Writer Noah Lei Underwood / Photographer Jo Brown
TW: discussion of micro-aggressions and racial abuse
Tucked away in a quiet gallery in the MAC (Midlands Arts Centre), I find myself choking up as I send a voice note to fellow mixed race editor Jaz: “I think I can write a really sick article about this; God, I don’t know why I’m crying.”
But that’s not quite true; I do know what’s causing this swell of tangled feelings. I’m looking around at unapologetic expressions of rage – mixed rage. Rage I had never felt justified feeling or expressing myself.
The Mixed Rage Collective, made up of individual artists, Sherrie Edgar, Sevonah Golabi, Sina Leasuasu, Niall Singh, and Jane Thakoordin, have partnered with the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games to produce this particular exhibition, Unapologetically Other.
Through video, textile, photography, and painting, they successfully communicate certain commonalities to a mixed existence – whether the inability to feel that you truly belong anywhere, or having your existence questioned by those around you, who expect some sort of explanation or justification from you for simply being.
In her series Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me stay forever, artist Sina Leasuasu seeks to reclaim the power behind verbal abuse she has faced.
By publicly sharing statements such as, “You don’t / deserve to be / called Sina,” she doesn’t deny the pain that they might have caused her, yet wishes to diminish their hold on her.
Here I see echoes of the countless casual micro-aggressions and blatantly racist abuse received from friends, family, acquaintances, and others, seared into my own memory:
“You’re only Asian when you want to be.”
“Where are you from? Wait, let me guess…”
“But you’re not ‘diverse’.”
“You don’t look Asian.”
“You’re so exotic.”
“Chinky-eyed yellow skin.”
In my own experience, to ‘qualify’ as the ethnicity that you actually are is merely whether or not the person you are speaking to ‘believes’ you, whether they ‘deem’ you to be sufficiently one thing or another.
That experience is mirrored here; our mixed reality “reveals the complexity of how you are seen,” in the words of contributing artist Sherrie Edgar. Her film Being Mixed, 2022, allows a space for mixed race individuals to relate their personal experiences with others whilst capturing their relationships with their own ambiguous bodies.
Here the camera lingers on hands tracing facial features, fingers moving across skin — parts of a whole person. A person who feels beholden to others; one interviewee talks about how they always felt like they had to explain that they were mixed race but have since stopped doing that. Another talks about how they felt as though they “broke a mental bone” as a child.
My existence and that of other persons of mixed heritage seems to be forever fed through the judgement of those whose existence is unambiguous in nature, particularly those who are white, offering unsolicited opinions over how white or [insert ethnicity here] they think that you look.
Not to mention how their perceptions of different ethnicities are all too often filtered through Western media, historically steeped in reductive and racist stereotypes – defining what it is to look or be anything ‘Other’ than entirely white.
Niall Singh exposes the violent historical backdrop of the British Empire and the modern day global economy through striking collages, presenting exploitation against a stark white backdrop, hung alongside his recipe-centred poem ‘Warlords’: “And the bodies on the news / Are the meat in a warlords pie”.
Whilst grappling with my racial identity I have repeatedly sought permission to access and feel joy in my heritage, permission to feel pain when confronted with racism, permission to address the prejudices I face, whilst acknowledging my privilege. Whose permission? Exactly.
With the snapshot of the beauty and multifaceted nature of the mixed experience offered by this exhibition, with many more thought-provoking pieces than I am able to mention here, it feels like we might finally begin to define this complex existence for our mixed selves, validating and claiming our complex heritage without seeking permission elsewhere.
Witnessing mixed race individuals unapologetically granting a voice to their pain and their joy, I for one, feel entirely unapologetic in granting a much louder voice to my own mixed rage.
Unapologetically Other is currently being exhibited at the Midlands Arts Centre until the 14 August, and can be found in the People’s Postcode Lottery Community Gallery.
For more information visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/exhibition/unapologetically-other
You can keep up with the Mixed Rage Collective via their Instagram here: www.instagram.com/mixedrage
For more from the artists see below:
Sherrie Edgar – https://sherrieedgar.com/work
Sevonah Golabi – https://twitter.com/SevonahGolabi
Sina Leasuasu – https://www.instagram.com/stuffbyseener/?hl=en
Niall Singh – https://niallsinghpoet.wordpress.com/
Jane Thakoordin – https://www.janethakoordin.com/about