORM’s new Claremont base, where year-round exhibitions and artist residencies are planned, will “cultivate the desire for creativity in the suburbs”.
She failed in a similar suburban assault in Perth’s eastern suburbs a few years ago. FORM invested heavily in trying to turn a large precinct of red-brick railway workshops in working-class Midland into a hive for creative industries. It even attracted a promise of investment by Singapore’s Raffles University, which was prepared to build a $500 million campus on the site.
“We sat on the property for two years, but the state wasn’t interested in [matching] investment,” says Dorrington. “Now, at Claremont, we’re taking on something more manageable.”
Meanwhile, the guerilla tactics of inserting artists into regional communities is paying dividends. Jabbari so loved his Albany sojourn that, despite a busy schedule, he will return down under to open his exhibition, and then travel further afield in the state.
And in the turn-of-the century railway building that is FORM’s new home, Jabbari has promised to write an Arabic greeting to light up the darkness. will open in FORM’s The Goods Shed in Claremont from August 6 until August 31.