Wed, Dec 17, 2008 - Page 15 News List

Surf’s up for cultural awareness with fusion art surfboards

Three years after ugly race riots on Sydney’s Cronulla Beach, art, in the form of surfboards adorned with Islamic images, is being used to bridge the city’s racial divide

By Madeleine Coorey  /  AFP , SYDNEY

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An Australian artist has combined his love of the surf with that of the Middle East, producing surfboards adorned with Islamic art in a fusion he hopes will help broaden understanding.

Three years after ugly race riots between white and Lebanese Australians rocked Sydney’s Cronulla Beach, Phillip George has opened an exhibition of surfboards bearing Muslim motifs.

“It’s a way of getting an Australian iconic image like a surfboard and putting it together [with Islamic artwork] as a new Australian icon,” he said.

“They are, in a soft way, saying, ‘Well, everyone’s got a right to be here.’”

The Inshallah or “God willing” surfboards were partly inspired by the violence of Dec. 11, 2005 in which mobs of white Australians descended on Cronulla and attacked Lebanese-Australians to “reclaim the beach.”

The riots were the worst of modern times and sparked a series of retaliatory attacks in which churches, shops and cars were trashed.

George was surfing in the eastern Sydney beach of Maroubra on the day of the riots. And even he, despite his long love of the Middle East, received an unsolicited text message inviting him to go to Cronulla “and help bash a Mussie [Muslim],” he said.

He hopes his exhibition, in which all the surfboards face the Muslim holy city of Mecca, brings the “joy and wonderment of Islamic art” to a broader audience.

“The mainstream community may not go to an art gallery to look at Islamic art,” he said from Bondi Beach.

“But when you put it on a surfboard, they go, ‘Oh, wait a minute this is something different on a surfboard.’ You walk down the beach with a board like that and people stop.”

The surfboards, 30 of which form the new exhibition at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse art center, are adorned with photographic images taken from mosques and other Islamic sites seen on his travels in the Middle East.

“It’s not pointing the finger at anybody, it’s not blaming anybody. It’s just saying, ‘Hey look this artwork coming out of Islamic culture.’

“So I’m saying have a look at the Ottoman artwork, have a look at the Persian artwork, have a look at the Arabic artwork — isn’t it beautiful.”

RESPECT FOR TRADITION

George, who is of Greek descent, is not a Muslim. But he said the work is done with “the utmost amount of respect” for the Islamic tradition and the surfboards, which are priced at US$6,580 each and will never be used in the surf.

“Some say you can’t have inshallah on a surfboard. The two surfboards which have inshallah on them will never go in the water because they are artworks,” he said.

“They are not going to have people put their feet on them.”

George is not the only artist who has been inspired by the events of late 2005. Roslyn Oades spent two years interviewing people from Cronulla and from Sydney’s Lebanese communities following the riots for her play Stories of Love and Hate.

Speaking to 65 people — from surfers, to Lebanese youth, police, and the media who covered the event — she has created a play that dissolves the stereotypes of “Lebanese thugs” versus “racist rednecks.”

In Cronulla, she found a community hurt and angry at its unwanted fame and loathe to be subjected to yet another of the re-education or peace projects that they endured in the aftermath of the violence.

“It was such a wounded community I found,” she said.

“They felt that they had been scapegoated as the racist capital of Australia whereas a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon at the time. There were people coming from all over New South Wales to be there that day.”

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