“Where you from?”
“Where you from?” is a phrase frequently heard in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). It is used colloquially, but given the context of the place it is spoken – Country where local Indigenous cultures and languages are still widely practised – it can also hold significant ancestral meaning. Living in Mparntwe as a person of colour, and regularly asked this question by local First Nations people, I’m prompted to reflect on my own cultural and ancestral heritage, and the different ways these intersect with the stories and histories that shape the place I inhabit today.
A 'born and bred' 'Australian', a 'Sydney-sider' with migrant 'Malaysian' parents of Chinese (Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese) ancestry, my face and skin colour indicate clearly that my family’s origins are not 'from here'. Subsequently I am often wholeheartedly welcomed, or subject to both explicit and implicit anti-Chinese racism from people of all backgrounds. Despite this I think often of my enormous privilege living where and how I do, having grown up speaking English and with good access to education, housing and food, among other things. I also recognise the cost at which this has come – disconnection from extended family living in Malaysia, the effects of European colonisation in both Malaysia and Australia ultimately resulting in a loss of traditional language and culture within myself. It is a story all too common here in Alice Springs, where the effects of colonisation are glaringly obvious, local Indigenous groups must fight hard to retain their culture, language and land, and institutional violence and racism towards First Nations people is a casual fact of everyday life.
Mainstream reports and conversations around these topics are too often framed as a black and white issue. In reality the history and social dynamics of this town are much richer and more nuanced than this binary trope. The population of Alice Springs is a melting pot of people – from local Central, Eastern and Western Arrernte, Pitintjara, Walpiri and Luritja peoples to name a few, to non-Indigenous folk 'born and bred in Alice', to people from overseas or interstate who have come for the plentiful work opportunities and to escape city life.
This installation and collection of works is my response to the question “where you from?”. My answer will always vary depending on the context, who is asking, and where. Culturally I am 'Australian', 'Malaysian' and 'Chinese'. I am also from the city – my urban upbringing is obvious in this regional town, however having lived in Mparntwe now for most of my adult life I feel that this place has also become part of who I am today.
I have chosen to paint on domestic items of personal and cultural significance – handmade batik and ceramics, to share my experience of living in Mparntwe.
Batik sarongs and loose clothing were an everyday item for my parents and their family living in Malaysia, and their use continued in my family even after migrating to Australia. As part of this exhibition I will run a series of batik workshops within the exhibition space. The workshops are an important component for the audience to be able to relate to my works and art in general in a fun and practical way.
For Chinese people, ceramics have huge cultural and historical significance. It is an artform with many uses – as a source of pride in one's home, a vessel in rituals and ceremonies, or just as a simple, everyday item. The designs that I’ve painted on the ceramics are in the style of common 'Chinese' and South-East Asian dinnerware designs. They reappropriate now mass-produced but once historically intentional designs to both criticise and celebrate the context in which I live – making reference to cultural appropriation, notions of cultural authenticity and the bastardisation of culture, environmental destruction and colonisation, as well as expressing appreciation for this place and my place within it.
Where you from? is a project born from my experiences of living in this place as a person of colour and first-generation 'Australian'. It is a project for the culturally ambiguous by the culturally ambiguous, for whom the term 'culturally diverse' is complex. This project is about reimagining our cultural identities and histories, creating our own spaces where we belong, redefining the perception and meaning of multiculturalism in so-called 'Australia' and translating these ideas into an intimate and individual scale. Where you from? is about voicing the unique insights that people of layered cultural backgrounds have to share and building on what we know regardless of how small, whilst grounded in an appreciation of place and respect for its traditional custodians.
Personal, cultural identity and history is an often challenging topic. Developing this body of work however, has ultimately been a heartening journey, in both the process of physically creating with materials, as well as the creation of a space that encourages questions, conversations, and celebrates both the known and not yet known.
Where you from? is showing at West Space, 28 Oct → 16 Dec 2023.
Chris Ng is an emerging artist living and working in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. A first-generation born “Australian” of South-East Asian/Chinese family background, Chris grew up in the suburbs of Sydney. Their art practice is informed by their experiences and identity as well as their immediate surroundings and natural, political and socio-economic landscape.