1Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities (1988),” in Writing Black Britain 1948–1998: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, ed. James Proctor (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 265.
2Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991 (London: Granta, 1991), 394.
3Andrew Clark, “Intimate Portraits: The Familial Archive of Parbhu Makan,” Art New Zealand 167 (Spring 2018–19): 90–93.
4K. Emma Ng, Old Asian, New Asian (Wellington: BWB Texts, 2017), 20.
5“The Colombo Plan,” from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, ed. A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966, Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed November 13, 2018, https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/international-
6Nancy Swarbrick, “Sri Lankans—Community,” Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, February 8, 2005, accessed November 13, 2018, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sri-lankans/page-2.
7Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui, accessed November 8, 2018, https://www.aaah.org.nz/aaah/.
8Huynh Mai Thi Nguyen, “Academic Expectations Stress in Asian American Undergraduate Students: A Revalidation Study” (PhD diss., Texas A & M University, 2015), 8.
9Joseph Dione, “TEA with Ahi,” The Big Idea, last modified February 23, 2016, www.thebigidea.nz/stories/tea-with-ahi.
The “where are you from?” story
I walk into the corner dairy next to the gallery to buy snacks. Even though the supermarket is cheaper and just down the road, I’m already running late. I don’t like coming into the gallery empty handed—especially if we have a long working day ahead of us. We’re sanding and painting the walls after a major installation. I decide on crackers and a Twix bar, which I bring to the counter. The shopkeeper asks “is that all?” I respond “yes,” and then he asks me, “are you from India?” I irritably answer “no, I’m from Sri Lanka.” He doesn’t respond to my abrupt reply and I walk out of the shop without saying anything further.
It was not the insinuation that I am Indian that irritated me. According to one of Sri Lanka’s founding texts, the Mahavamsa, the 5th-century Prince Vijaya travelled with some of his followers from the North of India to Sri Lanka and claimed much of the land. He built a community that would eventually become the Sinhalese people and he rose to be the first of the country’s many kings. My ancestors are from India, so I was not annoyed for that reason. I was annoyed because this is the second time in two days the same guy has asked me this question, and it is the third time in four days that I have been asked this question by someone who is also South Asian. However, I realise that there is a kind of camaraderie he was trying to form with me by asking, “you look like you’re from the same place as I am. Are you?”
As an artist and writer, the pressure that I am confronted with is to create something “good” and “good for us”—“us” being the community of people of colour (POC) and South Asian people that I am intrinsically a part of. I know that this is not something that I have to necessarily take into consideration and this doesn’t exclusively fall on me, but where there is a gap in our common knowledge and discourse around South Asian Aotearoa art, I want to try and fill it. The first piece I wrote for this programme attempted to fill that gap—addressing the lack of representation of South Asian artists in major Aotearoa art institutions. Approaching the work of Elisabeth Pointon and Bepen Bhana with criticality, I hoped to make a new contribution to a largely unchartered conversation about South Asian Aotearoa practitioners. It was a more daunting task than I initially imagined.
I felt the pressure to do something that was “good for us” in a field that is largely unchartered. Since I aim to create a better understanding of our communities and a better community for us to exist in, I wanted to take that on as my responsibility. It was my intention to write my second piece for Extended Conversations continuing the discussion around South Asian Aotearoa artists and practitioners. I do intend to continue pursuing this larger project, but before I do, I wanted to use this piece to reflect on the pressures at play here—both environmental and learned—and explore where they may be rooted, with the hope of understanding them better for myself and for others who feel like they may be in a similar position.
My opening anecdote is something I am sure many South Asian people or POC are very familiar with—a classic “where are you from?” story. Despite it being about being-in-common, it reminds me that frequently, the first thing many people think about when they see a POC is their colour, which is a dehumanising thought for many of us. There is a difference between relating to someone’s experience and talking to that person in a certain manner that tends to make assumptions about their identity. This repeated conversation serves as a reminder that the first thing people see when they see me is my brownness, my South Asian-ness.
When viewing this “where are you from” story through the lens of creative practice, it no longer requires a simple explanation of ethnicity, heritage or “homeland,” but the explanation of how these factors influence everything that is created. Furthermore, when you are treated as a representative of a people or culture (like POC and minorities frequently are), a personal story or experience can become conflated with that of everyone else who looks remotely like you. Representing yourself—and by proxy, a larger group of people—succinctly, efficiently and accurately is difficult and complex, especially if you are displaced from your homeland or culture. Granted, no one who asks a minority or POC these types of questions is owed an explanation, but for me, there is a niggling feeling that I should have some answers—even if it is simply for my own personal understanding. This responsibility can feel debilitating. We should not claim to speak for others, but I feel the need to speak well enough for myself that I do not run the risk of there being misinterpretation of a broader culture or group of people. Despite being aware of this tendency to be viewed as a “representative,” I can recognise the kind of freedom that can come with not screening my work through an imagined white lens, but it is a habit. It is one that has become learnt by existing in a Eurocentric society and in spaces that are predominantly white. I am aware of my brownness, how it is in contrast to whiteness, and people frequently remind me of it.
Whenever I approach making or writing, I hear the voice of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall in my head, saying, “films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right-on’ by virtue of the fact they deal with black experience.”1 Even though I am not making films and I am not black, Hall discusses the creative practices of people who are racially marginalised—drawing from theorists like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—to further explain a marginalised experience. Having a lens-based artistic practice myself, I have developed a few ways of dealing with my own Sri Lankan Aotearoa experience. Some works directly reference the difficulty of housing and immigration in the late ’90s when my family moved here, some are about the loss of my mother-tongue. Others less obviously deal with a South Asian experience, through exploring the avenue of mainstream US comedy-drama television. Evaluating which direction is best for my practice, or better for the representation of people that look like me, or just better, seems pointless, since these are vastly different approaches.
When describing his novel Satanic Verses (1988), Salman Rushdie stated that the book intentionally “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure.”2 As South Asians, like people of many other cultures in Aotearoa, we exist in a society that reflects the amalgamation that Rushdie describes—our histories of colonisation and migration have made non-hybridisation of culture impossible. Just as it is valuable to explore cultural and familial histories, especially if they have been lost or misplaced, it is equally as valuable to create narratives that may not explicitly reference those histories. Both approaches can serve an underrepresented community. They can do so simply by those works being made by a person from that underrepresented community with the intention to improve it, or by adding to an existing conversation. As Rushdie suggests, we can acknowledge our co-mingling and embrace that these approaches don’t even have to sit in contrast to each other—one work can achieve both of these goals.
An artist who is a prime example of this is Parbhu Makan, a Tāmaki Makaurau-based photographer who graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 1972. In a recent issue of Art New Zealand, Andrew Clark wrote about Makan’s ongoing practice, in which he commits to capturing portraits of people.3 Makan exhibited at the now-defunct Real Pictures Gallery in the mid ’70s, and documented performance works and exhibition openings around Tāmaki Makaurau during this period. In addition to capturing images of the art scene of Tāmaki Makaurau, Makan travelled to India and photographed his family, as well as labourers and people around his grandfather’s village.
For decades, the Te Whanganui-a-Tara-born Pākehā photographer Brian Brake (1927–1988), best known for his photographs of China, was one of the main photographic lenses people in Aotearoa had to view an image of life in South Asia. If you search “Sri Lanka,” “India” or “South Asia” in The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa online archive, there is a mass of photographs taken of South Asian people by Brake. Brake committed a lot of his practice to capturing South Asia. In doing so, he exoticised our cultures and brought images back to Aotearoa that were subsequently fetishised. An example of this is the image simply titled Monsoon Girl (1960), which was one of Brake’s most famous photographs. It appears to depict a young Indian girl with a nose piercing and dangling gold earrings, standing in a monsoon with her eyes closed and face covered with droplets of rain, a lush green background behind her. The girl in the photograph, Aparna Sen, was, at the time, a 14-year-old actress who was asked to pose for this staged photo. A watering-can was used to create the droplets on her face, and the image was taken on a rooftop. The fabrication of this image speaks to Brake’s desire to present a romanticised facade of South Asia through a Pākehā lens to a largely European audience. In contrast to practices like this, coming across Makan’s images of India is refreshing—he presents a view of India from the perspective of a South Asian New Zealander who is culturally connected to the land and invested in its people. Makan doesn’t exhibit regularly and his photographic practice is largely private, but its existence—particularly in parallel to Pākehā photographers’ depictions of life in South Asia—is valuable to our community because it gives us a view of a South Asian Aotearoa perspective on both South Asia and Aotearoa.
I have had many conversations with my peers in the contemporary art scene around how much to disclose to a majority audience when we are trying to deal with less-than-sunny aspects of our cultures through our creative practices. We have spoken about what subject matter we choose to discuss, just in case a white audience may attribute further negative or harmful associations with our cultures. It can also be taxing to a maker to feel the responsibility to explain their cultural difference to an audience who may only be momentarily interested in the subject while they are interacting with a work. Cultural knowledge is both sacred and often has a level of subjectivity. Knowledge can be lost or retold in multiple different ways, especially when it has travelled over lands and generations. To be seen as—and be required to act as—a source of this information can be stressful, since audience members often take these words as hard facts and attribute them directly to your culture and everyone within it. This expectation “to be educated” is one that majority audiences often expect of minority artists. It is not a minority practitioner’s responsibility to explain their difference to a majority audience; ideally, this is a tradition that should be broken.
In the “clap-back” or “callout” culture in which we currently exist, and which has proliferated through social media, artistic and written work is open to quick critique by almost anyone who interacts with it. Since the art scene is so small in Aotearoa, and the number of POC is even smaller, it can be easy to feel like I exist under a spotlight. In my attempt to resolve all of this, I snowball into asking if I am a good enough brown person; if I am a good enough brown person to other POC; if I am a too-white brown person; if I am a too-academic brown person (reiterating the former); if I am Sri Lankan enough; if I am a good Sri Lankan New Zealander; if I am a too-angry brown person; if I should be a less angry brown person, etc. The act of posing these questions seems overly-cautious and bordering on paranoia. None of these questions have answers or are doubts that can be resolved—is there any value in resolving them? Inevitably they are arbitrary, yet if I am to praise diversity within minority representation and expression, then those strict rules to how we are supposed to “be,” create, or express ourselves, makes that variation impossible. Accepting this conclusion is easy to do theoretically, but counteracting this habitual thought is difficult in practice. It is stressful to the point where it can hinder creative output. In the Sri Lankan culture that I have interacted with, as a woman I feel the expectation to be wary of myself in relation to my surroundings, and to act accordingly. As hard as we fight these seemingly traditional expectations, they still effect how we think, and consequently, how we behave.
This discussion is not the first of its kind by any means. Theorists like Hall, Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha and Edward Said have created seminal texts that discuss the role of race for minorities in Eurocentric spaces. For decades, people have been writing think pieces discussing POC experiences that are published at rapid speed, but these lived adversities still occur. In her book Old Asian, New Asian, writer and curator K. Emma Ng questioned how she could contribute to a historical trajectory of texts dealing with Asian Aotearoa experience:
I also wondered what I could contribute to this discussion that does not merely synthesise or go over previously trodden ground. I’ve come to think that perhaps this Text might add to the momentum. I hope, quietly, that we are heading to a moment where the discussion of these issues might become more sustained, rather than the ebb and flow that has required us to return to square one, rehashing the same arguments each time.4
Unlike the Chinese community in Aotearoa, Sri Lankans do not have a long history in this country and we have not had the same relationship with documenting our experiences while being here. There were a few people who migrated from Sri Lanka to Aotearoa through the Colombo Plan,5 which was enacted in 1950, and in the last few decades many Sri Lankans have moved to Aotearoa to live and study. A large majority of Aotearoa’s Sri Lankan population moved here in the early ’80s to late ’90s to flee that country’s twenty-eight-year-long civil war. Since the majority of the population has only been here for thirty-five years, we only have approximately two or three generations of Sri Lankan New Zealanders making up only 2% of Aotearoa’s Asian population, which itself is only 11.8% of its entire population.6 In short, we are a small community that has a relatively short history in this country, which may contribute to the lack of discussion about Sri Lankans and South Asians when we discuss Asian communities in Aotearoa.
Many Sri Lankans migrated here for the purposes of safety and greater opportunity for themselves and their families. Like many other Asian immigrants, parents and elders in the Sri Lankan community expect high academic achievement and career success from their children. According to a paper published in 2015 on the Asian American experience, “Asian American students experience pressure from their parents to succeed in their studies as well as pressure from teachers to make certain grades to live up to the unspoken standards of what it means to be a model minority student.”7
Though this study focuses on an American context, these stereotypes can also be applied to our context in Aotearoa, considering we have a similarly Eurocentric environment. Many first- and second-generation Sri Lankan New Zealanders often enter fields of work that offer high incomes, such as law, medicine, finance and engineering. In addition to the interpersonal expectations, the “model minority” stereotype also frames the expectation of Asian students’ social behaviour and academic achievements—and that influences how they feel they must succeed and in which fields to achieve in. Creative practices do not fall into these fields: neither in the expectation of our communities nor in the stereotype.
I have come across only a handful of individuals within the Sri Lankan community who have pursued careers or studied in the creative industries. As anyone who is in a creative industry knows, it is not a field that normally offers financial stability, nor is it given a lot of value in certain cultural communities that don’t tend to engage in the arts as much. Though I didn’t follow the career path into accounting I was expected to, it seems that the work ethic I was meant to put into my expected career has travelled into my creative endeavours. If anything, it has heightened the pressure to be successful, since I also have to prove that this career path has value, in addition to being generally successful within it. Though it is unlikely I will ever achieve the kind of “financial success” that I may have gained had I pursued a more expected career path, I believe that the idea of success that I have mapped out for myself is rooted in building a better community for people like me to exist in.
Founded in 2017, after the five years of sustained creative conversations and collaboration that followed the inaugural Chinese New Zealand Artists Hui at Corbans Estate, Auckland (2013), The Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui (AAAH) is an example of an opportunity where the Asian Aotearoa community can share and develop ideas.8 Held from September 3 to 23 in Te Whanganui-a-tara, the 2018 iteration of AAAH was successful in many ways. It opened up dialogue between peers and created connections between Asian Aotearoa practitioners from different creative industries. However, like many of the discussions focused around Asian New Zealanders, the voices of South Asian New Zealanders were far less represented than those of East Asian descent. Though I learned a lot from all of the speakers, my ears pricked up when listening to contributors such as curator Balamohan Shingade and writer Brannavan Gnanalingam. I have been so eager to listen to discussions that are specifically for Asian New Zealanders and offer the chance to discuss the diversity and different dimensions within the South Asian community in Aotearoa. Ahi Karunaharan invoked this diversity in a 2016 interview discussing his play TEA (2018). Karunaharan described how he is “writing about people of South Asian descent,” noting that
because we’re embracing the poetry of language, we’re able to have our characters speak articulately and eloquently. When you’re writing urban contemporary drama the migrant experience is often exclusively told. While that is an important and valid narrative I believe it’s equally necessary to explore the stories of opulence, the different facets and fabrics of a bourgeois Sri Lankan and South Asian community.9
Exploring our own vast cultural backgrounds in creative media allow us to bring these narratives forward into our expanding collective consciousness about our country’s multiculturalism. Telling stories from our perspectives, like the way Makan documents the lives of his family both in India and in Aotearoa, allows our voices to be more prominent.
Despite beginning this text by explaining the pressure I felt while working on my first piece for Extended Conversations, I can see how the exercise of researching and writing it has moved in line with the goal of showcasing the many perspectives and approaches to the multi-faceted South Asian Aotearoa community. Forming relationships with the artists and curators I interviewed—Shingade, Pointon and Bhana—allowed us to share anecdotes about our interactions with the contemporary art sector in Aotearoa and discuss what changes we would like to see. Beginning this project with the premise of discussing what South Asian Aotearoa artists are interested in, I was able to build a micro-community of people with whom I can share knowledge and ideas, who can empathise with a lot of my experience as a South Asian person living in this country and in this community. It is my hope that this continuing project builds those connections for other people within our community, or at least makes people aware of practices they may not have been familiar with otherwise. As Ng points out, if we more consistently contribute to this field of knowledge, we will no longer have to feel the strain of being a singular force, breaking the pattern of being associated with stereotypes or a single source of knowledge. Just as Makan’s work offers an intimacy and a cultural lens that Brake’s can’t, being active in producing our own dialogue and framing can impact our larger common dialogue and activity around representation, as South Asian Aotearoa artists, and within our broader communities—as long as we keep engaging with each other, to progress the momentum we need.