“‘Where are you from?’ is a red flag. A warning sign. It prepares me for a conversation I would rather not have. It tells me that white is the default. It tells me that I’m not Australian. It tells me that my presence requires an explanation.”
The above is an excerpt from Ciara Dunne’s mini essay for Where Are You From?, an exhibition curated by writer and editor Sabina McKenna. It’s an exploration of the implicit racism Australians harbour and its impact on people of colour.
Where Are You From? launched online and in Brunswick’s Blak Dot gallery during the first half of 2018. Featuring 23 portraits shot by Jess Brohier, each had an accompanying essay by PoC exploring their relationship to “Where are you from?”. It’s a question that’s a form of othering; of undermining cultural identity; of saying “You do not belong.” The exhibition is a step towards reclaiming the phrase and regaining control of the narrative.
Now in its second year, Where Are You From? is heading to Sydney. Shot by Chris Loutfy, the second showcase is celebrating Sydney’s diversity. Ahead of the exhibition, we caught up with Sabina to learn the ins and outs of creating Where Are You From?.
Hi Sabina! First things first, can you tell me a little about who you are and what you do?
I’m a writer, curator, editor—I have a lot of jobs. I usually make work about identity, culture, art and all the things that intersect.
Why is this topic and exhibition important to you?
From as early as I can remember I have been asked the question “Where are you from?”. I realised after a while that this was never really a positive thing, because in a way what people are asking is for you to explain why you are here and where exactly you fit in. Being culturally and racially ambiguous means that you spend a lot of time not really understanding your ‘place’, so it becomes a bit of a trigger, something that singles you out and ‘others’ you.
So really, creating this project was important to me because it validates the experience of being ‘other’ in this landscape and connects PoC of all cultural backgrounds to other people like them, who likely share similar perspectives.
Was there a particular inciting moment where you came up with Where Are You From? Can you describe it to me?
I had been thinking about creating something on the topic for several years. I could never really make sense of why the question made me feel so gross every time I encountered it. Exploring that was very much a vision that followed me, but the idea was always just for something online like a journal of stories and portraits, for people to access faces and experiences like their own.
What was the process like for curating the exhibition?
So after Jess [Brohier] agreed to shoot the first storyboard it just kind of blew up; soon after that Kimba from Blak Dot agreed to host the launch and it became even bigger. The best part of the curation was reading all the stories for the first time.
Then after editing 11,000 words, organising all the other admin and then installing the whole thing myself I was like ‘Damn I can probably do anything if I put my mind to it!’ It definitely taught me a lot about what’s important to me and what I am capable of.
Did you have particular people in mind whose stories you wanted to hear and tell or were you approached?
The people I was interested in at first were people like me—specifically mixed-race people who grew up here or who were raised in similar circumstances to me. From a really young age I would always get this weird feeling of attachment and curiosity about every [perceivably] ‘half-black and half-white’ person I would encounter.
Obviously now I know it’s much more complex than that. I did a call out and it was clear by who came forward to participate that the experience was much more widespread, so it became about all PoC identifying people—not just those who looked like me. Which is the way it should be, I think. Being inclusive is important, in PoC spaces especially.
What’s your relationship with everyone involved in the exhibition?
So the first board was a lot of friends and friends of friends, then I found a few people through my agency and via callouts. For the second one I wanted to approach more artists and creative people, because I was curious about the way they would interpret the brief and respond. I had help from a couple of people who recommended friends and on the day it ended up being a bit of a funny hang out because all of the talent knew Chris [Loutfy] and each other. It was good vibes.
What’s the legacy you hope to leave with it?
I hope it continues to bring people together and to be a resource for PoC to find somewhere to belong and somewhere to validate the things they experience, like being asked “Where are you from?” all the time. And for those who aren’t PoC to understand the nuances of Australian cultural identities. And to reflect on their biases and start unlearning behaviours that may be perpetuating the marginalisation of certain groups—especially in ways that they may not even be aware of because of their identity and privileges.
Where Are You From? launches at Good Space in Sydney on Wednesday April 24. RSVP Here.