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?
My mothers maiden name, on remnants of a skirt wore as a teenager – just like one she had worn before I was born.
In the middle of 2011 I began participating in a project called In Memory Of a Name, initiated by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Arts as part of the Edge of Elsewhere exhibition. 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?
The life of the project, which was a kind of ‘community participation’ project in which we were the community, took many forms, beginning with presentations from Harsono and others. From there we moved into the research phase, each of us looking at how name changing occurs in our own cultural and personal contexts. Drawing on our case studies, participants developed individual or collaborative creative propositions. One of these, Create-Obliterate-Recreate, was initiated by artist Mai Nguyen Long. Photos of precious, personal objects have had their narrative’s re-written, but not without truth. These were displayed in front of Harsono’s video performance “Writing in the Rain”.
You can check out more of the process here
My husband’s family name, which I didn’t take when we married, but have given to my 3 children.
My case studies looked at the prospect of adopting my husband’s family name, and the broader context of maiden names. Among other things, I interviewed my friends and family about their experiences of maiden name change (or not). And I asked my children and husband to take on my surname as well…to no avail). Surprised by the continuing dominance of the patrilineal naming system, I tried to track down the names of my matrilineal line by interviewing my grandmother…we ran dry after her grandmother’s maiden name. From all of this, I resolved to find a way of memorialising the lost names of my mother and grandmothers. I realised that a
shared project could become a catalyst for the kinds of conversations the members of our group had discovered and shared.
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. We would be thrilled if you would consider bringing remnant fabrics that hold meaning for you to use – an old worn out 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’, inscribed as a memorial to lost names. The wall will be added to by others as the project moves through different communities.
“It’s my father’s name….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.” it had taken some time to tell the story behind the black stitches 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, inckuding the man lovingly stitching his name, remember him every day on the anniversary of his death.
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 a daughter, except that there were 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 husband’s. 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?
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.
Kwon, Miwon, (2002) One Place After Another – Site-specific Art and Locational Identity,
The MIT Press, Massachusetts; London
Canberra, 26 January 2012
The first iteration of Née (born as) was held on January 26, in my shed, with people from my community; neighbours, old friends, new friends, workmates, family.
It was wonderful to see how the process became a catalyst for each participant’s story of lost or found names to emerge. Choosing a name to stitch became a process in itself, and participants began to share their stories: Amy’s surname is hers because her mother kept her maiden name and passed it on to her daughters, beginning a new family tradition. Dan and Alison chose a new name to share when they married, both of them leaving behind their ‘maiden names’.
Alison struggled to spell hers as a child, just writing Alison Pr. Esme is one of their chooks, and the name of my old car. Sue took her husband’s family name, but kept her family tradition of ‘no-middle-name’ when naming her children. Jane left behind her Chinese name as a child, to protect herself from the taunts of classmates. George’s Greek name isn’t lost to him, but he had to take the time to remember its shape in Greek script. Drew recorded his mother’s maiden name and Heidi stitched the name she was known by in-utero – and told us her own unborn baby is called Kevin – for now!
Bec and her daughter stitched the family name that is her husband’s and children’s, but not hers. Dom and Finn chose to explore the medium….. Eden is only 3, she has just learned to spell and stitch her name…almost.
Throughout, we discussed this most charged of subjects. What are the reasons for people to change their names? How powerful is a name, and how much power is in the giving or taking away of one? Is changing a name under social pressure empowering, or capitulation? How much do we own our names and their stories – and how much of those stories is owned by others? Now that they’ve shared their stories, they are a part of Née (born as).
Scullin Shops Party, Canberra, 10 March 2013
ANU Printmaking and Drawing Department, 5 October 2012
Casula Powerhouse, Liverpool, 20-24 February 2012
Scullin Shops Party, Canberra, 10 March 2013
ANU Printmaking and Drawing Department, 5 October 2012
Australian National University School of Art Open Day, 31st August 2012
Nee by post.
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 corected 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, that’s 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.”
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