‘White-washed I’ The Islamic Museum of Australia


On its webpage the museum declares itself a “vanguard of interactive and participatory experiences”. It calls visitors “to enter, to discover, to “unravel” and to “desypher” and yet the webpage (like the museum) only unravels a use of symbols from our multicultural dictionary: sharing, mutual, understanding, and on and on. Words that are as artistic and as rusted as the museum’s Corten veil that punctures the entry with a spray of holes; and so too, unfortunately, the museum “story” of Muslims in multicultural Australia is riddled with gaps.
Despite the promise there is no emphasis on our “Australian Islamic context”, and there is no resisting of “the temptation to orientalise the project”. We are an “ideal” other whose exotic achievements are listed hopefully for approval and whose religious entrails are squiggled into a seductive calligraphy that all awaits the oohing appreciation of the observing white gaze.

The Muslim’s story, thus, paradoxically enters the museum in the same way the sunlight erratically sneaks through the holes in its entrance. That is to say, it is not what is presented but rather what sneaks through the official story that tells the better story; all repressed things invite an unwelcoming Dionysus and what is missing of the Muslim becomes what is obvious about the Muslim experience in Australia.

The Dionysian represents “a cult of nature that comes from beyond the civilised’s borders: Africa, Asia, Americas, and the indigenous. Edward Said in Orientalism writes how the ancient Greek deity Dionysus came “storming in from Asia”; comes synonymous with the magical, exotic, violent and lustful Other.

Dionysus is a diety that expresses itself through high energy, irrationality and intoxication”. It is also a psychology; a drive compelling us all towards the transgression of our limits, the dissolution of boundaries, or the destruction of individuality and the pursuit of submission to a higher ecstasy. It is a cosmological view on truth and God, expressed in losing oneself in religious prayers that elicit a sense of forgetting oneself; a sense of terror and beauty and of the sublime.

In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speaks of Dionysian in contrast to the Apollonian. The latter represents human individualism, logic and the acceptance of a teleological view that champions our “control” over our universe and of the individual’s view that “I” march to my own destiny and move with determine aim of my outcome along an assumed line of worldly progress. “I” tell the story. The Apollonian spirit is embodied in the modern celebration of Enlightenment restraint, measure, harmony and optimism, and is thus a celebration of the secular world of a dominant fantasy that I can, and I do, resist qadar through reason. The Apollonian embraces the joyous necessity of dreaming one’s freedom and of capitalism’s plastic energies that turn the spiritual into objects, into pillars, into represented Muslims.

The Museum is overly Apollonian and represents the plastic domain of an existing liberal and multicultural supermarket … but is punctured with holes, alhumdillah. The story of the Muslim as Dionysus enters through the gaps and invariably a better story about Australia’s multiculturalism is told than the one Apollo intended. It tells a story of multiculturalism as a “luminous glorification” and a “necessary lie”. The museum’s history of Islam is a museum that celebrates a “missing” alternative history. It is a shrine about what cannot be said.

In between the celebrations of astronomy, there is no mention of the Cronulla riots; in between the calligraphy there are no wars; in-between portraits of public Muslims there is no calling to arms; no stabbings, no gangs, no protests, no call for caliphate, no police harassment, no internal organisations fighting, no dysfunctional peak bodies.

Where, for example, are Islam’s own legal Apollonian ideals clashing with the Dionysian realities of today’s Muslim world of despair and corruption? There is no mention of colonialism or the splintering of our traditional sciences into misplaced quarters, and paradoxically the museum’s very absence of representing Islamophobia is heightened through that absence … the entire thing becomes phobic. The celebration turns into a reminder of the uneasiness of Islam’s relationship with the West.

The Apollonian is thus clearly an ideological response and one photographic item expresses this point the best. It shows the image of a European castle and an Islamic mosque. On the top half of the photograph we see the dark ruins of a grey castle and it is titled the “Dark ages…”. The sentence continues “…weren’t so dark”, as the bottom half of the photograph shows off the illuminated columns of an Andalusian mosque. The orientalist binary of dark and light, so typical an Enlightenment motif, is now reversed under the guise of telling a historical fact. The curators’ secret is sublimated into this example; their splitting is so evidently and visually represented in an attempt to capture the “light” (a synonym for Europe) as also Islamic.

The museum thus reflects our inability to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self into a cohesive and realistic story. The romanticised “muslimitude” of enlightened Muslims denies the synthesis between Apollonian and Dionysian experiences. It is through the synthesis, rather than simply re-establishing a binary, that the Greeks established their sense of tragedy; a tragedy that tells of the human struggle in the face of the sublime nature of the universe; a tragedy that explains what it means to be a Muslim minority in a hostile west.

The museum’s enlightenment tale of scientific success says nothing about the Quran’s tragic view of the world and its story simply mis-educates everyone into reading immigrant history like a European story of progress-to-be. The museum’s chosen portrait of successful Australia Muslims, in the area of sport and business, is thus another ode to the Apollonian tune of progress. They are chosen because they are successful and in them we see the museum’s ideological veins; we see a certain class, a business, a set of playmakers, powerbrokers, and the source of money and the story’s supporting cast. There are no images of the African Muslim immigrant experience. There is no everyday Muslim. No bikie, taxi driver, factory worker. There is only success and what a lie it tells; for what is a Muslim story without a story about our failures and our oppression and our Islamophobia and our reactions and our mundaneness?

The curling lines of calligraphy that decorate the museum’s walls are so telling then as an analogy of the Apollonian illusion, and of continuity, and of grace. It leads the visitor’s eye around the room again and again as its attempt to sooth our everyday nine-to-five eye. An eye which is used to the sharp edges of contemporary Time-Roman fonts that have shaped our bureaucratic experiences as immigrants more than any artistic swoosh of the Arabic letter lam.

The museum’s only saving grace is a rather large oil painting titled Waleed Aly by Abdul Abdullah. It portrays Australia’s most successful public Muslim whose discussions about all-things Islam is also “enlightened”.  In this painting however I see him differently. I see a brother in arms. I soften. The image is brilliant. It was worth the entrance fee alone and I am no longer bored. I become lost, I see the Dionysian … finally.

I have never seen Aly this way and the painting works as a synthesis between Apollonian and Dionysian drives. There is a sense of sadness in his eyes and it written through a frown. Aly is in deep and he is burdened by a Greek-like tragedy. He is trying his best, he is in exile, he is caught in a nexus of knowledge and power that has forsaken the Muslim to be punished by thought. I am dragged into the experience that speaks about a collective struggle. The artist becomes a commentator and he toys with the hints of blood staining from Aly’s gloomy aura.

Waleed Aly’s accompanying plaque, however, unforgivingly snaps me out of my trance and as I read its nonsense Aly was turned from a zombie into a philosopher and in doing so I was returned to the well-illuminated room displaying “Islamic” surfboards. The very tragedy of the Muslim experience is a story about frailty of the human condition in a postcolonial world where we are caught as colonisers ourselves on indigenous land and oscillate between the fault lines of politics and religion. The story is given away cheaply for some surfboard decorated with Islamic patterns. Maybe they honour the Cronulla riots? Maybe…

The largest hole in the museum’s story is left to last. It was a blatant concession. It was proof. It is entirely invisible to patrons and is tucked around a corner away from anyone’s natural views. It is the most telling piece but it speaks the loudest due to its location; as if our embarrassment amplifies its every word. It also, on being next to the exit, works so perfectly for those who wish to exit the Apollonian view.

Its one (of many) paragraphs says so much more about our contemporary condition, about the colonial condition, more than the drooling delight we have for our achievements in astronomy, more than the plastic camel that stands proudly in the museum’s top floor, and more about our misplaced pride that we have when we hear that our ancestors were the first to invent coffee. It says of a synthesis … at how European we are when we colonise our Islamic history. It hints at how the death of the Orient, the Dionysus, becomes the denial of the east all together…



White-Washed I (Fanon’s lament) by Nazid Kimmie 2007
The smooth orderly road I walk upon
The pews of devout supermarket aisles I stand in
The faster than history gee-whizzery of terra-electronica
Emerges all from pigment hands, eyes and tongues
“The wretched of the Earth” gave birth to the new altar
It is time for a new infection, a cultural vivisection
Time for 100% pigment to excrete the white chalk…

Dr Yassir Morsi*

*Dr. Yassir Morsi is a researcher at the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia. He specialises in Muslims living in Western liberal societies. Morsi has a PhD in political theory dealing with racism and colonialism

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