Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Née (born as) at 4A in Chinatown, Sydney.

“It’s my father’s name. You say it ‘Park’. It is 49 days since he died, and I couldn’t go to temple today to pay my respects. Now I feel like I have done something to remember him today.” Yiwon had taken some time to tell us the story behind the black stitches she had marked out on the plain white fabric. Her story made the purpose of Neé run deeper than ever before for me.  And then the story of BJ, who was killed in the Vietnam War, and whose mates remember him every day on the anniversary of his death. Invested in it are personal stories which infer a greater responsibility on me, as its carrier.
 As we share these personal narratives, the wall we stitch together becomes more meaningful with every thread.  Some stories are tragic, some wistful, some funny and raw. Sera – or Serafina – would have been the name of Barbara’s daughter, except that she had two boys instead.  When Pedro started school his teachers asked if they could call him Peter. The 5 year old boy leaned over the table and said ‘No!’  Dan felt the weight of the Bible on his shoulders with ‘Daniel Christopher’;  the name Dan Moon lightens the load.
There are broad issues at play when we talk about names. There are many who have been pressured to change their name by teachers, friends, bureaucrats, spouses. The experience seems especially common for migrants to Australia.  Research (citation?) suggests that is pragmatic choices to avoid discrimination when finding work. The best candidate may not even get an interview if the HR officer can’t bear to stumble over her unfamiliar name on the phone.  
Subtle social pressures are far more prevalent than government enforcement in pushing people into new names in Australia. But as many Indonesians with ‘only’ one name have discovered when travelling in Australia, official forms usually ask for a first and surname.  Incorrect forms can mean no-go zones.
Nidil from Somalia says she has no ‘family name’ as such, but takes her father’s and grandfather’s name rather than her husbands. She worries about the generations of women whose family lines will not be recorded.
On the other hand, for some people, a new name is a clean sheet for the future. Marriage can give women and men an opportunity to undertake a name changing process that is otherwise more difficult. But why is it so hard to change your name if you’re not marrying? One story revealed in the research process for In Memory of a Name told of a woman who dropped a family name that carried unhappy memories.  But at the various offices she needed to attend to change her identity documents, her motivations were questioned. What does that say about the discrimination that remains in our society, in our legislation, in ourselves?
Sometimes political correctness gets a bad rap, essentially for being pedantic.  Those of us in the majorities, with all the right names in the right places, the more common sexual orientation, sufficiently subtle skin and hair tones, a mother tongue in common with the rest of the majority – those without obvious differences to be named and identified by – sometimes seem to develop an attitude that it’s no big deal to have institutionalised discrimination in our political, social and communal systems.  So what if can’t pronounce your name, I’ll just call you another one. And if your name doesn’t fit on forms, or is hard to say – well, that’s not my problem; you can change it – if you can afford to.  Why difference does it make if you don’t get to marry the person you love? You’re not stopped from loving them, are you?
The problem with this is it does matter – it is this kind of discrimination that names difference. When we can’t adjust to the myriad of ways that people can be, we turn uncommon into abnormal.  We make an inside and an outside to our society. The outside of society is an unprotected, unsheltered place to be. Just ask any refugee who hasn’t got their documents.
Communities can be, and often are, built on the outside of society. One of the questions I am trying to resolve in my arts practice is where I intend to situate the aspects of my practice that involve other people. It is common to call this kind of practice “community-engagement”, or “community arts”. A great many amazing arts projects have sallied forth under these community banners. But increasingly I am beginning to wonder whether I want to place myself in an ‘artist position’ in another community (not one I am a member of – one Miwon Kwon would call a ‘sited community’[i]). There is an authority implied in that dynamic I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.  Do I want create communities around my artworks? Perhaps, but by what definition can the ‘invented communities’ which develop around art projects (temporary or ongoing – projects and/or communities) be called as such. What makes a community?
Nee as a project will be ongoing, but I have come to feel that perhaps it is less about community, and more about conversation; how to create space for new conversations. New conversations are how we change our perspectives, stories we’ve never heard before open our minds. When I heard for the first time how important it was for my dear friend of mine to leave behind the name her distant, uncaring father, and embrace the name of her loving new husband, it changed my perspective on why so many women change their surnames when they marry. It didn’t make me change my surname, but it made me less judgemental. New conversations, innovative dialogue, creative perspectives – they are essential for personal and social evolution. New conversations are one of the most important ways for us to make a better future. Spaces for new conversations are some of the things that art and artists can contribute to our future.

[i] Kwon, Miwon,
(2002) One Place
After Another - Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, Massachusetts; London

Monday, 13 February 2012

Née (born as) Sydney call out...

An invitation…..

What name were you given when you were born?

What name do you use now?

What name will you be remembered by when you are gone?

Artist and researcher Elly Kent recently participated in a project called In Memory Of a Name.  Poets, musicians, artists, curators and social researchers joined with Indonesian artist FX Harsono -  who was forced to change his name by government decree when he was a teenager -  to consider the question of what is in a name.  What happens if you are made to change your name? What happens if you choose to change your name? What are the stories behind names lost and found in people’s lives?
Née (born as) is a conversation project which invites you to tell the stories of your names; the names of your family; the names you have left behind; the names you have embraced. We invite you join us in stitching your name/s on to a piece of fabric, while you share your story. If you can, please bring remnant fabric  that holds meaning for you to stitch – an old t-shirt,  some left over  fabric from your school uniform, the tie you wore to your wedding. The stitched names will join a fabric ‘wall’, added to by others as the project moves through different communities. Begun in Elly’s Canberra community, Neé (born as) will be at Gallery 4A in Sydney’s Chinatown and Casula Powerhouse in Liverpool in  February, and Indonesia in 2013.

“My mother’s maiden name    she wanted to keep it but eventually changed it when relatives kept writing cheques out to her with my father’s surname.”
Please drop into one of our stitching sessions, for as long or as little as you like:

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art,
181-187 Hay st, Chinatown
02) 9212 0380  info@4a.com.au

Saturday 18 February, 2pm-4pm

Casula Powerhouse, 1 Casula Road, Casula
RSVP by phone: 02) 98241121 or 02)96125252
Or by email: porter@casulapowerhouse.com
Sunday 19 February, 1pm - 5pm
Monday 20 February : 2pm - 6pm
Tuesday 21  February: 11am - 5pm
Wednesday 22 February: 11am - 5pm
Thursday 23 February:  11am - 5pm
Friday 24 February:    10am - 4pm, 5pm - 9pm

This project will form part of the research in practice for Elly Kent’s PhD in Visual Arts at the Australian National University.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Née (born as) by post....#1

From my dear friend Alex, who was, before I knew her, Sasha.
"I was born Alexandra Elise Chambers, family names on both sides. I grew up with the nickname, Sasha, which was a Russian nickname of Alexandra, even though we have no Russian heritage. Apparently the name was suggested to my parents by an air hostess when we were on a flight when I was a baby. Everyone in my family called me Sasha. I even corrected teachers at school to call me Sasha. My Grandmother was the only one who ever called me Alexandra.
When I decided to move internationally, to Australia, to study glass, I wanted to go by my given name, considering I was off to become an "artist" and wanted to be known by my 'real' name. I was 23 years old. I always secretly wanted to be called Alexandra, but because everyone called me Sasha, thats just who I became. This overseas move was a huge transition, & naturally felt like the perfect time to switch back to my given name. The piece of fabric is my favorite glass blowing T-Shirt that I wore all the time when I first moved here & was enrolled in the course at the Canberra School of Art Glass Workshop."