STORIES OF COMMUNITY RESILIENCE
Ahmad Sabra, artist and art-teacher, talks about his experiences of capturing images in regions of conflict and crises. Ahmad also discuss the challenges of pursuing of art as a career and as a means to make a living.
Ahmad Sabra is a Lebanese Australian Muslim artist and an art teacher based in Naarm. His current art practice challenges the complex terrain of nationality, loyalty and faith. Ahmad offers his unique perspective on the world around him and the challenges he encounters daily in understanding a sense of place and belonging. He explores the life of Australian Muslims, tackling stereotypes and biased views that isolates this community as outsiders and highlighting trends in societal and political influences that is fueled through fear and panic. www.ahmadsabra.com.au
Produced by Aamon Sayed
Aamon has worked within the Social Work sector since 2012. His work experience adds sensitivity to interviews to create them in a culturally safe setting. As a podcast producer, Aamon explores the human condition, and how to make the world a more positive place through his podcast series AddLOVE.
Aamon’s latest creative project is Untold Stories a photography series. To get involved follow Untold Stories on Instagram.
Please note this transcript is automatically generated and may contain errors.
Aamon Sayed : My name is Aamon Sayed and welcome to another episode of the Stories of Community Resilience Podcast by 3ZZZ. Before we start, I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are recording on and pay respect to the past and present generations on this episode of the show,I want to have a conversation with a friend of mine, Ahmad Sabra, about his experience as an artist in Australia. Thank you for joining us, Ahmad. How are you? How are you doing?
Ahmad Sabra: Good. Good. Yourself?
Aamon Sayed : So you’re one of the first people I actually met before moving to Melbourne. For those that know me, know I’m not a Melbourne original. I’ve been here for just over a year. You’re one of the first. First people I met, and actually my one of the first people that introduced me to the art scene. Here in Melbourne, I guess. Um, so you have a very interesting background and history. You do a lot of things around the arts. Can you give us a summary in your words on. How that started and what that looks like?
Ahmad Sabra: For a long time, I was a photographer, and I had an interest in, um, documenting displaced communities in the Middle East, in conflict zones and, going to exhibitions and going to galleries and things like that. I started to get interested into the art side of it. I did a masters in art at PSC, and through that I learned a lot more about the art side of it basically was exposed to how to to make work and also to shift my practice from being just a photographer to include other things and other elements in, in the work. And it kind of got me to also meet lots of people, lots of interesting practitioners, and it got me exposed to, to this different, this bigger world that I wasn’t exposed to before and, uh, taught me lots of ways to how to express, uh, my ideas or my thoughts or the way I felt in a beautiful way.
Aamon Sayed : You said that you had an interest in documenting displaced communities in the Middle East. Where did that come from? How did that start?
Ahmad Sabra: See, I was born overseas. I was born in Lebanon. My parents – my mom is Syrian. She’s a Syrian Kurd and my dad is born in Lebanon, but from a Syrian background. We would often travel overseas, I just wanted to at the time when I was younger, um, you know, going to Lebanon, I wanted to document what I was seeing at the time.I would take my camera around and I’ll take photos and this is pre Syrian uprising, you know. And then when that happened, I wanted to go in there and document it more.
Aamon Sayed : Two questions come from that. The first one is, uh, I guess about the mode of documentation. So a lot of people might write. Like what made you feel like taking a camera was the way that you wanted to document what you were seeing?
Ahmad Sabra: So I’ve always had difficulties verbalizing my thoughts. Coming to Australia at the age of 12. I’ve always struggled with this language, the the English language as such, where I felt very hard to express myself in words. And so when I was younger, I guess I would I took up photography and I loved that way of communication, this visual language. The things that I couldn’t express in words, I felt it was easier for me to express in photos.
Aamon Sayed : Like if I ask you the question now about what you learnt and what you saw, it might be different from when you first started documenting those things. So what were you seeing at that time that made you want to continue documenting what you were seeing?
Ahmad Sabra: I felt like the world over there or the world that I was experiencing wasn’t something that people here they knew about or heard of or seen, and that was an encouragement for me to, to keep doing what I was doing. I felt like when you told the story, when you said, you know, um, this particular place looked like this, that it wasn’t the same as actually showing them what it looked like. But also for me was to highlight certain issues, to basically expose what was happening there or what is happening there to somehow, get people to help if they see these images. It was for me to, it was my way to literally do something about the issues that were there. Sometimes, you know, you might feel helpless at, let’s say you go to a camp and I’ll, you know, I’ll feel helpless. I don’t have the financial capabilities to help or support financially. However, I can use these images to, um, basically showcase or not showcase to, to, to highlight the issues and possibly get some help. And that’s what we’ve done in a number of times where, for example, we um, took free photos in a particular, um, camp and we wanted to support them in a, in many ways. And we use those images to obviously, um, support the people that, that particular community.
Aamon Sayed : What was your experience like spending time in these places that were experiencing like the issues that you were seeing and then coming back to Australia? And living like a very Western life, very different to what’s happening overseas and and what the lifestyle is like overseas. What was that experience like? What did you like? What were some of the thoughts that you thought or what were some of the things that you, I guess were feeling or seeing, and what was your experience like?
Ahmad Sabra: So the the experience spending time over there changes your entire perspective. It changes your entire it rewires your brains, you rewires your, your mind. The perfect example would be I remember I, I was overseas and I had to come back to shoot a wedding because most of our income was coming from weddings at the time. And so I came back and I was shooting this wedding and the bride, she. She was crying. And I said to her, you know, everything okay? And she said, oh, you know, the, the, the florist. And then I was like. What’s going on? So I asked her again, what’s wrong with the florist? And she said, the florist sent me the wrong shade of pink flowers. So her bouquet had the wrong color pink, apparently. And she was upset and she was crying. And I just came back from overseas. And, I spent a couple of weeks in a in a in some of the camps. And so and I was like, I never saw anyone cry as much. I never saw anyone so upset as much, even though they were living in tents. They didn’t have heating or cooling or they didn’t have, uh, proper bathrooms. They didn’t have what we have here. Um, the conditions were horrific. They weren’t upset or or or or they didn’t express the sadness that she expressed over the color, the wrong color of the bouquet. It was a I don’t know how to describe it. I was a bit shocked. Part of me was, was like. This is this is amazing. This is a how can she be so upset at something so, uh, so simple, you know? And then you have a whole community that’s struggling to make, uh, to, to basically feed themselves. And so. And so that was, uh, that was, you know, these, these incidences obviously give you some sort of perspective on how we live our lives here. You know how the first world problems that we have, You know, I stopped to get angry. You know, I don’t get angry when I’m in a traffic jam. I don’t get upset over,the waiter bringing me the wrong food or the wrong order. I don’t get upset over the things that I used to get upset over. I appreciate a lot of things. A lot of things. You know, the the. I appreciate what I wear and what I eat and what I drive and where I live as well. Um, you know, the the place that I live in right now, it’s quite small in comparison to where I lived before. And every time I sort of think about like, um. Uh, you know, I constantly think about, uh, how people lived over there and how they’ve accepted their reality and how they’ve coped and how they managed and, and they how they survive. And I look at my life and I’m like, yeah, this is I’m happy. I feel content.
Aamon Sayed : Speaking to a lot of artists, especially being here in Melbourne for over a year now. Uh, it seems that a common. Struggle that artists have is trying to pursue a life of passionate art making while trying to live in what I would call a capitalistic society, one that’s based on like what you produce and how much you produce and the rate at which you can produce. So for you as an artist, someone who has had these experiences, what are the challenges that you face in pursuing that passion?
Ahmad Sabra: Yeah, it’s it’s a, it’s a constant struggle because, we don’t have the same resources as other people have. I’m specifically talking about, um, uh, people who are from ethnic minorities, you know, where if I wanted to pursue an art project to work on my project, I have to trade off. There’s a trade off. You know, I have to give up some time from work or from my life. Um, let’s say, for example, if I had the luxury of not worrying about rent or food or family expenses, you know, I would fully dedicate my time to making work. And I feel like we live in this world where we have to dedicate a great amount of time to to make ends meet, you know, to to pay our expenses, to to, you know, make enough money for a rent or mortgage and all that kind of stuff and that. And for example, at the moment, I don’t have the luxury of privilege to, to spend time working on the projects that I’m trying to work on. So, you know, before Covid, um, I was lucky enough to work on a couple of things because I, um, you know, I was, I was actually shooting, I was making money from the photography and I had more time. However, you know, Covid hit and things have changed and I changed careers. And now I’m working as a full time teacher, and I find that extremely hard to dedicate time to what I want to do and the projects that I want to do. And like that you like the question that you asked. It’s it’s quite difficult to balance that sort of life where you want to pursue what you want to do. And it’s a constant struggle. You know, like I feel like, for example, now that today we have a couple of, you know, functions or events that we would want like to go to. And you think about it and you’d be like, okay, well, I’ve got a bunch of hours. Um, do I prepare myself for tomorrow because I’ve got work tomorrow? Do I, um, go to these events or do I work on my project? Right. And so and even the opportunities as well. Like, for example, if I’m going to be trying to apply to an art residency, um, I’m employed full time and usually these residencies are – they give priority to full time artists.
Aamon Sayed : You mentioned you’ve now become a full time teacher, which is something different from your pursuit, like you’re pursuing your art practice. Like how does your experience working in a different industry influence your artistic vision? Does it affect your artistic vision?
Ahmad Sabra: Initially, I never thought it would. However, working as a teacher, it kind of gave me, um, it gave me more ideas. It gave me more sort of – You open up other doors as well? Like thinking about it now, I’m like, yes. Um, uh, I felt like, you know, oh, no. Like I’m going to be busy working and teaching. I’m not going to have time for photography or for art. However, there is a positive, you know, where I started to see things or notice things. And for example, um, looking at humanity books, you know, I’m teaching, I was teaching humanities and I’m like, hang on. So, so, you know, there was a topic on livability and, and I was reading it and this whole topic of livability was measuring countries in cities and what is the most livable and, and the criterias are very Western centric. And, and I was like, hang on. So how about we look at it differently? What about like, what if the ability was measured in a different way? And so I wouldn’t have been sort of exposed to this if I wasn’t a teacher, for example, um, working with students as well. Um, I’ve started to understand a little bit, um, or not understand in the sense, in the sense of like working specifically in Islamic schools. I started to think about, um. What the future generation might look like. What would the future? Islamic community might look like as well. And that kind of is included into the work that I’m doing now where it’s, um, it’s a prediction of what society would look like in 50 or 60 years time, specifically as a minority today. How would we be in 2055 or 2075?
Aamon Sayed : The fact that you’re a teacher actually really helps this. What? This question what would you like to see in change in the education system to prepare young people to potentially follow things like artistic passions? From what you’ve seen as a full time teacher, what would you like to see happen within the education system as a whole to prepare young people?
Ahmad Sabra: So the education system at the moment, I feel like it’s geared towards pushing people to perform in a particular way. To achieve great results in year 11 and 12, which takes them to a particular university degree, which which might guarantee them a good employment in the future. Now. We get towards this is geared towards only a small number of students. It’s not catering for the majority of students. Um, it does. The education system at the moment doesn’t really cater for everyone else and I feel like this is what the problem with the with teaching in general is that, you know, we are taught, um, to be part of this system and we are taught to, um, uh. To produce particular types of students, you know, and we’re not really preparing them for the real world. We’re not preparing them. We’re not telling them that it’s okay to pursue other things. And that is a big issue. Like, I’m not an art teacher and I don’t feel like art is appreciated anyway. It’s not something that is encouraged at all in our communities because it will not. Uh. It will not help. Uh. It would not help individuals to. A chief steward will not help individuals to achieve certain standards within or what is expected in our communities. So, for example, um, I did this for my masters where I wrote this, um, little piece and it was about how I told my parents the first time that I wanted to pursue photography. And my parents were extremely shocked and they were concerned and they were saying things like, You will never, um, you’ll, you won’t have a family, you won’t get married. Because if you’re a photographer, you’re not going to be making money. If you don’t make money, your future will be ruined, you won’t find someone. You’re not going to have kids and all that kind of things and. Our communities keep on doing that where they want us to obviously pursue certain careers, where it guarantees us work and in their, um, in ways that’s how they perceive success, is that you get a good job and make a lot of money and have a house and have a family, and that’s their version of success. However, what I would like to to to however in my sort of, uh, not um. However, for me, success is completely different. It’s not based on, um, I’ll probably call it like a primitive sort of way of thinking of like, accumulating money and houses and cars and all that kind of things. Um, it’s more about what have you done, What have you changed? You know, have you made someone’s life better or have you made your life better or what have you Have you made something? Have you changed something? Have you improved something? It could be in your life, someone else’s life in anything. That’s what success is for me. It’s completely different. And so what we teach in these students is that success is your grades and money and being in degrees that will offer you those opportunities, offer you those high paying jobs in the future. Um, so like I said before about the humanities books where these criterias of, of livability, now I’m talking about the criterias of success and how the schooling system, geared towards this, um, idea that success is based on how much money you’ll be making in the future.
Aamon Sayed : Very well said. Uh, do you think that the difference between how we see success and how, like, previous generations is due to. Like more of like a socioeconomic change. The fact that we’re growing up in different countries, like, I guess my question is how. What do you see that shift in our criteria of success between us and previous generations? Where does that come from? In your perspective.
Ahmad Sabra: It basically comes from, well, this criteria basically comes from. Our parents or our families coming from environments, coming from, uh, war torn countries, coming from the lack of opportunities or lack of lack of money, you know, lack of security. And so they come here and they want that security for us. They want us to to prosper financially and they want us to live comfortably and they want us to to have the things that they didn’t have growing up and, um, not realizing that, um, there are other things that we want to pursue or want to do. Um, and I’m falling for the same thing again where I am prioritizing, uh, making a living or providing for myself and for my daughter. Then pursuing what I want to do and which goes back to what we were saying before, that it is a struggle because every day, yes, I want to pursue what I want to do. You know, I want to make, however. When do I get to do that? When I have all these responsibilities that I have to do.
Aamon Sayed : What we talked a little bit about the education system’s role in preparing people to live lives, following artistic passions. How do you think the art world could change? Uh, to accommodate people of our generation trying to pursue art while making a living.
Ahmad Sabra: I feel like there should be, um, more financial incentives. More, um. Yeah, I think there should be more financial incentives and also more, uh. A like a baby. So your question is, um, it’s hard to answer because it’s not something that could be done in isolation. It’s a whole societal issue. Uh, we live in a capitalistic world where we have to we have this performative or we have this obligatory performances that we have to do on a daily basis. Uh, you know, like getting a job to make an income, you know, so it’s not something where it’s easily solved. It’s we can’t just fix it. It’s a whole societal issue, you know, Um, things are going up in price. Everything is getting more expensive. Your you’re always having to be chasing. You have to always be pursuing this, um, you know, pay increases and all that kind of things because you’re trying to catch up with inflation and all that. So it’s, it’s not as easy as trying to find, uh, ways to solve this in isolation. It has to be a whole holistic sort of, um, change in, in society or economics, uh, or the way we deal with, um, uh, the economy. So, so, you know, a suggestion might be having an income or financial incentive to artists to pursue what they’re doing. Um, but if you look at Islamically, you know, a thousand nights a hundred years ago, for example, um, particular people would get scholarships and they would be exempt from, uh, from, from doing jobs to make a living. And so they can pursue the, the work that they’re doing, you know, um, why do we have so many, um, amazing scientists and artists from that era, uh, compared to now is because obviously now everyone’s geared towards making a living over there. They had more opportunities to pursue, uh, you know, science and art and literature, you know, so it’s quite different. Um, you know, we live in a completely different world. It is completely capitalistic society is. It’s extremely hard to see. The entire art world is for me, I find it problematic in a way where I think that art needs to serve a function. It doesn’t really you know, it doesn’t have to. However, like I feel personally, I feel like it has to serve a function, right. Um, and the kind of work that I try to do or try to make, um, is something that I want to influence or cause a change or to, um, to make someone see the work and feel something or make some, realize certain things that they’ve never thought about. And I feel like the kind of things that I make, if they end up just in a in a gallery or somewhere where they are not seen or they’re only seen to to a number of people, I feel like I’m in a way preaching to the converted. If I’ve got an artwork that deals with, let’s say, Islamophobia or racism and it’s in the gallery, I mean, it’s I am preaching to the converted. And so, you know, so even the way that we practice or the way that we do things, I feel like I’m trying to learn about other ways to make art or do work where its influence is not just in a gallery space. Um, so I’ve looked at, you know, many different artists and, and I’ve seen a lot of different works and how can political art or art can, um, inform or influence, um, society, not just people who have the privilege to, to go to a gallery. And when I say privilege to go to a gallery, I mean, um, in realistically, there’s not many ethnic minorities that go to galleries. Um, you know, if, uh, if I look at my school or people around me, um, it’s not something that they usually say, like, what did you do in the weekend? Hardly anyone would say, Oh, I went to a gallery. It’s something that our communities are not used to.
Aamon Sayed : Mr. Sabra, thank you for your time and your insight and your experience. I think you’ve done a very good job of articulating what it’s like to be in your situation and to kind of speak about the education and the. Uh, I guess pitfalls of, like. The art scene in the West and what that looks like. Thank you for your time. Um, yeah.
Ahmad Sabra: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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