I came into anthropology proper only two years ago now, in doing a Graduate Diploma in 2017. I originally went through art school, completing a Fine Art degree at RMIT and then an Honours year at VCA in 2013. I spent most of my time in those years on video and installation art and on art history and theory, with a particular focus on 20th century modernism and the avant garde. I also spent my final year on ‘global art’ discourse, a precursor to my interests in decolonisation and ethnomusicology, but more on that later.
In teenage years I had been obsessed with philosophy and cultural studies, reading Deleuze and Baudrillard and convinced I understood them, but instead I turned to art and aesthetics. I was mentored in the legendary local record store Synaesthesia and was involved a lot with experimental music and outsider culture. After high school I travelled a great deal – up and down Australia in various counter-cultural situations, then a stint of living in Europe and then in India. I had been planning this for some time. By this stage, I guess, I had started to develop an anthropological imagination, largely through the context of ethnomusicology and foreign cinema and, I would say, a growing interest in traditional knowledge practices.
Due to various personal crises and unusual life experiences, coming of age throughout the Bush and Howard years, my interests shifted when I was 18 or so from being purely artistic and aesthetic to becoming both spiritual and political in nature. I tended to think of this as in line with avant garde sensibilities. I voraciously studied for many years, and was trained in by teachers of various traditions, classical esoteric knowledge practice (Iranian sufism, Indian vedanta, Western alchemy and astrology), which I continue to this day. One particular precedent to this, I guess, was growing up in Melbourne with an older close friend who had come down from Arnhem Land. He had a very strong impact on me, so Australian Indigenous culture, and its radical difference, was also a big influence from an early age.
This was such that after some time in my mid-teenage years, it no longer felt different at all, but actually more familiar than anything. I came to understand and feel myself, an Anglo-Australian person, as dislocated and a permanent guest of local Indigenous culture. I subsequently think in those terms, in an ontological and animist way, I guess, and my connection to the Australian landscape is subsequently informed by this, inescapable from Aboriginal culture and history.
Thinking in these terms has always made more sense to me; more so anyway than the values and worldview of contemporary Australian society which I have always felt alienated from. As such, studying esoteric knowledge practices, thinking about Indigenous ontologies, and studying politics and avant garde culture, has always been intimately tied together. The personal, and the spiritual, is political; even with esoteric and philosophical pursuits, the reality of power, injustice and inequality is always there. But this is an unpopular idea even though it lurks everywhere, on the fringes of much of our intellectual and cultural practice.
As I became early on disillusioned with Western intellectual culture, really for its inability to deal with metaphysical and ontological questions which I could not stop asking (though I tried), I became convinced again of finding alternate ways of knowing and experiencing the reality of the world; something I still hold to firmly today. This more than anything was the precedent for studying anthropology. I don’t feel I ever fetishised or orientalised otherness, I just became convinced that having an awareness of more than one culture was key to an emancipated understanding of the contemporary world; such that the binary power divisions of self and other, subject and object, Oriental and Occidental, fade away. I wasn’t interested in ‘other cultures’ merely because they were ‘other’. For me there was always a specific reason; music, aesthetics, social justice, knowledge practices, etc. As such, I did all I could to absorb as much of it as I could; cosmopolitan culture from the fringes of modernity. This eventually led to a multiple-year involvement with contemporary art practice in Asia, for example.
I always found, and do to this day, that many contributions from non-Western artists, writers, musicians, philosophers and political visionaries, are criminally ignored by contemporary culture in the West, with its intellectual hubris. To try and understand this ignorance and its history, I became convinced of the reality of orientalism and the racist ethnocentrism and White supremacy that pervades Western culture; that causes the gulf of understanding between peoples in the Global North and South, and/or between those on the inside and outside of Western civilisation.
These research interests were all personal in nature, so I pursued them throughout my 20’s, whilst making money however I could and developing an artistic practice through art school studies. During this time, living in Footscray, I survived the suicide of a friend in my house; the world of trauma that it opened up, navigating the social routes and worlds of his surviving friends, trying to make sense of the chaos of contemporary life and to reconcile it with metaphysical and spiritual realities.
Months later, meditating in the Blue Mountains, I ended up in a long-distance relationship between Melbourne and Sydney. It opened up new worlds and social realities, visits to loved ones incarcerated in corrections institutions, being close to someone surviving sexual violence, and a lot of love and happiness too. This kind of trauma was, however, not new to me as growing up I had lived through many things and seen a lot that I wasn’t ready for at the time. But this period, at least, gave me a sensibility of the power and force of human life, and the subsequent need for difference forms of justice. This, too, would evolve into an anthropological sensibility.
I made a film about the death of my friend on the three-year anniversary; poetry and long takes, it was the first thing that I made that was about something and about human realities, subjects which pervade the anthropological sensibility. I became committed after this for my practice to follow in kind. As well as being aesthetic in nature, the work I was making began exploring metaphysical and philosophical themes; mysticism, poetry, trauma and transcendence, all about the human dimension of things. Particularly towards my graduation, it all became increasingly informed by an ethnographic methodology and sentiment.
I made a video series about the Hoddle Street massacre and local community memory, and a video work about dreams and artefacts of Koori culture in Port Phillip Bay. I then worked on a long-winded research project into the intertwining of music and mysticism (my favourite subjects) in the South-East Asian region. This became the subject of my VCA Honours thesis and final project, which took me in 2013 to various villages and Indigenous communities in Sarawak (East Malaysian Borneo) where a friend and I went to the jungle in search of an extinct musical instrument. On the same trip I made the first of a couple of trips to Vietnam, where I went alone looking for the obscure musical culture of Malayo-Polynesian ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, which I had heard years earlier in ethnomusicological collections.
Both trips were highly successful, and I subsequently ended up in many remote villages, of Indigenous peoples who had only been modernised in the previous several decades; to collect and record music, shoot film and interview people, and generally to hang out, as a form of research. I made a lot of friends and found a lot of love there.
In my ignorance of anthropology, at that stage I had not yet heard of ‘participant observation’, nor of ‘deep hanging out’. I developed those methodologies independently, I guess (they are surely human instincts), and the whole experience became very personal. The friend Yara who I was in Sarawak with, my closest friend for at least a decade, I lost tragically late last year. We were spending intelligent time with intelligent people, Indigenous dayak people in Borneo, who invited us into their lives and communities.
He was already living and working in Sarawak as a social worker when I arrived. Together we travelled around for some months and, as well as searching for extinct instruments, subsequently developed in collaboration a grounded theory about whiteness, racism, Colonisation, and the need for a radical kind of cosmopolitanism; critical anthropological theoretical work I am still developing today. We had always hoped to return for harvest season, the Iban festival of Gawai, but never made it; life got in the way. I will return next year alone, I think, to continue to grieve; perhaps to release his ashes into the confluence (kwala) of the Kuching river. There, where it flows to the South China Sea. But I’m not sure yet.
A residency project in Kerala in South India in 2014, connected to the Kochi-Muzuris Biennale, saw the completion of a project about sound, silence and spirit in traditional Indian musical culture, based around a spatial study of the tanpura instrument and its relationship with nada yoga – the Yoga of sound. This was followed in 2015 by a 3-month period of writing an (as-yet) unfinished book about the trail of misery and destruction of the War in Syria, interviewing and spending time with many different people in the cities, towns and refugee camps in Turkey, along a thousand kilometres of the Syrian border. The subject of Syria and its fate, prior to this, was and subsequently became very personal to me for a number of years, from the beginning of the Revolution onwards; I watched closely as the dream turned to misery. Hopefully I will return next year to complete this, as they say, insha’Allah.
Later that year I was invited to Beijing for an art residency, via a grant from 4A Contemporary Asian Art gallery in Sydney, and was mentored by Chinese conceptual artist Shen Shaomin for a month. I also travelled at this time to the rare-earth mineral extraction fields in Inner Mongolia, the biggest of their kind in the world, and dodging various security elements, made a landscape film about unending environmental apocalypse. This trip also saw me venturing to the occupied Uyghur lands in Xinjiang, on a folk music trip that turned into something else. I spent the majority of this time in the contemporary art community in China and exhibited in Beijing also; a personalised ethnographic film about the contemporary life of our Iban friends in Sarawak.
Around this time I embarked on, and eventually finished in 2017, two large film works concerning the human dimension of post-Soviet ethnic violence in the Caucasus, where I lived for a year or so (in Tbilisi, Georgia) and am still semi-based. Altogether it was remains the biggest single thing I have ever done. The films were collaborations with friends; among them the local war veteran and poet Shalva Bakuradze who narrates poetry and testimonials in the film, and my partner at the time, the artist Ketevan S. Both are survivors of ethnic cleansing and permanent refugees from the War in Abkhazia, exiled in Tbilisi. My relationship with Shalva, still one of my closest friends to this day, opened me up to the spiritual and poetic world of post-conflict cosmopolitanism and literary grace, drenched in alcohol, poverty and trauma. My relationship with Ketevan was similarly deep, deeper in fact and infused with a different love. Both of them are exiles in a poor and war-torn land that I used the opportunity of film to tell the story of; in an unconsidered and, for me, a beloved part of the world which is now my second home.
It is telling to reflect that I originally went to Georgia for an ethnomusicological conference to study traditional vocal polyphony (with my Georgian teacher, University of Melbourne professor, Dr Joseph Jordania), which I still study and sing; but I subsequently fell in love, and became embroiled in the unresolved aftershock of a 25-year old war. Telling because out of anything it demonstrates how my sensibilities turned from aesthetic to anthropological; I had gone to study the music, but ended up in a world of ethnic nationalism, violence, poetry, injustice, cultural collision, modernisation, poverty, folk culture, alcoholism, trauma, love and pain. I began research into the War with an artistic sensibility, only to uncover all of these complexities which I couldn’t ignore.
In the same way, I originally went to India in 2008, where I’ve now been 6 times and have spent 2 years of my adult life, for a holiday; and to study the music and spiritual culture. But, it was in surviving various traumas there, brought on by confrontations with the darkest sides of humanity; poverty, injustice, disease, violence and madness, which ended up influencing me the most. I realised only later that this is what musical and spiritual culture is all about; the force, complexity and wholeness of human life in its totality. Realising this, after great struggle, led to a meeting and subsequent 11-year-long apprenticeship with an itinerant sadhu priest/healer in the North Indian Himalayan region, Baba Goswami Chuny Lal Om Giri Maharaj of Kangra. A pleasant and humble old man I visit every odd year, he is a good friend and now the subject or main informant of my Honours thesis, a study into Indian metaphysics and the anthropology of animism. We’ve been through a lot together now.
Wishing to triangulate my ongoing commitment to solving the problems and conflicts of my home country Australia, I’ve ended up being caught between the eternal dream of India and the hoary lands of the Caucasus. I figure only art, and now anthropology, can help in expressing an understanding of these kinds of things, where all else fails. So here we are.
I would say, in hindsight, that the reason I chose to explore all of these complex and difficult subjects in my art practice was because of a broad cosmopolitan interest in the world, but it was also because I was becoming convinced with what is, in the end, the core of the anthropological sentiment. That normal people everywhere are interesting, honest, powerful and beautiful, and coexistent with this beauty there is such great injustice in the world. Making artistic or intellectual work not involving people, their suffering and joy, the beauty of culture and the endless struggles for justice, seemed an increasingly empty affair. Such was the way that I became convinced finally that the discipline of anthropology was useful and would help expand my life and research.
During the time studying the Graduate Diploma, I learned that anthropology gives context and insight into the nature of life from the ground up. Added to this, anthropology is in constant and healthy dialogue with itself, being a naturally critically reflexive discipline. Whilst it is the discipline best placed to make sound research and subsequent critical conclusions about human nature and life on earth, it is not limited to this kind of lofty philosophising at all.
It is also very practical, down-to-earth, and concerned with emancipation, development and justice. The fact that it is in constant reflexive dialogue with itself, means that it is all about creating new knowledge and new language to capture, demonstrate and explain the reality of the world, as well as providing solutions for the future.
In a final (or merely the latest) moment of becoming convinced, I became convinced, largely because of my mentoring with Ghassan Hage, that anthropology was going to be the way that I would try to language, justify and legitimise the kinds of metaphysical and ontological realities that I’ve always felt and known, and that I think we desperately need a grounded understanding of in our contemporary cultural space, beyond what is possible in art and aesthetics.
I figure now my life will always be between Australia, India and the Caucasus, and devoted to artistic and anthropological work; in an attempt to uncover the ecstasies and suffering of our basic humanity; to reduce the violence in our thinking and to uncover new (and old) ways of knowing and being. I really believe that anthropology, like art can do however vaguely, has the potential to lead to a powerful, critical and permanent ‘decolonisation of thought’; giving voice to the voiceless, and lending insight into the human dimension of things where it is needed the most. Anthropology, like art, is a practice which, like life itself, is an ongoing and neverending process. So cheers to that I guess.