WHEN Louise Whelan started photographing Australian communities for the State Library of NSW, one group particularly grabbed her attention.
It was the country’s exuberant, close-knit African families, who we hear so little about.
Australia is largely focused on its indigenous, Asian and white ethnic groups. Many of us know more about African-American culture than African-Australian.
Louise’s images show families and friends against colourful backgrounds, whether relaxing at their unmistakably Aussie homes, framed against patterned wallpaper or out in the natural landscape.
“I wanted to show how the community interacts against an Australian backdrop,” she told news.com.au. “And how often they’ve been cut from one culture into another.”
She asked every subject what they thought defined Australian culture and whether they felt connected to it. Some said they felt a close affinity, others said they were African first but Australian second, and one young girl — whose family were all born in the Democratic Republic of Congo — burst into tears at school when someone called her African.
As much as 2.5 per cent of Australia’s population is African-born, not to mention the children and grandchildren of migrants. “I love being with the families,” says Louise, who comes from a large family herself, and has developed close friendships with many of the people she photographs. “They have this strong sense of community, and not just on Australia Day. They have a different way of being together.”
Many of her subjects have suffered on their journey to Australia. One man was in a refugee camp for 17 years. Another was a doctor at a camp, forced to hunt for rats to get protein for his children. Now he works in social welfare here, and his wife is studying for a degree.
“I’m really inspired by the resilience, this hope they have,” says Louise, who took pictures of people in her hometown of Sydney and in regional Australia. “It’s a positivity you don’t see elsewhere. I wanted to explore that in visual storytelling.
“I love the colour palette African communities wear. They have a new way of looking at things, and lots to offer us in sport, life, art and fashion.”
In an essay on Louise’s powerful exhibition, Robert McFarlane says her use of African colour palettes and patterns grab attention as they interact with Australian suburbia and the landscape of “a young nation that has embraced and redefined multiculturalism.”
McFarlane believes her work showcases the community’sgrowing confidence in retaining a cultural identity while adapting to a new life. He quotes an unusual speech given by George W. Bush in Africa more than a decade ago.
“Not usually known for eloquence, Bush found himself addressing this African leader with these stumbling, surprising words: ‘I want to say every American has a great debt to Africa. Much of the genius of our country is drawn from the genius we have received from Africa — in Art, sport and life…’”
McFarlane added: “What Louise Whelan has captured in these colour images is vivid evidence of the unique spiritual and behavioural qualities Bush was struggling to express. Anyone who has been to that continent knows there is no place quite like Africa and its soul has informed the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe and now Australia.”
African / Australians is on display at Customs House from now until 22 March 2015. Find out more about Louise Whelan’s work and upcoming exhibitions on her website.