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Young artists re-work suburban stereotypes

Where I Live was a stimulating panel discussion which brought six young artists from across Sydney to the Bankstown Arts Centre in November to explore how place and community shape their creativity and art practice.

Organised by Australian screen legend Bryan Brown and hosted by TV personality Andrew Denton, the panel included a poet from Bankstown, a painter from Engadine, an actor from La Perouse, a comedian from Campbelltown, a musician from Bondi, and a mixed media artist from Neutral Bay.  The artists revealed how their life experiences in their home suburbs have influenced their art.

Themba Thompson, the pop musician from Bondi, interprets his suburb’s unique location, as a place where the city meets the sea, as a pairing of the “mechanical and organic”. He said his music is inspired by the mechanical sounds of city and organic natural sounds of the sea.

Nicole Kelly, the painter from Engadine, spoke of a similar experience during a residency by the river at Bruny Island in Tasmania. The river became a key subject in her work.

Madeleine Stewart, the comedian from Campbelltown, admitted she gets most of her inspiration and content from her everyday encounters in her home suburb. She spoke of being ‘picked up’ in a local bar by a bikie who opened the conversation with “are you legal?”

A running theme of the night was how negative stereotypes, particularly surrounding the suburbs, affected the artists and their work. Brown, a proud "Bankstown boy", surfed at Cronulla, played football around St George and has travelled widely outside Australia. He said "being a westie" defined him more than anything else.

I realised a link between my locality, and the marriage between my music and some of the things I experienced physically.

"It gave me a real good sense of life, common sense, community, loyalty, friendship, adventure," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.  "I got street smart."

Denton cited a Reddit thread which personified some typical suburban stereotypes:

“The suburbs of the North Shore are sitting together at a table at the far end of the bar. All of them are well-dressed and taste testing a series of Tasmanian wines, except for Dee Why, who is dressed in a tracksuit and polo shirt with a popped collar and is slamming down cider after cider.”

“Surry Hills went to an invite only warehouse party instead, Auburn just drove past the pub and sprayed the place with bullets.”

“Mt Druitt is passed out in the bathroom in a pile of vomit, surrounded by Woodstock cans while Campbelltown is trying to suck the last bit out of the cans next to Mt Druitt.”

“Parramatta cheered them on while stealing all the stereos from the cars in the car park.”

Each artist was invited to explore stereotypes of their suburb, such as the ‘Shire surfie’, the ‘povo Campbelltown bogan’ and the ‘private posh Neutral Bay resident’.

Ahmad Al-Rady, spoken word artist and founder of the popular Bankstown Poetry Slam, grew up in Western Sydney. He said trying to counter stereotypes is not constructive and can sometimes serve to reinforce them. 

“When somebody asks you a question about what they think about Bankstown they know what they think of Bankstown, everyone knows what they think of Bankstown. Me confirming that doesn’t lead us anywhere, so for me I do get annoyed at questions like ‘what do you think of these stereotypes’, I’m like (I think) the way everyone thinks about stereotypes.”
Al-Rady performed one of his early poems, ‘Manhood’, which explores his experience of growing up and buying his first car.

“I remember my first time wanting to buy a car, I didn’t tell my dad. I went with my mate, we were both in Year Ten. We went to the auction, and we’ve never been to an auction before, and we were like “man we’ve got two hundred and fifty bucks do you reckon we could grab a car?” Yeah we could grab one with no rego. Cool. So we saw this (Toyota) Seca and no one wanted it, so we bid for it and we got it.”

Thompson said the panel made him see for the first time that there really was a link between his experience of place and his artwork.

“I realised something on stage, I realised a link between my locality, and the marriage between my music and some of the things I experienced physically. I still believe that my art form is directly interpreted with emotional connection rather than physical surroundings but it definitely has opened my eyes to how other people’s art form is created and how it’s influenced.”

The Point

Artist’s reflect on how their upbringing and experiences in their suburbs influence and affect their art.

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