The Story of Race: Dianne Jones and Odette Kelada


Dianne Jones is a Ballardong artist from Noongar Country, in Western Australia. Jones utilises photo-media to reposition the representation of Aboriginal Peoples and enact creative resistance to historical and contemporary colonial ideologies. Jones’ art practice reveals what is missing from pervasive Australian narratives and art history, highlighting the multifaceted nature of contemporary Indigenous identities. 

Born in Northam, Western Australia, Jones has completed a Masters by Research in Fine Arts at VCA (2016) and is currently completing her Doctorate at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne. Recent exhibitions include Queer: stories from the NGV Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, The Grand Tour, Parliament House of Western Australia (Artist in Residence), Old ways, new ways, at Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne and Black Magic at Incinerator Gallery, Melbourne. Dianne Jones’ work is held in many important public collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; The Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; Parliament House Perth WA, Edith Cowan University, and the Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Dianne Jones

Dr. Odette Kelada is a lecturer in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her writing focuses on marginalised voices, gender studies and race, and has appeared in numerous publications including the International Journal of Intercultural Studies, Overland, Australian Cultural History Journal, Outskirts: Feminisms on the Edge, Journal for the Association of Studies in Australian Literature, and The Postcolonial Studies Journal. She has anglo and Egyptian heritage, and teaches in racial literacy and creative writing. Her novel Drawing Sybylla: The Real and Imagined Lives of Australian Writing Women won The Dorothy Hewett Award in 2016 and is out now through University of Western Australia Publishing.

Dr. Odette Kelada

In this dialogue with Worimi filmmaker, artist and educator, Genevieve Grieves, artist Dianne Jones and author Dr. Odette Kelada discuss the story of race, a model of intercultural collaboration built on their challenging personal conversations, and best practice generated through developing a literacy of race.

Gen: How would you explain the ways that race and racism permeate Australian society to people without backgrounds in racial literacy and the history of race? How strong a force are race and racism in Australian society?

Dianne: We can’t talk about race and racism without the tools and learning how to talk about race. There is such a lack of education on race in Australia: you have people like Pauline Hanson who actively try to prevent it and people who get offended by this, but then you have a lot of people who actually do genuinely want to talk and do want to know. It’s impossible to have these conversations without education.

These are skills. You can see the difference today, people really want to talk about race, they just need to know how to do it.

Odette: It’s actually a great question because it’s the kind of question that led us to our conversations about race. How do we communicate in a way that’s actually going to be effective? We start with story. We start with the fact that race is a story, and it’s a story that hasn’t been told in a way that’s clear and visible. So we try to unpack the story of race. That’s where we go into the facts and history – the truths about this term – because the term ‘race’ hasn’t always been around, and people don’t even realise where this term emerged, why it emerged, and that story speaks to the connections between the invention of race as a way to perpetuate oppression,  and ensuring the continuance of inequality between groups of people based on things like skin colour and exploitation for conquest and accumulating capital.

So that’s why we go into the story of the birth of these ideas as often we’ve been kept ignorant of this story. Our work is about learning and sharing our resources and sharing knowledges creatively. Then the work is trying to connect that story that can sound a little bit abstract or historical to how race shapes our daily lives, depending on our relationships to power and privilege and our positionality. Our lenses through which we see and the systems, institutions and spaces we live, learn and work in are interconnected and shaped by race. And the danger in the story of race is that racial difference has been taught falsely as biologically real, so unpacking these myths means that the origins of these divisive classifications are also part of hidden stories.

Gen: The work you both do in highlighting and teaching racial literacy is about helping people to develop a language around race, which isn’t taught in schools or more broadly in society either.  Can you talk more about how you developed this knowledge?

Dianne: We kind of learned how to talk about race by talking to each other interculturally. So that was really interesting to learn what was cultural, what was not. You just have to stand back and go, okay, this is really interesting and I need to listen and with that listening, be aware that you don’t know a lot of the time.

Odette: And also that these conversations can be really emotional. That words like race, and racism have become so emotionally loaded that to have the conversations are often difficult – people feel like there is judgement on who they are at their core. So this racial discourse has often become connected with a sense of self and moral virtue and that becomes really hard to talk about. So in telling that story of race through racial literacy, we are trying to actually go, okay, this is what’s happened with this discourse and language, and we can take time to think about what this means now. We got quite obsessed with various research directions, but we also got interested in: How does emotion play out in these conversations?

Dianne: I think it’s very easy when you have these conversations that some people are seen as “the ones who can now see”, or “the ones who are good”, and then there’s the “bad people’. But the conversations need to go deeper and it takes practice with skills drawing on learning about the history of race, where this language came from, and thinking through what it means today.

Gen: The intercultural collaboration that you’ve undertaken together, the space and body of knowledge you’ve created is really interesting and exemplifies best practice in many ways.  As we think about best practice, let’s move to your significant creative practices: Dianne, your long career as an artist, and Odette, your creative writing and publication as an author. As two creatives in this sector, how do you see race and racism permeating the arts and cultural sector?

Dianne: If you really wanna know what Indigenous people are feeling, we just have to look at some of the amazing art that’s happening in Australia by Indigenous visual artists such as Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey, REA, Julie Gough and Fiona Foley and Christian Thompson to name a few. It’s often really sophisticated and interesting, powerful political art that is being created.

Australian art, television, advertisements, and movies are often not representing people that look like me as a First Nations Person. So I was interested in repositioning representation, trying to make that a different space, a different way of reading it, a different way of looking at it; a space where I saw myself and my culture.

Learning histories about the construction of racial differences was empowering – getting that information meant for me, personally, that what I was taught about Indigenous Peoples in school was the biggest lie in Australia. The fact that there’s actual proof that race is not biological and those revolting ideas that we were on the bottom of some ‘evolutionary ladder’ as I was taught as a child by the teacher in my classroom- this lie that has been fed so that I believed it, that I didn’t know there was any other way… And no one was ever telling us that there was another way. There was no reason why I would ask, “is this true?” Because the system’s not set up for you to even ask the question. So when you do learn, it kind of rocks your foundations a little bit. And that’s definitely part of the emotion. You just go, whoa, this is amazing. But now what can we do with it? You know, what do we do with that? This is where racial literacy begins…

Gen: Your artwork’s a direct response to that too. It interrogates that absence and the issues around representation. You’ve been in that space with the other artists doing that work for a long time, you know, which is really powerful in shifting those racist representations.

Odette: Whatever the modality of the creative work, we are often engaging with creating representations. Racial imagery and ideas are circulated through the Arts. Representation is such a key vehicle for constantly colonising and infiltrating and shaping beliefs around race – racist stereotypes and tropes continue to be recreated, retold and believed – and likewise anti-racist representations can be the strongest counter to subverting and exposing these narratives.

Creative approaches are also really effective in education. People are not always open when the approach is didactic. However if you open up a creative space – something like showing Dianne’s art in the classroom, or a story – using creativity can be such an transformative way to get people having these conversations and feeling engaged.Creativity can generate opportunities to powerfully fight against oppressive conditioning.

Gen: What advice would you give to people who are either personally or professionally wanting to grow in this space and develop a literacy of race or a sort of anti-racist practice?

Dianne: It’s such a hard question because what racial literacy actually does is reveal that there’s no such thing as race! What it does do is involve everyone in the conversation including white people rather than allowing them to exist as the ‘norm’. People come at it with what they’ve been taught which will be very different if you’re Indigenous. So many people talk about race but they never really think about who they are and whether their voice dominates or not.

Odette: On the question of where to start and resources, there’s a documentary series produced by a PBS called RACE–The Power of an Illusion (here’s an online companion to the series). We’re in a time where these resources are available and accessible, if you’re genuinely interested and realise that you’re not just studying ‘race’, you’re studying yourself. You can watch how your mind is thinking, how you edit yourself, what thoughts are in there, and then get really curious. And if you’re from a positionality which is and has been in an oppressive power relationship, watch how much space you take up in the room; watch when you speak and when to listen actively. As Dianne said, the most helpful thing is that open attitude to having a conversation with others and with yourself.

Dianne: When we started this conversation over a decade ago, and we went to a conference in America, they were all talking about race and teaching race… Coming back to Australia, it was really quiet. Race works differently in the UK to America, then to Australia, and so on –  if you’re going to teach, don’t only look at where you’re sitting, but how race works everywhere and how it works in Australia.

Odette: Yes, we originally discovered the term racial literacy and what is meant by a racial literacy approach in the scholarship of predominantly African American women such as Lani Guinier who we visited in our travels to research racial literacy. Her article ‘From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy’ was really influential for us, and also the work of France Winddance Twine and numerous writers and creatives in this field. Their work on racial literacy along with the brilliant scholarship happening here in Australia from Aileen Moreton Robinson, Irene Watson and so many others… Studying these writings along with the artists Dianne mentioned earlier, and developing our thinking through conversations with collaborators and friends like Lilly Brown and yourself, has been fundamental and continually inspiring.

We’ve talked about conversation, but to have those conversations in a way that is respectful, but also honest and challenging, takes being in relationship with each other to sit in potentially uncomfortable spaces for long periods of time. That takes also realising that the setup with relationships itself can be influenced by a kind of colonial history depending if there are different positionalities. If you are the one seeking to learn, it is not about extracting something from other people when you want to have these conversations directly – it’s more thinking about ways of approaching these conversations as real genuine connections and building a community of support, reciprocity and learning together.

Gen: That’s the thing – we can only scratch the surface. It’s a whole body of knowledge you’re holding.

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