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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - The Core

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.

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