Artist Q&A: Ben McNamara

DiDi is installing pARTition screens to vehicles in Sydney to help riders and drivers stay safe. Our screens are created by local suppliers and are 100% Australian-made. We asked local Aussie artists to design the screens and help us stay apart, together.

Artist Q&A: Ben McNamara

Melbourne artist and photographer Ben Mcnamara brings the diversity of Australia to life with his impactful work, depicting hands spelling out an encouraging message in AUSLAN alphabet. A passionate traveller and collector of stories, Ben’s art speaks of the many people he’s met along the way.We speak to Ben about his COVID-19 journey, and the inspiration behind the hands.

How have you been coping with COVID-19 in Melbourne?

With a lot of learning, a few too many wines, and a bunch of home workouts. It’s a period with heaps of ups and downs, so I’ve been doing my best to channel that energy into creativity. 

How have you channelled your personal COVID-19 experience into your pARTition screens? 

Early on, as a bit of a coping mechanism, I started teaching myself a range of skills that I didn’t have time for in ’normal life’. One of them was sign language. After chatting with a few friends from the hearing impaired community, I learned that the mask restrictions were a huge blow to their ability to read lips. It was a solid reminder about looking out for others in the community who may be having a harder time than yourself.

Tell us about this art piece.

‘You got this babe’ is a conceptual interactive experience for anyone riding around town in the back of a DiDi. It gives Sydneysiders a brief opportunity to learn the AUSLAN alphabet through a visual word puzzle.  All of the signs are created through illustrations of hands, which represent the diverse Australian community. There’s doctor hands, tattooed hands, henna hands, old hands, hairy hands, vitiligo hands and boring, plain old hands. Some of them are based off of my friends and community around me!The aim is to make the back seat of the DiDi a fun learning space through a skill that will remind people to look out for each other, with a nice little message of keeping your chin up.  What are you hoping audiences get from your art piece? I’m hoping it gives people a quick mental break for a few moments in the day. I’m a big fan of constantly learning and finding new perspectives in life, so I wanted to inject that value in this piece. If it means someone might refresh their news feed less and engage with a skill which has some awesome real-world uses then I’d be stoked.

Can you talk about how this art inspires a sense of ‘togetherness’?

Getting through this pandemic requires us to be thinking outside of ourselves, which is bloody hard sometimes when we just need a hug. We’ve had to adapt to find other ways to replace that hug… Zoom calls, online wines, games…. Human connection has been forced to change, but it’s still there.

How do you think people can experience a sense of togetherness whilst still social distancing? Do you feel art has a part to play in connecting people?

 Art is one of the most important things in times like these. It’s what gives us hope and happiness. It’s a form of philosophy when the rest of the world is focused on economics and data. You can’t quantify emotions and feelings through data, but you can through art. Art has never been more important as we talk about games, TV shows, movies, creativity and just staying positive. It’s our escape from the current situation along with being our most used coping mechanism. Art is the quiet psychologist none of us are paying for. 

Has COVID-19 impacted your work as an artist? How do you see the art industry moving forward post-COVID 19? 

My career is forever changed due to COVID-19. I normally spend 8 months of the year travelling the world on projects ranging from hiking the Himalayas to rural development in Myanmar. 2020 was lining up to be the best working year of my life with inspiring projects in Scotland, central Australia, east Africa and eastern Europe…. I went from being in the best place in my career, to knowing I was going to need to start again. It’s been hard, but you can’t change it and you just need to put one foot in front of the other. As the art and travel scene rebuilds, I hope we take the opportunity to make it better – to focus on creativity and happiness rather than profits and growth. It’s a vital time to inject humanity back into how we define our society’s idea of ’success’. 

What are you looking forward to doing after lockdown?

I can’t wait to head out to the central desert and sleep under the stars after a big day of learning stories with my First Nations friends. Having to stop and breathe for a few months has helped me put my love of Australia into perspective, which I’m grateful for. After that, I hope to climb a few mountains and then end up at the pub.

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