LISA MINOGUE: Creating Spaces
Lisa Minogue is the photographer behind Liberation Images in Melbourne creating spaces for people to celebrate African-Australians. As the mother of two adopted children from Ethiopia, Lisa Minogue has sought out opportunities to celebrate African-Australians and create positive role models for her children and other people.
Minogues most recent series, ‘The Coloured Girls’ did exactly this…
LISA MINOGUE...A lady told me something that stuck with me. She then had to explain it to me, because I found that really hard to believe. I had to check up on her facts, that in fact in Melbourne there was a modelling agency that had women, men and ‘ethnic’. I checked and it was absolutely true. Categories, right?! You cannot imagine the shock I experienced, because nobody had ever categorised me, because I’m from the biggest group. It never occurred to me that in my country, this was happening. Remembering I’m raising black children, and I’m learning all the time how to be a mother to raise a black child. I’m mindful.
My daughter Liberty said to me one day in the car, at four years old, ‘I love you, but you need to find me another family to live with. You’ll always be my mother, but you can’t teach me how to be black’. Profound kid, she’s really profound.
I’m constantly learning and was learning. My dad’s Italian. “Ethnic” used to be Italian, Greek...what, black people, ethnic? So I went home and looked up this modelling agency, and if you look it up - FRM Model Management - it still exists. The difference is now the black women are now in the women category, as well as ethnic. It still exists. But originally there were no black women in the women category.
My mind just exploded into ‘are you serious?!’, I have to do something about this...but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Where did the idea behind The Coloured Girls come from?
L. Two years ago, there was a block party in Collingwood. I was downstairs at the Social Studio, and someone mentioned that my friend Atong upstairs preparing her models for her runway. As I got to the top of the stairs a woman ran towards me speaking to me. I couldn’t recognise her because her whole face was painted black. I knew she knew me, but my brain could not comprehend who was behind the black mask. As a white person, I saw a person with a black mask and went ‘Oh! Someone stop!’. It was my friend Kyah who was modeling for Atong, and she said, ‘Lisa, it’s me!’. I thought, how can I not tell it’s you, I know you! And I said, ‘Atong, you can’t do blackface…’ and as it was coming out of my mouth I thought, ‘oh, she can, she’s black’. It was all going through my white filter.
I was fascinated by how hard I had to stare at a friend to see her. I loved that I had to stop and look at Kyah to really look at her. A couple of months later I had to come up with a project while I was studying, it all came to me in a minute. I could see all these women painted with different coloured faces. I thought, ‘That’s so clever, it’s not blackface and I definitely won’t do white, it’ll be cool!’. Then I thought about what it would be called. Straight away, the words ‘The Coloured Girls’ comes out. I was’t sure if “coloured girls” was offensive so I googled it.
I’m aware that as a white person I don’t know, and it’s my job to go and find out. I didn’t ask anyone because I was scared. I presented the idea of the project to Atong, and she became really emotional. She said, ‘You are the only person who can do this, you must do it’. I said the title was a problem, and she said it wasn’t. I asked if she was sure and she questioned why it could be a problem.
I chose and met the twelve women who had been most influential in my life over the last four years, and presented the concept to them and then the title. I wasn’t going to go ahead if it offended anyone.
For this project to work there were three things that needed to be agreed on. The first thing was that they weren’t going to see the images for a year. It was pretty brave for them to trust me and allow me to do that. The second thing was that I wanted to present these images in a gallery, to give them and other black people a reason to come to a gallery and see themselves reflected in contemporary art. The third thing was I needed each girl to write a response to the question ‘What does the word "coloured" mean to you. I feel very strongly that I have no right to speak on anyone else’s behalf and that as a white photographic artist I must not under any circumstances culturally appropriate to create my work … I needed my subjects words to be a part of the exhibition, cultural collaboration is a must for me to ethically do what I do.
Do you think there are enough visual representations of black Australians?
L. No! Not nearly enough! No way! This is where we get problems with stereotypes. Everyone just assumes that black people like basketball and are into hip hop.
My friend has a friend who was one of the first female Sudanese lawyers in Australia. Everyone always asks her, are you a model? Do you play basketball? She’s a damn lawyer! She’s gone to a lot of trouble to be a lawyer. No one walks up to me straight away and asks if I’m a stay at home mum!? There’s just not enough width and breadth of things. Successful people are hidden in plain sight. There is not enough role models
for young people to actually see.
In the Social Studio book, I noticed you mention getting the colour right with photographing black people. Quite often mainstream magazines will lighten…
L. [laughs] really, never noticed [laughs]!
Has that been a challenge?
L. It’s actually been a challenge to my own theory. I’ve intended to always represent the skin colour as it is. If I photograph white people I do the same thing. Depending on how artistic I make a shot, frequently it doesn’t look exactly as it was.
I photographed this couple, in the colour photos the woman looked exactly as she had. In a black and white photograph I ran a red filter over the top, which makes a person look darker. She looked sublime and I thought it was one of the best I’ve taken. When I showed her and her partner, he loved it and thought it was the best photo of her ever and she hated it. She didn’t want to be seen as dark. I’ve had to learn along the way that I need to be careful.
It’s a real dilemma. Young women see lighter as better. I struggle with that, because when I was adopting my own daughter I thought she’d be very black. Once she was allocated to us, people in Ethiopia saw her and telephoned and said we’d be so happy because she was almost white. I burst into tears. Black is beautiful. I used to joke and say I was the only mother who sent their kids out between 11am - 3pm. This bleaching thing is such an issue though, what do I do about that. I don’t know.
You grew up in country Victoria, in Healesville. When did you become interested in race and culture?
L. If anything you would see me as a race denier. My dad was Italian, he was a violent alcoholic - I grew up with domestic violence. I had none of his physical traits. I had the body shape of my Italian grandmother who lived next door. She was in Australia for sixty years and never spoke English. She spoke the same five words to me her whole life. That was all she learnt. I saw this images of the Italian grandmother who would have her grandchildren over. Not my experience. I’d see these images of these warm Italian families, my dad was an alcoholic - not my experience.
I was very very close to my Australian grandparents, they adored and protected me. My grandmother ended up not being my biological grandmother, but I didn’t know for a long time. She was British and she was my greatest role model. I’m the most like her out of everyone. I grew up loathing the Italian in me and denying it entirely. People would tell me I was Italian and I would say no. It was a very uncomfortable thing for me, I had no reference points for the culture.
I found embracing my kids race completely natural. It seemed like the right thing to do. Remembering they’re both born from Ethiopian parents, but as babies they couldn’t bring their culture here. As a baby you don’t get to pack it up in a suitcase with you. So I knew from the beginning and before they came here I made so much effort to ensure colour was involved in their lives. You couldn’t get books in Australia twenty years ago that had black kids in them. There were no hairdressers in Melbourne who could do black hair, I taught myself. I can do a weave like you wouldn’t image, I can braid, cornrow, everything. Someone had once said to me that nobody can ruin a black girl’s hair like a white mother. Becoming the best I could be as a white person, with black kids, it was important to get that right.
I was never one of those white people who wanted to go and do the drumming. You know, those white people [laughs]. Have you seen those memes, ‘everyone has that one white friend who wants to be black’, I didn’t want to be that person. I don’t pretend to be African...
It’s interesting how you bring up hair and an essential part of black culture especially for girls and women?
L. Let’s talk about that. Hair is another thing. For me, one of the pivotal things white people don’t know is black hair. White people just don't know how important it is. I learnt that very very early on, the one thing that all of the adopted kids, especially the ones that I am friends with, the one thing they resent is their mothers never did anything with their hair.
I refused to straighten Liberty’s hair, she’s never had it chemically straightened. I said to her, you need to know the cultural ramifications of that. My kids have extremely coarse hair, with tiny curls, a lot of people call it ‘the worst hair’. I would never, but they do. My son has a full afro and people always comment on how it must be so hard. I love my kids hair, it’s a part of who they are. Most adoptive families straighten their kids hair and complain about how hard it is. My argument is, then why did you adopt them?
My photography assistant and business partner is a 25 year old white guy from the country. He’d never met black people prior to The Coloured Girls series. When we were doing The Coloured Girls he came along and my first model was Jo, who always wears a wig. It looks fabulous and she looks amazing. On that day she was wearing a black wig, she did her makeup, and she came out, I mentioned the photo wasn’t working and she must’ve moved her fringe when doing her makeup.
She pulled it down and his face, he literally could not comprehend what he was seeing. He was just like, ‘What!’. We lost it, we were killing ourselves with laughter. He just couldn’t comprehend. I told him it wasn’t real and he asked why, he thought it might be for today. I explained, ‘no, my daughters isn’t real either’. It blew him away and for the rest of the day we spent time educating him about black hair. He now calls himself an expert in the subject of what not to do with black women’s hair. Some of it is fashion, and some of it is because people are ashamed or because it’s difficult.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
LISA MINOGUE. Use your sunscreen [laughs].
THE PIN. Nobody has said said that.
LISA MINOGUE. Yeah, I got burnt [both laugh].
*This interview has been edited