Where we ‘really’ come from shouldn’t define us

Sunil Badami speaks at Beyond Tick Boxes

Of all things qualifying us to make art, where we ‘really’ come from shouldn’t define us

By Sunil Badami [First published by the Guardian]

I’m a husband, father, son, friend, teacher and writer, and I have Indian ethnicity and Australian heritage. I won’t be labelled by just one aspect of my identity

My children love MasterChef, and having endured a number of episodes this past season, I’ve been struck how contestants – in addition to usually hoping their “food journey” will “open doors” for them in the culinary arts as they weep at unrisen soufflés or spilt milk – are always “heroing” an ingredient while cooking up another “fusion” dish by melting different cuisines into the pot or sous vide machine.

I suppose I’m what the judges might call a “fusion” dish (or what my Indian-born mother would call a “masala”) of many different ingredients, from my Indian ethnicity to my Australian upbringing and everything in between.

But I’m also a masala of multiculturalism, beyond the rhetoric of inclusion or the politics of exclusion. As the great Australian writer David Malouf – who, it’s interesting to note, is never labelled “great gay Lebanese-Australian writer David Malouf” – once said, we’re all multicultural at different times, in different places, in different contexts, with different people.

I’m different at different times, in different places and contexts, with different people. A man – but also a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a teacher, a writer. And more, including my Indian ethnicity and my Australian heritage.

And despite all these different identities, they’re all the same person: me. I’m just not only one identity, nor should I be defined by only one.

“…whatever our supposed defining identities are or are supposed to be shouldn’t be at the top of the list or prefix our names and work.”

Sunil Badami

So why am I always labelled by only one aspect of my identity when it comes to my work?

Many “non-mainstream” artists like me – many of whom are also non-white, or non-male, or non-straight, or non-whatever – often decry the “gatekeepers” controlling funding and opportunities, upon whose often closed doors we’ve had to knock, or get our foot in, to open the crack a little wider for those who’ll come after us.

We’ve rightly questioned the mostly white media organisations and funding bodies whose favour we have to curry to come inside, even as their idea of art is often based on their own aspirations, rather than any of our own realities.

Of course, no one can ever imagine another’s experience the way they know it themselves. Nor should they presume to do so. But of all the things that qualify us to make art, whatever our supposed defining identities are or are supposed to be shouldn’t be at the top of the list or prefix our names and work.

Things have changed in the last few years, with more diverse voices and perspectives than ever before, but there’s still so much more to do and still so much more to change.

But rather than knocking on the door, hoping to be invited in, why can’t we just open it and walk right in?

Or, given we’re makers and creators, rather than just opening the door for ourselves or those who’ll come after us, why can’t we just make a new door?

Artists are the dreamers of dreams, imagining countries without borders, where art is inseparable from society, and diversity is not, as race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane once noted, simply “an adornment”: a place not only between two or more cultures, but of an equal exchange between them, where it’s not about “you” and “me” and “them” but “us”.


“…rather than just opening the door for ourselves or those who’ll come after us, why can’t we just make a new door?”

Sunil Badami

The only way we can discover that imaginary homeland we all belong to is to keep staying true to ourselves, whoever we are, whatever we do, and keep making real art that not only tells our own unique, individual stories and experiences, but, like all great art, speaks to all of our unique individual stories and experiences, whoever we are or wherever we may have “really” come from. And keep making it outside whatever boxes we’re told to tick or doors we’re asked to wait outside of.

It all starts with a blank screen. A blank page. A blank canvas. So take up your pen or your brush or your camera or your guitar. Write that book. Paint that picture. Make that film. Sing that song. The change will come, but it begins with us.

Don’t wait for anyone else to let you do it, or accept their definitions of you and your work. Just go out and make some great art.

Because while art – like society, like culture, like Australia, like us – is a recipe made up of many different things, in the end, as an artist, no matter who you are, what you do or where you “really” came from, that’s the only ingredient you need to hero.