“Urban Burqa” is the sequel to my 2014 series Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country.
The initial series was specific to Australia and sought to address questions of migrant and refugee identity, assimilation and belonging.
By juxtaposing elements that were superficially at odds with one another—the Afghan burqa and the Australian landscape—an unexpected aesthetic symbiosis between the two was established, suggesting that refugees can complement and contribute to Australian culture and society better than certain politicians feared.
In 2017, the world has changed. But not for the better.
A survey conducted in Australia in 2016 revealed that 49% of the population supported a prohibition on Muslim immigration. Moreover, the jingoism surfacing there has manifested in many other Western countries, not least the USA, France, Holland and even Hungary. Populist leaders appeal to base instincts, offering cheap solutions to local problems while painting refugees—who have been forced to leave their lives behind—as rank opportunists or covert terrorists. It is politics at its most primitive, inciting fear, suspicion, even hatred—yet remarkably effective.
As nations and their leaders increasingly turn inward, there is a striking lack of vision. Essential human qualities such as empathy and compassion appear to be evaporating. Yet how, one wonders, would those who spurn refugees expect to be treated if they were the ones being forced to seek refuge?
As in the initial series, the burqa here again invites the viewer to look beyond its most obvious interpretation—that of female oppression—towards more nuanced layers, including knee-jerk responses to outsiders who have fled their homes to find their place in a new (and not always welcoming) environment. Taken in its broadest sense, the burqa may be seen in this context as representing any foreigner who is “different” on the surface.
Almost three years after the first series, “Urban Burqa” asks similar questions. Yet it is edgier and hints at the even greater sense of challenge, confrontation and isolation now facing refugees, while recognizing that assimilation is a two-way street, requiring effort from all parties.
At its heart, however, this series seeks to retain the optimism of its predecessor: a hope that the better sides of human nature will ultimately prevail in a time that is a stern examination of us all.