SYDNEY-based exhibition Vertical Villages chronicles the international student experience. Hieu Chau spoke to artist Keg de Souza and international student Jeffry Santony about the exhibition.
Despite a large number of international students presently studying in Australia, creative and cultural institutions haven’t quite reflected on the international student experience as much as they could be, Indonesian student Jeffry Santony feels.
“I think it is pretty crucial [to have creative projects explore what it means to be an international student]. So many people in Sydney know that international students are living here but not many people know how they live their lives.”
Jeffry – who is currently pursuing an Advanced Diploma of Hospitality at the Sydney Business and Travel Academy – recently spent his free time helping out at Sydney-based gallery 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, on their new project Vertical Villages.
Vertical Villages is an exhibition where members of the public can learn and gain an understanding of how international students live their everyday lives in Sydney. With more than 35,000 international students currently enrolled in tertiary courses in Sydney, Vertical Villages uses geographical, architectural and design based works to inform its visitors about the international student experience.
The exhibition closely observes the concept of how high-rise apartments that international students reside in can resemble a suburb, hence the name of the exhibit.
In addition to educating the wider public about the international student experience, Jeffry considers that the project would also be beneficial for international students themselves.
“I think part of this project is about sharing information among international students and offering alternative ways for us to work together.”
Though Jeffry has only been in Sydney for a few months, 4A piqued his interest as he walked by it on his way to work each day.
“Usually the gallery is closed whenever I pass it but [one day] the artists were holding workshops and the space was open. I just popped in and started speaking to [the artists] about the project. From there, I shared some of my photos and experiences living in a shared apartment”
One of the artists involved with the creation of Vertical Villages, Keg de Souza, had limited understanding of the way international students carried their daily lives in Sydney at first.
“When 4A first asked me to be a part of the project, my only window into the international student community was from the pole posters you see all around the city advertising shared rooms for rent – the ones that offer four people to one room,” she said.
She continued, “I had assumed that people would share rooms in this way due to economic reasons but we quickly learnt that, whilst in some cases this is true, some people share space like this to feel less isolated and part of a community,” she said.
A former international student herself as an exchange student in Tuscon, Arizona during her fourth year of architecture school, Keg spoke about how she was able to connect with students.
“Many of the students have spoken about a feeling of isolation, which is probably the closest parallel to something I felt [when I was studying in another country].”
Though she may have been an international student herself previously, Keg expressed that the experience is always fluctuating and changing.
“One of the things we’ve learnt about this community is that many of them live here temporarily so the community is always in flux. If you returned to this community in a few years, there would be a whole new set of people and it would be interesting to see if their experience is similar to this current group.” she said.
While conducting research for Vertical Villages, Keg, in association with Indonesian artist collective, ruangrupa, reached out to the international student community by putting up posters inviting international students for their contributions.
They asked students to participate in interviews discussing their private space and their mobility through the city, send in photos of their living environment, and also got them to indicate sites of interest that they frequented on a giant painted map of the surrounding area.
“One of the most interesting things about the sites the students marked on the map was discovering a number of places I had never been to or knew existed – from where to get your phone unlocked, a place to go on a date or a site to pick up Korean girls,” she said.
Aside from the actual exhibit itself, a series of House Parties hosted by different internationals students have been organised for students and locals alike to engage and interact with one another. Jeffry will be hosting a hot pot night at 4A on September 20.
“For me, [having this hot pot night] was about providing a better perspective of Asian international students. The nature of hot pot is communal, in a sense, so I thought it would be a good way for international students and the wider audience to come together and share a meal,” he states.
While Keg hasn’t stated that she would like to continue working with international students and addressing their issues, she hopes more institutions like 4A will engage international students with creative projects such as Vertical Villages.
“I know 4A are really interested in continuing to have a presence within the international student community and they are well placed to do so,” she said.
Vertical Villages is currently open to the public and will be running through until October 26. Jeffry’s hot pot house party will take place on September 20, from 6pm – late.
For more information about Vertical Villages, visit the exhibiton’s page at 4A or the Vertical Villages Tumblr blog. For more information about 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, visit their official website.