Kon Gouriotis – It’s Our Thing: More History on Australian Hip-Hop (Part II)
Blacktown Arts Centre has a great exhibition running at the moment – It’s Our Thing: More History on Australian Hip-Hop (Part II). The exhibition showcases 14 artists and the explosion of hip-hop culture in Blacktown during the 1990s, along with its impact on current artistic practices, with works to be found both inside and outside of the centre. We chatted with one of the shows curators, Kon Gouriotis – a Western Sydney native, born in Fairfield and now living in Casula. Kon has an impressive resume with 13 years as director and curator at Casula Power House, before moving on to be ‘Director – Visual Arts’ at Australia Council for the Arts; and then a short stint as Director of Australia Centre for Photography. He edits and writes for Arts Profile and while I could go on, all you really need to know is that he is a great guy and absolute champion for the Arts. We chatted about the beginning of his career and how a project in Blacktown has led him to be on of the most respected names in the Australian art world.
The Westies: Can you tell me a bit about the exhibition you have co-curated with Paul Howard It’s Our Thing: More History on Australian Hip-Hop (Part II)?
Kon: The background to the proposal for the exhibition was that I was running an artist-run space in Blacktown called “Street Level” which had its initial beginnings in Penrith. The space was set up by four women in 1988, we were all graduates of the University of Western Sydney’s School of Art, which was closed in 2004. Just another great vision which – anyway, we won’t go down that path.
Street Level was a voluntarily run collective, it had members who contributed to the upkeep and then there were 6 studios and a gallery up front and when we moved to Blacktown there was about 6 core artists who shared a studio. We would run an exhibitions program and people would pay rent and sometimes if they didn’t have money, we’d just give them the space. We ran a very active program with 20 – 30 events a year.
We would invite people into the space; there were a lot of young people in the area who were doing aerosol work and we provided a legal wall for them and that built an ongoing relationship. They would feel safe and they would come, we would drink and share stories and then we decided to run a formal exhibition program around about 1990 and the first project we did was an aerosol project -“Thrill to Chill”. We invited a number of writers to paint directly on the gallery wall and that helped build quite a good profile for us. We would do community events like dance hip-hop dance parties and work with the local PCYC and build relationships.
Twenty years later I thought “this needs to be recorded in some way”. The University of Western Sydney Fine Arts department did some work about Street Level which was wonderful, but there was a lot more to be said and there was a lot more to be said about Australian hip-hop history too.
“it’s this kind of beautiful, moving thing that just keeps on growing and I think that’s what hip-hop really is and as for the name ‘hip-hop’; it’s a movement.”
The Westies- So much in fact you’ve spread it over two exhibitions?
Kon – Yes. Part one was in 2016 with Khaled Sabsabi and Minky Rawat. This time there’s 14 artists, whereas the first part was tightly exploring two artists and their relationship with hip-hop, and their influences outside of hip-hop. Incorporated with both the exhibitions is the Street Level archives.
The Westies: Can you tell me about some of the artists in this exhibition?
Kon: Sure, George Tillianakis is a local artist. He’s kind of anti-hip-hop, his whole performance video piece is really looking at the notion of how these kind of ideas or genre’s like hip-hop or abstraction or conceptual art have their own kind of constraints and they are fallible. He’s exploring those cracks in his performances and looking at it from someone who is gay and seeing how these closed cultures actually impose their values on them and he’s saying there not my values and turning things upside down.
Then Leo Tanoi; he started off with music and dance and incorporated his Samoan history, recently he’s gone into painting these beautiful non-objective very geometrically composed paintings, that are so deeply rooted in Samoan history and there’s this kind of play on hip-hop culture too, but instead of using the Aerosol he’s using the brush and painting on very traditional formats like canvas.
Unique’s work is directly opposite his, he’s done this very beautiful word piece.
We’ve got Prince – Chris Bissett. He is best known for his carving which comes from his Maori background incorporated into the hip-hop, but he’s left that and has gone into plasticine so he’s created these 3-D hip-hop Maori sort of objects and they are just amazing and he’s in a vulnerable period in his life and the plasticine is really vulnerable.
“I was into rap and break dancing as a young fella, I couldn’t do it to save my life, but I really loved it.”
The Westies -What is Hip-Hop to you?
Kon – Hip-Hop is about being true about the environment that you’re in and it’s about a raw expression of that through a number of different platforms. The aerosol has been it’s great weapon, so has the mic. It (hip-hop) has a structure of course, but it’s very accessible and because it’s really just focused on the words and your vision – it just kind of grows according to who you are and that’s what I really like about it.
The Westies – Back to Street Level, it seems like it has played a major influence of you and where you are in your career today?
Kon: Yes, we were very well connected with the ideas at the time internationally and nationally, we were involved in the Sydney Biennale and Sydney Festival, we also had this huge social commitment. Albertina Viegas, one of the founding directors of Street Level, she has Timorese background and the whole issue of East Timor’s independence was something that we wanted to take on because we wanted to support Albertina and her quest. There was the gay and lesbian rights movement that was happening at the time, we wanted to help gay and lesbian and transgendered people to have a voice.
And there was the animal rights movement. Blacktown Council was a major supplier of impounded dogs to research and so we took on that issue. We would take on these social and political issues of the day and do exhibitions. John Cheeseman (who is now the director of Mosman Art Gallery) and I went into Parklea Prison and worked with indigenous inmates and produced an exhibition of their work, we were doing our thing and at the same time we were learning to curate. There was no program for curating. We just created it. Street Level in a sense provided us with that platform to learn.
It’s Our Thing: More History on Australian Hip-Hop (Part II) runs until August 12th at Blacktown Arts Center make sure you get down and check it out. FYI There is a hip-hop concert on Saturday, 12 August 2017, presented in partnership with FBi Radio, Follow Blacktown Arts on Facebook for more info.
Interview: Katrina James
Photos: Katrina James