Multiculturalism isn’t folk dancing, it’s the stoning of adulterers.
‘Multiculturalism’ is one of the most contested terms in our modern liberal democracy. For some commentators it represents a sentimental dream of folk dances, national costumes and ethnic cuisine. Others see it as a mask for religious extremism and intolerance, age-old vendettas, and barbaric customs such as female circumcision. It would be foolish to imagine we can celebrate the cheerful, Disneyfied version of multiculturalism and completely ignore the dark side.
Few nations are happy to be identified as a ‘race’ any more. That term dropped out of the lexicon after the Nazis had made racial hatred the basis of a political platform. The decline of racialist thinking, in which biology was destiny, saw an increased emphasis on culture and its diverse manifestations.
This was exacerbated by a World War that left the map of the planet rewritten in a manner dictated by the realpolitik of the great powers. From the ruined cities of Europe a mass exodus of peoples set out for the new world. This may not have been the first great exodus, but it was the first to leave its mark on an Australian society that had always taken its lead from Great Britain. In the 1950s and 60s an influx of migrants from Greece, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States would bring about permanent changes in the dominant Anglo-Celtic attitudes.
In the decades that followed there would be other waves of migration, from war-torn South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, and from states in South America that had suffered under military dictatorships. There were refugees from the violence of the Middle East, from the poverty and bloodshed of Africa.
Australia has offered a home to all these people, and only the greatest bigot would suggest that the nation has not benefitted enormously from their presence. Yet ‘multiculturalism’ as a term, and as a rationale for social policy, has proven notoriously difficult to define. If the government says it supports a multicultural Australia, this does not mean that migrants resist all attempts at assimilation into the mainstream. By the same token, when assimilation was the preferred policy, no-one expected new Australians to completely surrender their native language and customs.
Multiculturalism is an abstraction that may seem idealistic or pernicious, depending on one’s point of view. At base, it is a recognition that human beings are not wedded to a single identity or set of loyalties. If the nation itself is “an imagined community”, to use Benedict Anderson’s well-worn phrase, the limits of our world are largely determined by the limits of our imaginations. One may be a patriotic Australian but also proud to be heir to a cultural heritage that originates in another part of the world.
Those opposed to multiculturalism insist that a citizen of Australia must necessarily put Australia first. The defenders of multiculturalism argue there is no shame in admitting – and celebrating – our divided identities. At the end of a century of mass migrations, wars and refugee crises it is hardly be feasible to expect the nation to be a unified entity. The true test is the durability of a country’s social, economic and political systems, and here Australia is a model of stability. It is not that we don’t have our crises and debates, but the system has so far proven resilient enough to absorb the heat.
Danny Huynh, an artist of Vietnamese origins who has spent most of his life in Sydney’s western suburbs, is the ideal photographer to capture the extraordinary ethnic diversity of Fairfield. There is something comical in these portraits, in that we rarely see people walking down the street dressed in the extravagant national costumes that are brought out of the closet only for ceremonies and celebrations. But nobody in the photos appears to feel the least bit foolish. There is a pervasive happiness and pride to be read on the faces of Huynh’s subjects. They are proud of their origins, which are memorialised in the costumes they wear. As long as they can still wear the gear, they have never severed ties with their former homelands.
Some of these people, such as those from Cambodia, Croatia or Laos, are shown in settings that emphasise their traditional culture and beliefs. Others – by far the majority – are portrayed in backyards, parks and suburban allotments. The Serbians show off their exotic outfits on the grassy front lawn of a typical suburb, with a palm tree looming in the distance. The Poles pose for the camera in front of a sparse curtain of gum trees. The Karen people share their portrait with that archetypal symbol of suburbia, the Hill’s Hoist. Two bright little girls from the Bosnian community pose, appropriately enough, in front of the Fairfield and District Gemstone Club.
Many of the backdrops seem to have been affectionately chosen because of their ordinariness. The Argentinians dance the Tango in front of a drab brick wall, while five ladies from Sudan create a symphony of colour against an unpainted paling fence. For those who came to Australia as refugees from devastated countries, or simply to make a better life, the ordinariness of the suburbs must be deeply reassuring. Not many of us wish to live in “interesting times”, when the alternative is peace and modest prosperity.
Imagine leaving a country and a way of life that your family has known for many generations, and arriving in the Australian suburbs. It may be comfortable, it may be a relief from danger and anxiety, but it is also a culture shock of major proportions. In these portraits, Danny Huynh has tried to capture these mixed feelings of material security and cultural displacement. He wants us to see that ethnic traditions are also a lifeline of sorts, a way of recognising the intrinsic value of those customs and beliefs that help shape an individual personality.
The process goes something like this: In order to feel good about myself I must also feel good about who I am, and where I come from. Although I live in the wider community there are many things that are important to me and my family that I do not necessarily share with others. It is those private things that help create meaning in everyday life.
Huynh’s portraits of Fairfield’s diverse communities bring to mind the paradox of all subcultures, which instill both a sense of individuality and a sense of belonging. I assert my own identity through dress or hairstyle or choice of music, but this only makes sense when I am part of a clearly defined group that shares those predilections. In the case of a teen subculture, a person makes a clear choice to join his or her interests with others. With an ethnic group, the choice is made for you: it is part of your birthright. In time you will have to choose whether to stay within the confines of that culture, or to move further and further away.
The tendency, even in these multicultural days, is for young people to integrate themselves into the mainstream, often at the expense of the customs and languages they learned as children.
The consciousness of that choice develops gradually, as one begins to feel less constrained by home and family. By contrast, these photos capture the happiness of children who have never had to worry about their identity, such as those from Armenia and Bolivia. These kids are still young enough to enjoy the pageantry of the national costumes, and are unselfconscious about their origins. They don’t see their difference from other groups as a problem, and don’t see the signs of ethnic belonging as potential marks of exclusion from other groups. These children are living representatives of all the good aspects of multiculturalism. They embody the idealistic belief that under the umbrella of Australian citizenship one may cling to the positive aspects of a cultural tradition and reject the negative aspects.
Is it possible? Multiculturalism is a work-in-progress that may never be fully resolved. In a certain sense Huynh’s portraits are Fairfield’s answer to that famous photographic project of the 1950s, The Great Family of Man. Initiated by Edward Steichen, it included 503 images by 273 photographers from 68 countries. It was one of those edifying fantasies of universal co-existence that momentarily capture the public imagination (“We are the world…”), before history marches remorselessly onwards.
The ideological duplicity of The Great Family of Man makes it doubly important that we do not see Huynh’s photographs as simply representing a shared human condition in different coloured clothes. Every costume carries a weight of historical meaning, stories of struggle and triumph, memories of a way of life that is swiftly disappearing. Recognising the significance of ethnic origins means also recognising the histories – and religious beliefs – that each group holds sacred. This is not a portrait of Fairfield as a melting pot, but as an elaborate patchwork quilt, where each beautifully designed square combines with the rest, to create an impression of unity in diversity.
Catalogue essay for Danny Huynh: Pride and Passion: Photographic Portraits of Fairfield, at Fairfield City Museum & Gallery.
19 March – 15 May 2001.
Multiculturalism isn’t folk dancing, it’s the stoning of adulterers.