Arabic Culture, Phillip George and a new surfing iconography

board1Yesterday I traveled to Casula Powerhouse, an inland art venue in Western Sydney, Australia. Here I, surprisingly, came across some incredible and very beautiful surfboards shaped by Mark Rabbidge and designed and conceptually developed by the artist Phillip George. (please excuse the camera phone quality of images).

Phillip surfs at Maroubra Beach, Australia. He was moved deeply by the Cronulla Race Riots.

On December 11, 2005 some Cronulla locals took part in a demonstration to chase away ‘gangs’ of Lebanese-Australian men from the Western Suburbs of Sydney, while others just wanted to relieve the boredom brought about by no swell on a hot summer day. The trigger was the beating up of a couple of Australian Lifesavers by some Lebanese-Australian blokes. (Nb. The lifesavers were out of uniform and hassling the visitors at the time).

Fuelled by alcohol, the media, rumour, innuendo, and macho bullshit the demonstration escalated into a full-blown riot.

The rumour and innuendo was fed by fearful discourses of Islam and Arabic culture based on September 11, the Bali Bombings, and the London Bombings. The conservative government at the time had also whipped up fear of immigrants and refugees from Arabic speaking cultures and Islamic cultures (see the MV Tampa effect). The Australian beach was established as a frontline against the incursion of a new threat in the form of refugees and asylum seekers and reimagined as the homeland in the context of the ‘war on terror’. The fact that the majority of Lebanese-Australians are Christian didn’t seem to matter, they ‘looked’ Middle-Eastern and like they could be Muslims. ‘Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘immigrant’ and ‘Middle-Eastern’ have become conflated terms.

board51Myths surrounding the Australian beach and Australian identity were also weaved into the riot. The beach has become a space in Australian history in which to construct what it means to be ‘Australian’ – white and middle class, if the conservatives had their way.

Anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment had also been rising since a series of gang-rapes in Sydney’s west by some Arabic-speaking men. Urban myths claim violent and rapist attitudes are endemic to Lebanese or Arab or Muslim culture. Local’s complained about sexual harassment and the safety of women at Cronulla. Although, during the riot there was little concern displayed for women from non-English speaking backgrounds. One young Lebanese-Australian woman had to shelter in a kiosk as a mob outside chanted ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’. Muslim women were abused, many were spat on and had their scarves removed by force.

The egalitarian nature of beaches is a myth. Rather, what we have are complex sandy games of assimilation and exclusion. The young white men of Cronulla became the embodiments of collective sentiments about reclaiming what it means to be Australian in the face of immigration and multiculturalism. As one Cronulla resident claimed ‘This place has changed in the past 30 years and now the young ones are taking it back’.

At Cronulla the distress of the locals and those of their families were real, they felt that they’re way of life was truly under threat because they were beginning to feel like a fish out of water in their own backyard. The locals were not used to feeling uncomfortable and they didn’t like the change. It meant backing each other up to chase off these ‘dangerous others’. Some of the Lebanese-Australian men hd  tried to deal with their displacement and the watchful gaze of the locals by being violent, hassling locals and thereby claiming a piece of Cronulla (read Australian beach culture)  as their turf too. It’s a tactic white Australian blokes have done for generations.

board41Moved by all this fear and misunderstanding Phillip created an installation called Borderlands. For George, ‘the surfboard and surfing culture is iconically Australian, as it represents a self perception of freedom, albeit an illusion, of a happy go lucky culture free of constraints’ (Tsuotas, 2008).

It is through the surfboard that Phillip tries to explore his negotiation between ‘East and West in relation to the local implications of global conflict … a tactical border crossing between the familiar and unfamiliar, between the known local and the foreing other stranger, and between the secular and the fear of Islam (and its generalised homogenised misrepresentation of the Arab)’ (Tsuotas, 2008).

The surfboards have been inscribed with iconography from the historic mosques that Phillip George has photo documented from his trips to the Middle East, travelling to Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. The images are detailsof the internal walls of mosques, entrance ways and thresholds. They are full of historical and spiritual significance. They reflect ‘repeating motifs of ‘the tree of life’ and ‘the Garden of Eden’ in their many manifestations from Egypt to Persia’ (Tsuotas, 2008).

By remapping the surfboards, George envelops the surfboard with different meanings and a different history, derived from Islam and Arabic culture, and challenges expectations of White Australia that too often go unchecked and unchallenged.

A full essay on and interview with Phillip on his art and surfing will appear in Issue 4 of Kurungabaa. By the way, the boards look like they would go sick. Rabbidge really knows how to shape very good boards, and I would love to drop into a south coast slab on one.


Tsuotas, Nicholas (2008) Introduction to Borderlands Project.

For a detailed analysis of surfing and the Cronulla Riots check out: Evers, Clifton (2008) ‘The Cronulla Race Riots: Safety Maps on an Australian Beach’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 107(2):411-429.