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Taxi drivers star in SALA portraits

InReview

South Australian artist Daniel Connell’s large-scale portraits on display during the SALA Festival bring viewers face-to-face with Adelaide’s Punjabi taxi drivers in a way that seeks to promote inclusion.

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With gazes pointed directly at the viewer, the larger-than-life pictures force viewers to contemplate the workers outside their usual work context. They are showing in the Adelaide Central School of Art’s SALA exhibition The Drawing Project.

“Transport workers are often on the periphery,” Connell says.

“We rely on them and we interface with them. But we’re either sitting next to them, or we’re sitting behind them. We very rarely get to look face-to-face with each other.”

Titled Interface, Connell’s current series builds on a repertoire of transport worker portraits.

At last year’s SALA festival, he drew the portraits of several Adelaide bus drivers and displayed them as billboards around Victoria Square.

“One lady was standing at the bus stop and she saw a billboard portrait as the bus arrived. The same guy who I’d drawn was driving the bus and she had to do a double take,” Connell says.

“Then she sat up the front of the bus and started chatting to him about who he was.”

In another instance, an off-duty bus driver was recognised in a hospital elevator on his way to see his newborn baby.

“There’s been a number of times when people have said, ‘When I get into a taxi I now talk to the taxi driver about the portraits’.

“It’s a common linkage, and a conversation starter. I want to build on the fact that there’s a common humanity and we’re all linked by different pathways.”

Punjabi migrants make up the bulk of Adelaide’s taxi drivers, with many having lived in Australia for less than five years.

“The South-Asian community, especially the Sikh community, have really public identifiers on their body,” Connell says.

“They often wear turbans and they often have beards. That can be wonderful and it can be difficult for them because the public might have prejudices against them.

“I feel like there’s a real need and desire within the community to be known, to be understood, and to feel a sense of belonging.”

It’s this sense of belonging that he says encourages so many transport workers to stand in front of the easel.

“I took a series of the portraits back to Punjab for an exhibition and some of the parents of the workers came and it was quite an emotional thing for the parents to see that their sons, who they’d sent out to the other side of the world, were being recognised and loved.

“If we create senses of belonging, loyalty and love between strangers then our communities are much more cohesive, resistant and productive. That’s what the arts can provide.”

The Interface series features seven portraits, and forms part of the Adelaide Central School of Art’s SALA exhibition The Drawing Exchange, which includes work by a number of other artists including Christopher Orchard, Luke Thurgate, Roy Ananda, James Dodd and Margaret Roberts. The exhibition will run until September 22.

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