“It’s strange,” said Hesam, who was born in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. “I’ve never thought of myself as a Muslim and yet now I’m marked as coming from a Muslim country’.”
His words reminded me of an anti-Semitic catchphrase – “Wer a Jud ist, bestimm ich!” / “I’ll decide who’s a Jew!” – sometimes attributed to senior Nazis, but believed to have been originally said by Karl Lueger, an anti-Semitic Mayor of fin de siècle Vienna.
While Lueger was reserving the right to define the identity of those that he hated, the great German-Jewish art historian Aby Warburg was in Hamburg, developing his theories of visual memory.
Warburg believed that buried in the rational and classical tradition of Western art, there was always an unruly, dangerous undercurrent of fear and hatred waiting to be stirred up.
When we hear American political donor Charles Koch say that it’s a “blood libel” to claim he would back Clinton over Trump, it’s possible he’s unaware of the connotations of the phrase. The “blood libel” was the anti-Semitic assertion that Jews drink the blood of children – the kind of horrific nonsense peddled by fearful European nationalists in the era of Lueger.
But Warburg might say the recurrence of such a phrase marks the old dangerous undercurrents rising to the surface. Nigel Farage’s infamous Brexit poster echoed Nazi propaganda. The structures of prejudice and exclusion – the cultural tricks which mark some people out as the Other – have changed less than we would like to imagine.
This crueller side of our cultures seems to be gaining in strength. In Britain we see a rise in xenophobia after the Brexit vote. In Australia, Pauline Hanson and her supporters give voice to troubling anti-Islamic sentiment. In the US, there is Trump.
Back in Brisbane, Hesam Fetrati’s work makes manifest the terrors and anxieties of refugees who seek passage through Australia’s notoriously strict borders.
Calm, gentle Hesam uses his etchings to lay bare the cruel and fearful flipside to the way we choose to live – exposing it to the light, like a sea monster dragged to the surface for scrutiny.
In place of violence he offers kindness and green tea and impeccable manners. But not at the expense of truth.