Action 9 of 11 – On Being an Artist

Find your accent. Listen to it for 10 minutes.

13 artists create work in response to 11 actions that have been interpreted loosely, purposefully misread or taken as instruction. Collectively, they show us what it means to be an artist – from conceptualisation to the finished work.

It’s only on a White Planet that anyone has to protest Black Lives Matter. Before protest was on tote bags and t-shirts it was on (mother) tongues, in tears and in names that refused to be anglicised. Protest manifests in many forms, often suffocated, screaming in silences and gaslighted into silence as being ‘sensitive’. As the risk of desensitisation to racist acts increases, compassion fatigue sets in; black squares are further down social media feeds, and the visible anti-racist space is vacated, people that are visibly different carry all this and all that went before into the trauma of everyday racist encounters.

The seeming mismatch, in Australia, of my accent and skin sometimes baffles people. It’s as though my unmistakably English accent is coloured, and usually prompts the question ‘where are you really from?’ because of course brown skinned people don’t come from England! At times I self deprecatingly put on a comic Indian accent. This is a throwback to the stereotypes I grew up with. It’s also an unhelpful (possibly harmful) defence mechanism in preempting and deflecting potential racist encounters that in effect might license further racism, and I’m complicit. There’s an awareness of seeing the frames through which I might be seen and heard. My accent, my name, my skin seem to sometimes cast the things that really matter, my values and interests, in shadow.

The notion of ‘Coconut’ is caught up with essentialist cultural positions and a problematic obsession with origin and authenticity rather than sincere ethical positions. It can amplify similarities within, and differences between cultural positions that might impede how we negotiate difference. Action 9 of 11 is a series of paintings that contemplates modernism, the spiritual dimensions of Islamic geometry, my name, melanin, and my English ‘Coconut Syrup’ accent.

For a long time I thought melanin was a curse. This was entrenched in Indian ideas of beauty I grew up with before I was even fully aware of whiteness – as a political or socio-cultural construct. As I moved out of a predominantly migrant community I’ve learnt to engage differently with ‘whiteness’ as a dominant position that classifies, organises and structures race as a category to signify ideas about value and what it means to be human.

I’m drawn to practice that collectively codify this trauma, not to valorize my protest, or any particular type of protest, but to validate personal experiences of violations of my being: To locate in these practices what Arendt refers to as ‘humanity in the form of fraternity’ that is the ‘great privilege of pariah people’. In this fraternity I think of people that have encountered themselves as ‘other’ by a racist gaze – objectified, stereotyped, subjected to prejudice and discrimination, and generally denied the same complexity as white counterparts. Now is the time ‘greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror’ not as a reflection of, or as competition for, the white gaze but to look within and between communities for solidarity.

I believe we have a discursive relationship with culture in that we make the culture that makes us. The challenge in engaging with these spaces are the concessions and compromises I make in adopting, adapting and co-opting the language and cultural registers of dominant cultural production so I might enter that discursive relationship. The position is always fraught because there is a psychological cost for operating between these spaces, of being both and neither. Of fluctuating between undermining whiteness and being complicit in it.

Photography by Sam Roberts