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Leading Australian artists are taking on the political class in this free exhibition

OK Democracy, We Need to Talk Campbelltown Arts Centre 2019
Photograph: Document Photography Abdullah MI Syed, 'Fashion Statement series', 2019, and 'Capital Couture series', 2019

It’s not every art gallery that consults ABC election analyst Antony Green’s predictions when setting the opening of an exhibition. But Campbelltown Arts Centre’s OK Democracy, We Need to Talk is all about our democratic process. The team took Green’s predictions of three dates when the election might fall and scheduled their opening for the middle weekend, May 18 and 19. Luckily for them, that was the weekend prime minister Scott Morrison picked.

The ensuing exhibition is made up of all new artworks about how we vote, how we receive information and how we can make our voices heard.

“There’s a lot of talk about capitalism, there’s a lot of talk about journalism, there’s a lot of talk about protest,” Campbelltown Arts Centre director Michael Dagostino says. “All these big conversations are happening in the public at the moment. As artists are part of communities, they’re having those same conversations.”

John and Yoko’s message returns

This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous poster declaring “War is over!” in large black text with the qualifier “if you want it” in a much smaller font below. For Sydney artist Deborah Kelly, that poster – a protest against the Vietnam War – is an important symbol of a time when artists made a significant contribution to an urgent social movement. She says nothing could be more urgent in 2019 than climate change, which is why she’s repurposed the poster as a protest against coal, changing the message to “Coal is over!”

“To be honest, I wish I could’ve thought of something more incredible, but that was the best I could do,” Kelly says. “We are betrayed by parties who literally belong to fossil fuel interests, and what do we fucking do? A poster is a bit pissweak, but that’s just a prelude to lying down in front of a bulldozer, or whatever we will be called upon to do.”

Deborah Kelly, 'Coal is Over', 2019. Photograph: Document Photography.

There are 2,000 copies of the poster printed on high quality recycled paper in carbon ink for visitors to take home, as well as more elaborate versions displayed in the gallery. Kelly is hoping to borrow some of John and Yoko’s optimism to inspire action against the enormous pressures in favour of coal. But she sees her democratic responsibility as being no different to anybody else’s.

“Artists don’t live on some other planet,” she says. “If only we had magical powers and could restore genuine, participatory democracy.”

Clothes maketh the leader

The fashion choices our politicians make aren’t generally front of mind when we think about the effectiveness of our democracy, but Pakistani-born artist Abdullah MI Syed has some serious objections.

“Today, the fashion when it comes to politicians is just negligible,” he says. “Everybody wears the blue suit, and there’s only two tie options – red and blue – and it’s completely undemocratic in my opinion.”

Syed’s work for the exhibition explores how democracy is performed, with four jackets created out of the legal tender of four different countries: Pakistan, USA, China and Australia. The styles have all been worn by the leaders of these nations at some point and range from Chairman Mao’s suit, buttoned to the very top, to the Driza-Bone jackets which Australia chose for the 2007 APEC summit in Sydney.

Abdullah MI Syed, 'Fashion Statement series' and 'Capital Couture series', 2019. Photograph: Document Photography

As he’s working with money to create garments, there are legal issues Syed needs to be aware of: the penalty for defacing Australian currency is up to two years in prison. That means there’s to be no stitching or gluing of the five-dollar notes used in the Driza-Bone.

“Legally I can’t do anything with the money, so the entire jacket is being encased in plastic,” he says.

Speaking truth to power

Peter Greste is no stranger to the sort of political pressure that can be placed on journalists, having spent 400 days in an Egyptian prison for his reporting. So it makes sense that Sydney-based artist Eugenia Raskopoulos would consult the Australian journalist in her work about the struggle that journalists have in speaking truth to power.

“I started to discuss with him my ideas,” she says. “I’d been on the right research track, and he gave me more information to look at. He was extremely generous and supportive.”

The resulting work features the names of 54 journalists who were killed in 2018, from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They cascade down a wall in the gallery – like a “wall of tears” – printed in reflective mirrored vinyl.

Eugenia Raskopoulos, 'Un(truth)', 2019. Photograph: Document Photography.

“You’re projected into the work in a fragmented way,” Raskopoulos says. “You witness the work, but you’re also in the work.”

Raskopoulos is under no illusions that her work will make a significant difference to the way the media operates and the democratic process unfolds, but is giving visitors an experience that will allow them to question their place within a particular system.

“I think artists like to question,” she says. “I also think you want to touch people… We sit in our loungeroom with a cup of tea and a Tim Tam, watching the horrors of the world unfold. It’s not until something slaps you in the face that you start to question the kind of world you’re in.”

Politics on the edge

The exhibition, which also features work by Richard Bell, Louisa Bufardeci, Kuba Dorabialski, Eugenia Lim, Make or Break, Sarah Rodigari and Lara Thoms, is packed full of explicitly political statements, but Dagostino says it’s as much about creating an emotive response in its audience as it is engaging them politically.

“It’s something artists can do that a statistical report on climate change can’t do,” he says.

It’s also no coincidence that the exhibition is taking place in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, a region which was previously considered make-or-break territory for federal elections. There are fewer swinging seats around Campbelltown than there used to be, but Dagostino says the west needs to become “a bit more fluid” again.

Lara Thoms, 'Blatantly Disrespectful' and 'Heading Down the Wrong Path', 2019. Photograph: Document Photography.

With an abundance of new artworks, the exhibition sits right at the core of what Campbelltown Arts Centre does, pushing forward from its place on the edge of the city and tackling urgent social questions.

“You can come and experience something without knowing the history of a certain artist, or a certain perspective on a period of time in art. You don’t have to bring that with you,” Dagostino says. “If we were to take this exhibition and look at it in 20 years time, issues of the gig economy, issues of climate change, which are really poignant now, are reflected. I think it’s a really strong snapshot of what’s happening in 2019.”

OK Democracy, We Need to Talk is at Campbelltown Arts Centre until July 31.

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