52 Suburbs: A search for beauty in the Sydney ‘burbs

I’m delighted to be posting this guest review of Louise Hawson’s 52 suburbs, now showing at the Museum of Sydney. This review is contributed by arts writer Joanna Bayndrian.

East is West: refreshing explorations of Sydney’s population epicenter in Louise Hawson’s 52 suburbs

Louise Hawson was no pioneer in her search for beauty slightly west of centre. Senior-citizen Alan Waddell photographed one hundred and thirty-four of Sydney’s Western suburbs between 2003 and 2008, documented on his site Walk Sydney Streets (http://www.walksydneystreets.net/index.htm). Yet Hawson’s 52 suburbs project, that began as a modest blog and is now an exhibition and publication in partnership with the Museum of Sydney, provides some of the most striking depictions of suburban Sydney yet. While some inner-city and beachside locations are featured, Hawson concentrates on the Western, Northwestern and Southwestern suburbs. These suburbs represent Sydney’s population epicenter (with almost two million residents) and have experienced enormous demographic fluctuations over the past sixty years. Still regarded as the ‘fringe’ in the minds of many urban-situated Sydneysiders, Hawson’s exhibition reveals that the focus is shifting, and the outer suburbs are coming to represent a true international hub connecting Sydney and Australia to the Asia Pacific.

Having grown up in Hong Kong, it is no surprise that Hawson has an eye for true cultural melting-pot moments. Using the diptych method of pairing two photographs together, Hawson correlates colours and patterns to weave a single thread through seemingly disparate subjects, binding together old and new, youth and maturity, nature and humanity. Her portraits of elderly Anglo-Australian residents against the visual hubbub of multicultural shopping strips in Eastwood, Hurstville and Cabramatta, depict how their lives are permanently intertwined with those of less established migrant communities. In a way, 52 suburbs is an ode to an organic multiculturalism that goes beyond manufactured top-down representations. Hawson’s own personal aesthetic taste brings a consistency to the suburb profiles that are at times geographically, architecturally, and culturally distinct. Suburban isolationism is often regarded as one of Sydney’s most damaging realities, its boundaries defined by postcodes, waterways and spurring train lines. It is these boundaries 52 suburbs attempts to visually transgress.

Only visiting each suburb briefly, Hawson does not feign a commitment to community responsibility or sustained engagement. She was merely a welcome stranger in the places she visited, an outsider stepping in for a quick glimpse. 52 suburbs, then, is most honestly read as a journey of personal exploration and imagination, an exercise in creativity rather than a project addressing genuine community issues and consciousness. Nonetheless it conveys the important idea of Sydney as an axis of cultural diversity and dynamism. If there is a single district that is most telling of Australia’s integration into the Asia Pacific region, it is surely Sydney’s Western suburbs. Putting all other compasses aside, East is West.

Louise Hawson’s 52 suburbs is now showing at the Museum of Sydney, corner of Phillip and Bridge streets, Sydney.

14 May- 9 October 2011






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