Raafat Ishak/Tom Nicholson, Propositions for a banner march and a black cube hot air balloon, 2007.

This exchange with the Cairo-born Melbourne artist Raafat Ishak begins with a road-trip to Shepparton a couple of months ago, a 3 hour-drive through the flat, arid landscape north of Melbourne. A town in central Victoria with a population of about 50,000 people, Shepparton is, at first glimpse, a slightly unpicturesque but otherwise typical regional town in central Victoria. But its history as a very complex immigrant community – including historical communities from Italy and Albania, as well as more recently-arrived communities from Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan – is remarkable, and unique for a town of its kind in Australia. Those communities also live alongside one of Australia’s most significant and politically well-organised Aboriginal communities, mostly from the Yorta Yorta and Bangarang nations.

Tom: Raafat, during that recent trip to Shepparton, we met with a man from the local Ethnic Council who described some of the town’s social complexities. He also recounted, in a way that was very moving, that most of the people who drowned on the SievX in October 2001 – Australia’s worst known asylum seeker sea disaster, in which 353 people drowned between Indonesia and northern Australia – were coming to reunite with relatives in Shepparton. The parched inland landscape around Shepparton seems remote from tropical oceans, but the image he painted to us about the SievX very potently linked Shepparton to extraordinary historical experiences across the world, and to very far-reaching routes of migration. I want to come back to the reasons we were in Shepparton together a little later in this exchange, and to begin with a project of yours from 2009, Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments, which that conversation in Shepparton made me remember. Can you describe that work?

Raafat: The first stage of Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments involved the creation of a standard letter that was emailed to embassies, consulates, ministries and heads of state, requesting permission to immigrate. I chose to conclude the correspondence once an initial response was provided. After 12 months, I began working on the second phase of the project, utilising the information, or lack of it, to create one hundred and ninety four paintings on standard A4 sized boards, one for each country.

Tom: I always understood those letters in a particular, Australian context. Perhaps this was partly knowing your own biography as an immigrant to Australia from Egypt in the 1980s. I also find myself reminded about the public discourse around asylum seekers in Australia, their vilification, or at least a wilful misunderstanding which prevails in Australia in which the asylum seeker is figured as always trying to treacherously breach national borders. The former conservative Prime Minister John Howards’s description of asylum seekers arriving by boat as “queue jumpers” articulates this treachery, through an intensely Anglo-Saxon metaphor for proper social orderliness. Underlying this attitude is the assumption that all of these people are desperate to leave where they come from to come to Australia because Australia is a superior place to live (rather than examining the circumstances which might have led them to leave home). I understood your letters as the inversion of this assumption, expressing as they do a desire to immigrate elsewhere. At the same time, your letters are involved in the orderliness of the queue, a polite partaking of bureaucratic due process.

Raafat: I think it’s a bit difficult to negotiate a response to this statement without giving some background to my contraction towards authority. I did grow up in a relatively conservative and authoritarian Cairene society. Moral guidance and philosophy were contentious subjects that were eventually hijacked by governments and religious scholars for political gains and autocratic aspirations. Meanwhile, basic administrative needs were overlooked, not to mention the widespread corruption and wilful vilification of basic freedoms and rights. Worse still, was the precarious position of denying a historically significant aspect of culture and society, which was founded on religious and ethnic diversity and tolerance. I am naturally critical of governance that is imbued in moral and philosophical positions.

I don’t believe that immigrants, particularly asylum seekers are interested in Australia because it is a superior place to live. Most immigrants spend a great deal of time resisting immigration, and understandably so. There is nothing attractive about a discontinuous and abruptly changing process of growing up, with its implications for education, friends, family and the prospect of professional and personal fulfilment. The assumption that Australia is a superior place to live is deeply arrogant and ignorant. The worst aspect of this assumption is that it is not open for scrutiny and discussion, it has almost become taboo to think otherwise. Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments does set out to reverse this notion by proposing one hundred and ninety four alternative countries to settle. That reading is however, specific to Australia. The project did not set out to condescend a notion of self superiority. Its genesis lies in an earlier and much smaller work made in 2003. A text work simply reading “send me home”. It was made for a refugee fundraiser and it was stipulating that perhaps refugees had a greater and more urgent need to be allowed to settle in Australia than myself. I was proposing that a refugee could take my place and that I should be sent home. Since my passage was apparently simple and self inflicted, it was a luxurious and almost excessive immigration experience. Setting out to investigate the possibility of settling in one hundred and ninety four governments reflects the difficulty of identifying a home as such. I am neither Egyptian nor Australian because that sense of belonging to a particular place is lost. At best, it is superficial and mostly grounded in a combination of memory and assimilation.

Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments. 39 panels from 194, each, 21 x 29 cm, oil and gesso on mdf, 2006-08.

Tom: Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments begins in an administrative process. But its ultimate form is pictorial. The dimensions of those paintings allude to one of administration’s basic units, the A4 sheet. And there is, on a superficial level at least, an orderliness in the paintings that feels congruent with the bureaucratic process you initiated. But there is also an inventiveness in those paintings, which produces for the viewer what I would call a pleasurable obtuseness. A pictorial space begins to open out at the same time that a clearly legible set of symbols recede. The letter gives way to the painting, or to a particular painting space. What do you think enters into those works through this inventiveness? Or, to word that question in a different way, what is that pictorial space that we find opening out as we spend time with those paintings?

Raafat: What might open out, if possible, is a space, which is perceivable through the transparency of symbols, in this case, the transparency of country flags. The colours are deliberately muted, sullied or faded, rather than pastel. The point of looking is suspended between somewhere where the painting begins, such as a fully or freshly coloured flag, and where the painting might end, such as the total erasure of colour. Perhaps by highlighting, or in this case muting, a specific political position and a historical moment, such as immigration laws and policies in 2006, the suspension creates a secondary space, behind and beyond what appears to be a set of icons. The strategy of text distracts the process of looking by replacing it momentarily with the act of reading, but at the same time acknowledging the potential similarities of both strategies. The flag and the text are both legible as specific signifiers whilst maintaining a pictorial order or an act of picturing. If there is an inner and inconsolable space beyond the apparent surface, a classic avant-garde fourth dimension perhaps, then it must lie in what the configuration of flags and the source of text evoke about something that is completely outside the pictorial space. Something such as a political dynamism, a scene of obtuse organization, the division of states and what that implies. To a degree, and this is perhaps an evasion of the question, it is worth considering the alphabetical order of the display, as an instigator of a space beyond the picture and more in the realm of picturing. For instance, the Olympic marches of countries into a stadium, where Iraq would follow Iran and the symbolic significance of such an act despite the organisational and democratic value of alphabetical ordering. And again, Afghanistan is the first country represented by the alphabet.

Tom: This image of the Olympic march – where the act of walking is contained (within the shape of the stadium) and ordered (according to an alphabet of nations) – reminds me of your longstanding interest in creating a black cube shaped hot air balloon (and this brings me back to Shapparton and our recent visit there). Your idea for black cube shaped hot air balloon has its origins in your painting of the early 1990s, when the black square began to assume the place of the sun in certain paintings which loosely functioned as landscapes. Since 2003 it has been the basis of our collaborative project, Proposition for a banner march with a black cube hot air balloon, a proposed public action in which a banner march would attempt to follow a black cube-shaped hot air balloon in the sky (and the balloon would in turn attempt to follow the march). The genesis of your idea for the balloon implies that the balloon is something we might follow, as we might follow the sun’s course through the sky. And that following creates a wandering. The balloon moves where the wind takes it, a disorderly and potentially endless itinerary with no regard for the boundaries between states. I have always understood the black cube hot air balloon as a form beyond order, that is, against the strictures of the conventional banner march (with its choreographed beginning and end-point) but also against the limitations of national boundaries.

Raafat: The primary source of the black cube is Mecca’s Kaaba, a reverential and holy site. I was not aware of Malevich’s black square when I first began to use it in the mid 1980s, before I started a formal art education. The black cube is, in a sense, a baggage, carried over from a childhood spent in Egypt. I was not raised as a Muslim and I am totally irreligious. Yet, the image of Mecca’s Kaaba retains a strong symbolic association with an Egyptian Arab culture from which I immigrated. So in a sense, that image or non-image, maintained and nurtured that association, as a quasi travel case, hence the flying black cube. However, with time and a little more education, I learnt to draw a wider range of associations, that interestingly cross over and relate to one another. Malevich’s black square is an obvious association. It was created following a 1913 opera titled Victory Over the Sun. In some ways, Malevich’s square is a form of protest against the sun, an element from which the realism of established art forms was derived from. I don’t entirely believe or follow the black square as a form of protest, particularly given the circumstances of avant-garde art practices in early 20th century Russia. But I am drawn to the form as a point of rest, a mobile, fluid and revolving screening device. The black box flight recorder also comes to mind (although it is in fact orange), a carrier and protector of history. Both Malevich’s black square and the black cube of Mecca draw on mathematics and astrology. They are grounded in scientific formulas. The corner points of Kaaba’s cube face the 4 directions, rather than the straight walls. This creates a star shape that is essentially a rotation of a square in a circular motion. The idea of circling the square to me implies a continuous state of take off, a rotation around a fixed point. This is in turn a suggestion that the cube is inherently a grounded flying machine. The Islamic practice of directing both prayers and slaughters towards the geographical location of Mecca, further accentuates the notion of circling, not dissimilar to the circling of a crowd in a sports stadium. I often wonder if Malevich’s black square was not pure realism, a screen set against the sun to create a black shadow on a blank canvas; or, alternatively, a black cube hot air balloon flying past and momentarily creating that shadow. My interest in Proposition for a banner march with a black cube hot air balloon is in the potential for two diametrically divergent elements to overcome their inherent strictures. I don’t think a black cube balloon could work on its own. That’s how I was first drawn to your banner marches. I understood the strictures you mention. The intentions of what was being drawn and what was referred to was clear. I am not planning to disturb the march, given that with the balloon it would become a different kind of march anyway. I am hoping to redraw, albeit unintentionally, the line the marchers create.

Recipes for Aversion and Strategy. Installation view, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2010..

Tom: For about five years we have been making propositional forms towards this public action with banners and a black cube hot air balloon. In the same way that the banner march follows but never reaches the balloon, we came to regard these propositional forms as something that indicated a future event we would probably not realize. But we have been invited to (at long last!) give life to this public action in Shepparton (in 2013). In some ways, Shepparton as a location emerged fortuitously, through an invitation from Danny Lacy, a curator at the Shepparton Art Museum. But we quickly became aware of the very particular nature of this town. How do you think Shepparton as a site will affect the project? And how does the town’s complexities relate to the way you think about the black cube?

Raafat: I think the relative flatness of the town and landscape in and around Shepparton, as well as the general lack of grand architectural statements in the area, will be important. That’s not necessarily a motivation, but I would imagine that this will allow for a more communal or general reading. I think the complexities of Shepparton are significant to the balloon and banner march. Whilst the first hot air balloons were launched as private experiments in flight from French aristocratic estates, the black cube is essentially a democratic and inclusive form. It requires a set of complexities from which it can operate.

Tom: We often entertained the idea of realizing the Banner march with a black cube hot air balloon somewhere other than Australia. In a curious way the setting of Shepparton locates, or – to use in inappropriate metaphor – grounds the action in a very Australian context. In Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments Australia is articulated at least in the sense that it is the only country absent, the only country which does not receive an application from you. It is described through naming everything except itself. In the action in Shepparton, just thinking, at the most basic level, about how the march will look, a very particular version of the social complexity of contemporary Australia will be present – I am thinking of a march in which Congolose, Iraqis, Anglo-Australians, Sudanese and Yorta Yorta might be walking in the one column. In a deeper sense, Shepparton as a site locates the action in an experience of loss, dislocation and estrangement, something which seems to link back to an underlying concern in your painting.

Raafat: Yes, loss, dislocation and estrangement are underlying concerns. These are not specific to Australia but are nevertheless relevant, albeit in a different sort of way. These are not necessarily negative or defeatist experiences. On the contrary, I think they are core ingredients for a kind of uprising, even if only in symbolic terms. I think a multi-faceted and multi-ethnic peaceful march is essentially a reflection of loss. In a regional setting, the divergent facets of the crowd inform the action, given its the lack of a clear purpose, cause or destination. The crowd itself becomes both subject and concern. On the other hand, there was an underlying purpose for the immigration project. It pertained to a proposition for evacuation, an outwards march. The immigration project was meant to facilitate that process.

Tom: The end of the Banner march with a black cube hot air balloon seems important, but also unknown. We know the beginning: the banner march departs from the same point as the black cube hot air balloon takes off. And we know the principle through which the action unfolds: the banner march tries to follow the balloon; the balloon tries to follow the banner march. The inevitable dissolution of the action – the balloon moving out of sight of the banner march on the ground below – is a less predictable element, both in the obvious sense that it’s not clear how quickly this will occur, but in the more important sense that it’s not entirely clear what is triggered by this dissolution. A banner march normally aims to produce a kind of culmination, the arrival at and occupation of a place which is also the articulation of its immediate objectives – Tahrir Square would be the most dramatic and well-known recent example. How have you come to regard that process of separation in the action? And, does it connect to the way you approach your image-making, which in my mind is often marked by an elusive quality, the sense of what is sought slipping away at the same time it is apprehended?

Raafat: I think this separation is crucial for the project. The crowd does not need to be compromised in any way by an eventual earthly meeting with the black cube. I see the march as a process of self-reflection to begin with. The black cube is a suggestion that the process of self-reflection can’t be a means to an end, but a conciliatory and inclusive process. It is hoped that the passing of the black cube will accentuate this idea. The black cube is neither a solution nor a figure of authority. However, by the nature of its structure (flying machine), color or lack of (black) and form (cube), it is a persuasive space that has no defining logic, in many ways, a pure form in time and space.

Tom: There are several recurring motifs in your painting, the black square – often located in place of the sun – being one of them. Another recurring motif is architecture, the fixedness of which is opposite to that endless roaming with the wind implied by the balloon’s flight. Certain kinds of architecture recur, like the stadium or grandstand, but in every case the building seems to me to stand for something else, a something else that cannot be shown. How does the balloon sit in relation to this interest in making paintings of architecture?

Raafat: The balloon is essentially an architectural form. The grid it pertains to, and its structure, are inherently architectural. The black cube of Mecca is an architectural monument and the flying machine is a flying building. My relationship to, and use of, architecture is less about style and form and more about the organizational qualities that are particular to it. A building is not so much a building but a set of philosophical propositions about how humans move and interact and for what purposes. The grandstand seems to be the most elaborate expression of this line of thinking. It services a direct function of gathering and looking, yet it has organizational qualities that have developed with time to encompass more covert organizational necessities such as surveillance, advertising and containment, and to a lesser degree, locale and community.

Published May 17, 2012.