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Taxi drivers star in art festival exhibition


IN a world of increasing violence, racial tension, and religious intolerance, one South Australian artist is promoting inclusion and belonging through an inspiring series of portraits bent on giving a face to society’s faceless.

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Daniel Connell has illuminated Punjabi taxi drivers in South Australia’s capital Adelaide for his latest series of massive portraits exhibited at the month-long South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival.

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

Titled “Interface” Connell’s current series builds on a repertoire of transport worker portraits that highlight workers as humans, not just service providers.

With their gazes pointed directly at the viewer, the larger-than-life portraits force viewers to contemplate and recognise the workers as human beings outside their usual work context.

At last year’s SALA festival, Connell drew the portraits of several Adelaide bus drivers, and displayed them as billboards around Victoria Square, a busy intersection in the centre of Adelaide’s CBD.

“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 said.

“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, and in another, one of Connell’s colleagues started a conversation with a driver about her husband, who happened to be a regular passenger of the driver.

“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’, Connell said. .

“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. 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,” Connell said.

“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 Connell said compelled 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,” he said.

“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 Drawing Exchange SALA exhibition at the Adelaide Central School of Art.

The exhibition will run until September 22.

SALA is a unique art event that transforms the entire state of South Australia into a massive exhibition each year. Now in its 20th year, SALA has a record 6282 participating artists at 660 free exhibitions at 560 venues.

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