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Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

‘Our Language’ – found in translation

17 February 2022

In all their diverse forms, languages are ultimately about the human need for connection, as Belinda Hermawan finds at this Perth Festival exhibition.

We use language to communicate with one another. But an eye-opening new exhibition, presented by Perth Festival in association with DADAA, suggests that language offers us so much more than a simple exchange of information.

Drawing together the experiences of a diverse range of artists, “Our Language” navigates the challenges and rewards of communicating across language gaps. 

In the zine Zou Mat Je (2021) – comprised of contributions from writers and artists with a connection to the Cantonese diaspora – we are offered a hard-hitting glimpse into the challenges of mediating between cultures. Through photographs, illustration, poetry and prose, we witness the extra work that interactions with family and society-at-large often demand in order to be understood, and the resulting tensions, guilt or joy. 

Highlights include A. Yang’s creative non-fiction “The Six Tones of Chinese”, in which silence also speaks volumes; different tastes in Emily Ng’s essay “Tea Time”; Karen Ng’s liminal photographs of public spaces; and Celine Dam’s poetry, which opens with the stellar line, “I cannot make my mooncake in your muffin tin”.

The zine’s immersive and inclusive quality is further heightened in the accompanying audio version – hearing a fellow human narrate these stories makes them more accessible both physically and emotionally.

Also emphasising the role of language in one’s identity and sense of belonging are the works of Nastaran Ghadiri. The innate nature of our mother tongue is best represented by Take Me Back to The Beginning (2022), a tactile artwork that we are invited to touch. The interconnected jumble of Persian alphabet-like shapes wrapped in pink fabric and mounted onto a canvas is reminiscent of a cell wall and muscle fibres, as if language is in our very cells, visible in a cross-section. A rope extends down to a red, heart-like organ, representing a connection to what keeps us alive. 

At the time I visited, the three Essays in gestural poetics (2021) artworks by Fayen d’Evie with Anna Seymour, Trent Walter and Vincent Chan were stuck in transit on the Nullarbor due to the floods in South Australia. Replicas were displayed in their place. The idea behind the series was to find a way for gestural, signed language to be printed, with AUSLAN movements translated first into written form and then into a digital font.

This performative publishing concept is new and inventive, and I wished I had a partner on the day to act out the movement sequences. Once the originals arrive, audiences will be able to interact with the screenprints in their true size, colour and tactile form. 

In Josh Ophel’s compelling video Our Own Language (2020), the artist interviews his mother about her experiences in school as a deaf child, specifically her recollection of a friendship with a hearing girl who spoke Macedonian at home. In this moving footage, Ophel’s mother’s memories of creating a new language to navigate the space between English and AUSLAN highlight the power of friendship and connection. 

The experience of suddenly shifting languages is cleverly constructed in Between worlds. Without worlds. We belong here. (2021) by Laura & Molly (Alter Boy). Watching their video made me appreciate the multiple acts required in signing, lip-reading and listening. I had to pay more attention to the screen than I normally would, with no warning as to when the speaking or music audio would return or fade. This imparted an important lesson in empathy and was a reminder to not take language — and the ability to be easily understood — for granted.

Language is more than words; the act of interpreting and translating more than rote substitution. In showcasing both triumphs and difficulties, “Our Language” is an inclusive exhibition that ultimately underscores the human need to connect.

“Our Language” continues at DADAA until 9 April 2022.

Pictured top: Work by Fayen D’Evie with Anna Seymour, Vincent Chan and Trent Walter (detail)

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Author —
Belinda Hermawan

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009) and a fiction writer whose short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. She is a summer school alum of Parsons, The New School of Design in New York. Favourite piece of playground equipment: playground car on springs!

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