In “Facial Recognition”, the main organiser, Lucy Tirahan’s ambition is clear: to break the unspoken taboos surrounding mixed-ethnic heritage.
The exhibition is extremely successful. It avoids romanticizing while asserting the wealth of multiculturalism. Ten frames are mounted over two tables running the entire length of the room. Each contains a picture and a text of equal size, highlighting how the story is just as important as the piece. The pictures are simple, they do not attempt the “artistic” but rather seek to imitate the quick gaze those with distinctive or “different” facial features experience every day.
The name of the exhibition, “Facial recognition” does not fear controversy. The words are now deeply associated with racial profiling and racist discrimination. The pictures and stories stimulate the observer, whether they be of mixed ethnic heritage or tenth generation Midlander, to confront their own, internalized discriminatory instincts. The project is nuanced in that it acknowledges one may be intrigued by difference. The juxtaposing of such a diversity of portraits and stories downplays morbid curiosity, as we are quick to realize the multiplicity of the shapes and forms of difference.
Indeed, “Facial Recognition” explores the boundless spectrum of what mixed heritage can be. Mixed heritage simply means having multiple heritages. While it is often connotatively connected to differences in physical appearances, religion, traditions and customs, especially in highly normative places like Oxford, it doesn’t fit a unique definition. The life-stories narrated in the exhibition are particularly compelling in that matter.
Some have experienced discrimination, for others “mixed heritage” is not a strong component of their identity. One written portrait says: “I don’t really consider myself to be someone with mixed heritage”. People from all parts of the university are represented, from undergrad to DPhils, College staff and teaching body. Mixed-heritage is a common and often understated reality. As such the exhibition pushes the borders of what “mixed heritage” can sometimes come to imply.
At the opening of the exhibition, Lucy held a beautiful speech. When she was eleven and her parents divorced, someone told her she would have to be English in the week and Indian on the weekends. These hurtful words had a deep impact on her but ended up motivating many of her later enterprises, amongst which this exhibition.
After her speech, her mother Cheryl said: “I am tremendously proud of her achievement. I am so proud of her passion; a lot of people should take a leaf out of her book. As humans, we are all equal, but the day we won’t these kinds of exhibitions is the day that will have become a reality.”
The exhibition is highly recommended if you wonder what mixed-heritage exactly means or if you are curious to delve into ten unique life stories.