23 April 2024

Truth teller, fraud, alchemist: Omar Musa's art of belonging, identity and the cracks in between

| Genevieve Jacobs
screen print

Omar Musa’s art captures the tension between romantic ideals and grim environmental reality. Photo: Omar Musa.

Dividing your time between Borneo and Brooklyn is a somewhat unusual path but for Queanbeyan-born Omar Musa, it’s been fertile.

“The Fullness”, his first full-length album of poetry and music in seven years, is launching in Australia at the same time as a new exhibition at Humble House gallery in Fyshwick. Both explore the “genre-bending cross-pollination” he loves to work with.

The album sprang to life initially in a flush of happiness and creative freedom. Omar has been splitting his time between the big city and Borneo, exploring his own complex heritage, and felt a sense of joy and rejuvenation post-pandemic.

But the recent death of his best friend produced something rather different – music “made in joy and polished with grief” Omar says.

“I wanted to honour him in a beautiful way, to reflect on the fullness, the light and shade, the contradictions that make up a life. I was also exploring environmental destruction and climate change – probably not typical hip-hop fare!”

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Time spent in the Borneo jungles and witnessing efforts to rebuild severely damaged coral reefs shaped a metaphor of nature healing itself when given time and space for recovery. A large chunk of the album was recorded with local singers and musicians in Borneo and indigenous language and music permeates the work.

Omar has also been exploring his Muslim identity, initially putting his energy into improving his language skills and connecting with family history.”But I’ve learned the best way to connect is through art-making, music, connecting with communities,” he says.

The woodcuts for his exhibition spring from the same internal conversations about dislocation, disconnection and deep ties of blood and meaning from a millennia-deep cultural heritage.

“I was literally carving deep into the material. I wanted to own some of the contradictions and be OK with them, to alchemise them.

“I was thinking about being a fraud and a truth teller at the same time and the artworks are, again, about capturing those dissonant spaces.”

The exhibition is titled All My Memories are Mistranslations, based on Omar’s realisation that many of the conversations he’d had with his father and grandparents in Sabah, then shaped into his personal narrative, were in fact misheard or misunderstood.

The content is an “extremely ambitious” mix of woodcuts and cyanotypes, a playful and uneasy blend of New York City and Borneo that includes cast glassworks made in Canberra under Luna Ryan’s mentorship.

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So a famous warrior from Borneo’s past stands before an empty apartment block daubed with graffiti, or an ancient boat sails through an ocean of plastic.

“It’s about capturing a place where rose-tinted romanticism hits the realities of latter day capitalism and climate change,” he says.

“It’s all very well to talk about a heritage of seafarers and warriors, but this ancestral ocean is a gyre of plastic and trash where stateless people are deprived of their rights. These are unsettling spaces.”

The Fullness Canberra album launch will take place at Sideway, 8pm, 3 May, tickets $20, bookings recommended.

All My Memories Are Mistranslations, an exhibition of woodcuts, cyanotypes and glass is at the Humble House Gallery, Fyshwick from 4 May to 2 June.

Original Article published by Genevieve Jacobs on Riotact.

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