The world on our doorstep

I’ve just been to Brisbane to see the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art – APT for short. The Queensland Art Gallery initiated the project almost 20 years ago, and it remains the only major gallery exhibition series in the world devoted to Asian contemporary art.

When I first visited Brisbane back in 1986 it still had something of the air of a big provincial town. Today it’s a thoroughly modern city and the South Bank is as lively a cultural centre as you’ll find anywhere in Australia.

Most of the APT nowadays is to be seen at the Gallery of Modern Art, opened just six years ago, with a smaller number of works at the original QAG. With works from 27 countries, from Japan to Turkey, it’s an exhibition of enormous scope, but some intriguing themes help to give it a focus.

For this seventh APT there is a major display of Papua New Guinea art at GOMA. It is recent work developed within an ancient tradition, and includes performance masks, Pukumani poles and works inspired by customary spirit houses.

This is art that speaks powerfully of the place and society it comes from, and there are echoes of the same spirit in contributions by artists from other parts of the Pacific, including Samoa and Fiji. Australian and New Zealand indigenous artists complement the theme. Especially striking is a series of vibrant canvases and poles by Tiwi artist Timothy Cook, and a series of small but haunting paintings by Samoan New Zealander Graham Fletcher, entitled Lounge Room Tribalism.

Curator Reuben Keehan and his collaborators have clearly put much thought into cultural connections. At QAG, for example, there’s a presentation by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa that links the art and music of the anti-Suharto underground to the Queensland music scene of the 1970s.

There’s lots more from across the continent, and it’s well worth a visit.


I’ve been reading accounts by visitors to China before and after the 1949 revolution. It started when I came across Journey to a War, the account by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood of their visit to China in 1938. They described Shanghai surrounded by Japanese troops; they met both Chiang Kai-Shek and communist leader Zhou En-Lai. It’s a brilliant book and a reminder, at a time when some latter-day commentators seem to want only to discuss their sexuality, of how engaged these two great writers were with the momentous political events of the day.

Not long after this our neighbour Kel McIntosh – a saxophonist still playing at the age of 88 – lent us the 1967 book by Australian writer and ABC documentary film maker, the late Maslyn Williams, The East is Red. A couple of weeks ago Kel turned up again with a 1949 book by American journalist Jack Belden, China Shakes the World, a detailed eyewitness account of the social background to the revolution.

Belden was born in Brooklyn and graduated from university just when the Depression hit. He worked as a merchant seaman but in 1933 landed in Shanghai, learned Mandarin and became an agency journalist, then reported for Time and Life during World War Two and wrote a book about Burma, Retreat with Stilwell.

His China book is a major attempt to explain to the American public what appalling conditions the mass of the population had suffered, and why the course of their revolution was inevitably very different from that of America’s Founding Fathers. “The Chinese Communists,” he concluded, “in the process of raising a people’s rebellion, freed the peasants from feudal burdens and the nation from domination by the West. But it is very doubtful if they have liberated the people from the encroachments of state power.”


Chinese people living abroad constitute the world’s biggest diaspora. But while most of them have chosen a life free of those “encroachments of state power”, their cultural identity remains strong.

Take the case of Hong Kong-born Jackie Chan, the martial arts film star. We’ve just seen his movie 1911. Not only does he star in it alongside Winston Chao and Joan Chen, he was its executive producer and co-director. It was his 100th movie and he chose to make it for the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty and made Dr Sun Yat-Sen, regarded as the father of modern China, the first president of the republic.

Except for a grudging review in The New York Times the movie was mercilessly panned in the USA, which of course meant that it didn’t receive adequate promotion or distribution in Australia. But while it won’t become a cinema classic, it’s a creditable film about a generation that made heroic sacrifices to bring China into the modern world.


2012 for us has been a year of reconnection: three months in Europe, meeting up with some of our greatest friends. Alex’s book Come the Revolution: A Memoir has brought us many new friends, too, and introduced us to groups of people – readers, teachers, students – who have renewed our confidence that under the radar of the mainstream media, beyond the reach of spin, thinking people everywhere are resisting the manipulations of the banks, the multinationals, the military-industrial complex and the governments that do their bidding.

Season’s Greetings from both of us. We look forward to continuing the online discussion with you as the events of 2013 unfold.

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