A Bonza Nur Shkembi

30 / 11 / 2015

For our final edition of Sheilas for 2015, ask we had the pleasure of interviewing the brilliant Nur Shkembi, ed a Melbourne based contemporary Muslim artist, curator and writer.  Since 2010, Nur has been part of the team establishing the Islamic Museum of Australia, and until recently served as the museum’s Art Director, Exhibitions Manager and Curator. Prior to that, as the Arts Officer at the Islamic Council of Victoria, Nur curated and produced the first nationwide annual exhibition of Contemporary Australian Muslim artists. Much of her interest has been in the development of community awareness in relation to the arts with a focus on the presence of Australian Muslim artists in the dominant discourse. As a museum curator, Nur brought together artefacts, traditional art and contemporary art as a means for collective storytelling, individual narrative and as a provision for subverting stereotypes. She is also a member of the Museums, Cultural Heritage and Cultural Development Advisory Panel at Arts Victoria.

Beth Nokes (BN): Nur, you have become a significant member of the Islamic arts world in Australia, and achieved noteworthy positions within the Islamic Council of Victoria, the Arts and Culture Committee of the Parliament of World’s Religions and the Islamic Museum of Australia and as well as many other arts and culture committees. Before all this, however, you created contemporary artwork at home whilst looking after your five children. Where do you draw your inspiration from? Is there a strong a link between your spirituality and your creativity?

Nur Shkembi (NS): I think creativity exists in the “in-between spaces”, in that same place where we experience love, so in that regard I guess my creativity is both worldly and spiritual. However, we express creativity in many different forms, in relation to my art making, I’m not sure if my art is spiritually motivated. I suspect that it may not have such grand ambitions or even such graceful articulation; perhaps it is fairer to say that it has been more socio-politically informed. When I think back to some work I have created in the past, being a visibly attired Muslim woman just meant I probably had more things to be challenged about. There is always the ever present misogyny within religious communities and cultural structures that frustrate and create never ending obstacles. And then of course there is the added challenges that exist in the wider community with the varying degrees of racism, stereotyping and general disadvantage that is continuously engendered in the discourse surrounding Muslim women. But overall, I guess it wasn’t so much a whinge-fest, it came from a place of protest or an attempt to call out hypocrisy. And my children, yes there are indeed five glorious, unique, messy, funny and inspiring human creatures in my life. They are my best production, hands down. My experience with them has taught me not to accept the traditional socially sanctioned “limitations” of motherhood, there is after all that saying “if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person to do it”. Five children keep you busy; they break you open, motherhood is a very humbling experience. And with that you learn very quickly how big the human heart can grow and that you can do a lot more than you ever imagined you could.

BN: Much of your interest and motivation has been in developing community awareness in relation to the Arts with a focus on the presence of Australian Muslim artists in the dominant discourse of the wider community. You spent two years on the Arts and Culture Committee for the Parliament of World Religions and are an active proponent of the Arts in Interfaith, working closely many times with Reverend Helen Summers, Founder and Director of The Interfaith Centre of Melbourne. Why do you believe that this development is so important?

NS: It’s been a really important aspect of my contribution in the arts, to work towards bringing the creative and intellectual articulation of the Muslim community into the discourse of wider society. It moves beyond the usual expectation that a minority community normalises presence, it acknowledges the unique contribution and potential such diversity brings to the cultural development and maturation of Australian society. It is about the ways in which our humanity can evolve and benefit from so called difference.

Helen, she’s a good sort, definitely a Bonza Sheila! I am definitely blessed to have worked with many incredible women over the years…and still do.

BN: You gave talks at the 2007 Art exhibition ‘Breaking the Veils,’ the Arts and Culture exhibitions from the Parliament of Worlds Religions in 2009 and the art exhibition ‘You Am I’ that you curated. You were instrumental in the Museum’s development and became the first Art Director at The IMA when it opened in February 2014. Tell us more about the Islamic Museum of Australia and why you decided to become involved in this now local and important community resource.

IMA

Image: Desypher (Photographer: Christian Pearson)

NS: How many words do I get in this section? I wrote my Masters thesis on the museum! I will try to contain myself, although that may be hard because the IMA is a community project I am very much in love with. I was very fortunate to spend the past five years with a small and dedicated team to be able to contribute the arts and culture and help establish the museum. It is certainly a great achievement for our community and more importantly, in terms of cultural development, connection, awareness and education, it does it so well. It is a place I would encourage every Australian to visit. In terms of art, there are wonderful aspects of contemporary art throughout the museum, and a small but dedicated collection on display in the permanent Islamic Art Gallery which I am very proud of. Many of the art works are by artists I have worked closely with over the years and include incredible Australian contemporary artists such as Fatima Killeen, Abdul Abdullah, Khaled Sabsabi and Alia Gabres. The art gallery is a unique space where the Australian Muslim story is shared through the arts, as a platform for the artists, as a way of connecting these stories with community and as a reflexive space for contemplation and aesthetic pleasure. I am endlessly passionate about the arts, in particular, contemporary art produced by Muslims, so the IMA was a definitely a great project for someone like me to be involved in.

BN: You completed your Masters last year at the Victorian College of the Arts – all related to community art and curating, and now you are currently enrolling to do your PhD – and waiting to hear answers! What is could possibly be next for Nur Shkembi? Have you got an idea of what you would like to research for your PhD?

NS: What’s next? Who knows! I make plans ….and God makes plans. My PhD involves a project based research model which includes a significant collaborative art project that will provide the basis for my theoretical research in the use of traditional symbology in contemporary narratives. I don’t want to say more than that at this stage, except that I am incredibly excited about it and hope to start working on the art project in 2016. It is a research project that has been brewing away in my mind for a number of years now. I have had the dire warnings of the long and lonely road and the grim PhD bust up forecast, you know the one, that marriages start to quiver just at the thought of a 100,000 word thesis or your supervisor mercilessly dumps you mid way. Then there are the other alien abduction inspired myths that I will somehow disappear for the next four years and turn into an ‘out of touch’ academic from another planet, intellectualising art and becoming too far removed to connect it back to community and grass roots cultural development. Ultimately, whatever I end up doing, it is the ordinary, wonderful, mundane and unexpected that I covet. Community life, the people, the everyday, whatever you want to call it. Whatever I do, it always goes back to that.

BN: Final question for a bit of end of year fun – if you could have dinner with three guests, with us, or in another realm, who would they be?

NS: Great question….in another realm, definitely Frank Zappa, I’d join him for re-heated left over spaghetti and happily sit through one his recording sessions, talking politics, philosophy and drinking in his sharp wit and irreverent humour. As a teenager he engendered rebellion, political awareness (the unique and witty kind), creativity and a healthy regard for intelligent people living on the edge. My next dinner guest would be the 13th century poet and scholar Jalal ad-Din Rumi, also known as Rumi. I imagine a simple dish of rose scented honey, fresh bread and pomegranate juice, sitting in a beautiful garden, with poetry readings and spiritual wisdoms woven into the evening. And lastly…I would like to have dinner with Bilqis – the Queen of Sheba. For the obvious reason, insider tips on how to be a kick-arse woman in a male privileged world; she was a visionary woman who served her people with humility, consultation and a just rule. I wouldn’t care what we ate together, it would be awesome just to meet her and break bread.

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