Spotlight: Daniel Connell
An Australian artist aims to raise awareness and promote inter-cultural relations through his visual arts
Since the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001, Sikhs wearing turbans around the world have been targets of discrimination, overt racism and even violence, in large part due to ignorance of the Sikh culture and faith. In Australia, this held true for Sikh students, many of whom drive taxi cabs for income while going to school.
“Sikhs were having a hard time, Australians didn’t understand who they were or why they were wearing turbans, and they were called terrorists,” says Visual Artist Daniel Connell. “Having lived in India, I was swept off my feet by the hospitality, the Indian community [in Australia] were not receiving hospitality, so I wanted to draw attention to that.”
After a chance encounter with Lakhvir Singh, a cab driver from the Sikh community in Adelaide, an unlikely friendship grew between him and Connell, who decided to embark on a visual arts project to raise greater awareness about immigrant populations within Australia, and to also create dialogue between different communities. The end result was the ‘Faith’ collection.
“I think visual arts has a really important role to play in society. There is a big movement to make it more responsible, community-minded and to talk about relationships and art, and I see that’s where my art is,” he says. “The drawings I have done are just a way to creating bigger and broader relationships. At the time when I started doing these drawings, which was two years ago, the new wave of Indian migrants, especially from Punjab, were getting a pretty raw experience in Australia, which I thought needed to be changed.”
On a recent trip to Canada, Connell was in Surrey to not only celebrate Vaisakhi and showcase his collection, but I believe, to inspire others about multiculturalism and inclusivity. As I sat with Connell, I admired his beautiful works and quotes on the walls within a gorgeous space, a makeshift gallery for his works in Canada.
What amazed me even further was the number of individuals, who stopped by the exhibit during our interview, to admire his works. People had heard about the ‘Faith’ exhibit on the radio and television, and many just happened to drive past the building, saw some works displayed on the floor-to-ceiling windows and decided to stop by. Before leaving the gallery, many came up to Connell and thanked him for raising awareness of the Sikh faith and culture, not only in Australia, but also around the world.
Tejpal Mann, a local artist, who visited the gallery, says the ‘Faith’ exhibit “bridges cultural gaps, as a non-Indian is painting or sketching Indian subjects, which shows tolerance of other cultures.”
Connell says the ‘Faith’ collection “developed organically from a meeting, a friendship and than a desire to do a portrait.” He wanted to sketch Lakhvir’s portrait as large as possible, and since it was 10 pm and he didn’t have large enough paper, he took 8.5” x 11” pieces of paper, using masking tape, he stuck the pieces to the wall and to one another creating a natural grid to go from small to big.
Reflecting on his works, Connell compares his large-scale sketches of Sikh males (form the majority of Indian migrants in Australia) on pieces of paper bound by masking tape as a metaphor, “and at the same time, it talked about the lives of these young guys, they were like pieces of paper, they could be blown away at any moment, they could be ripped but at the same time, they were holding themselves together in a tenuous sort of way but with their faith and all of their goodness. I liked that metaphor for integrity that we are vulnerable and weak, sometimes we do fall apart and do get blown away, but we can always bring back the lost pieces to get back together again.”
Connell also refers to the teachings of Guru Nanak ji that ‘work is central to an expression of faith.’ He says the Guru’s teachings “celebrate the ordinariness of people but their commitment above all, actions over concepts. I think the paper and charcoal are good mediums for that, they’re accessible, not elitist and are ordinary, recognizable and familiar.”
For the portraitures, Connell created them with a sense of urgency reflecting a desire to establish a human connection and empathy between artist and subject. In addition, he says sketching the portraits as large as possible “seemed to be the most natural thing to do, and it seemed to work, and perhaps that’s why the best art comes from a very genuine desire to do something real in the world, and that’s perhaps why it has resonated.”
“Sometimes in Western societies, we don’t appreciate the inner goodness of people. I just felt these new migrants deserved a lot better than what they were getting,” he says. “I wanted to just shine a big spotlight on the goodness they were bringing to Australia through their courage, integrity and strength of character. What that did was allow other Australians to give them the opportunity to appreciate all those good things as well.”
Connell has his Masters of Visual Arts from the University of South Australia, which has been instrumental in providing support for his projects. The ‘Faith’ collection has received worldwide media coverage and toured around the world, including Australia, India, Canada and the United Kingdom. The Australia Network Television has also created a short film about the ‘Faith’ project, which will broadcast in 44 countries.
Connell has also created visual art pieces featuring the South Sudanese community and female prisoners in Australia. Connell invited the Sikh community to the South Sudan exhibit, and this fostered new relations and dialogue between the two communities, who learned they had more in common than they thought.
From that chance encounter in an Adelaide taxi, a friendship grew that not only changed the perspectives of Connell and Singh, but it allowed for both their worlds to evolve, creating greater awareness about multiculturalism, empathy and respect. Through his visual art masterpieces, Connell is successfully creating dialogue and reflection between communities of all faiths.