x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Unique surfboards show how art can influence cultural change

The Australian boards are adorned with striking images from Persian, Ottoman and Arabic mosques.

SYDNEY // Heralded as a "brave and positive step" towards soothing religious and racial tensions, a unique collection of Australian surfboards inscribed with ancient Islamic art will be taken on tour around Europe and the United States having been showcased in Dubai in March. The boards are adorned with striking images from Persian, Ottoman and Arabic mosques and represent a fusion of cultures.

"By putting it [the motifs] onto that iconic Aussie emblem we start to have a dialogue between East and West," said the artist Phillip George, a lecturer in digital media at the University of New South Wales' College of Fine Art. "There is a lot of tribalism in Australia in terms of surf culture. The beach is sacred soil in Australia, so the surfboard is very significant," Mr George explained as he stood on a chilly autumn morning at one of his favourite surfing spots at Bronte in Sydney, while a relentless procession of white-capped waves rolled towards the shoreline.

Mr George's collection comprises 30 surfboards, all decorated with intricate designs inspired by years of travel in the Middle East, where he has photographed mosques and documented the landscape. Each creation takes about three months to complete. Digital pictures of tiles, for example, are scanned into a computer, where they are modified and printed onto a special paper. Those crafted images are then fixed onto the surface of the surfboard and a fibreglass seal is laid over the top, which is given a glossy finish. Artwork imprinted on to the board's carbon fibre fins is baked in a special oven to ensure it is of the highest quality.

"This board is probably the most complex one I have," he said clutching one of his works as a cool southerly breeze blew in from the South Pacific Ocean. "On the front you have very fine lines of Sunni Arabic patterns, you have a detailed Arabic shape and inside that you have a motif of the Tree of Life from the ceiling of a mosque. On the back you have Christian Arabic iconography. It is not that Arabic cultures are just Islamic, so this board is complicated."

The designs have also been controversial, especially the two surfboards that feature the words Insha'allah, or 'God willing'. "There were some people that felt a sense of disquiet in the presence of the boards," said Sally Breen, owner of the Breenspace gallery, a large converted warehouse in the Waterloo district of Sydney, where the collection has been displayed. "That's the way art operates. It should challenge us at times and prompt inquiry beyond our everyday lives. If art was always easy there would be no real engagement with it and art would be merely passive."

"The symbol of Insha'allah meaning 'God Willing' is the most potent in the Islamic world and the very thought of feet touching it is a sin. So, the implications of having the symbol positioned on a surfboard did create some concern. Yet we talked through the ideas and the fact that the boards are artworks that would never be ridden," Ms Breen added. She said overall the response to this ambitious project had been "really positive" and that negotiations were taking place to build on the display's success at Art Dubai this year, which attracted interested collectors from Italy, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran and Denmark.

Plans are also underway to take the exhibition to cultural institutions in the UAE, the United States and Europe as well to major Australian cities, where the inimitable collection is seen as a way to foster harmony between Muslims and broader society after violent disturbances in Dec 2005. "When Cronulla, a seaside suburb south of Sydney, exploded with race riots, what transpired was the reality of cultural difference in Australia and the fact that we really have not attended to the complexities of this reality," Ms Breen said.

Although the fear and hostility that erupted at Cronulla has lingered, Ms Breen believes that art can help to ease tensions. "Phillip's boards offer a really interesting space to negotiate some of these complexities and encourage mutual respect and tolerance between eastern and western culture," she added. Fatimah Mawas, a young Lebanese-Australian Muslim who is doing a bachelor's degree in digital media in Sydney, said the work of her tutor, Mr George, was "definitely a positive step towards reconciliation."

"It's genius," she added. "When I heard about them I thought it was a radical idea and having seen them in the exhibition, it just blew my mind. "Thinking about one board with Arabic calligraphy on it, verses of the Quran or the name of God is just bewildering and beautiful but when I saw them lined up in rows at the exhibition, it was breathtaking. It was astonishing to see such a powerful message," she said.

"Not only are these surfboards, which are part of my identity as an Australian, but having designs from mosques, I feel like I own them in a way." pmercer@thenational.ae