“What is your government name?” Ethiopian-born, Melbourne-based artist Olana Janfa says this is a question that immigrants are all too familiar with. A government name is a legal name that appears on official identification documents, sometimes differing to the name used in day-to-day life.

“Any immigrant will understand what a government name is. Where I come from, you have different names. Your mum and dad will call you a different name, your cousin calls you a different name. When you come to a Western country, your government name is very important. You get asked a lot of questions,” says Janfa.

What Is Your Gov’ment Name is the title of Janfa’s latest exhibition, part of the Culture Makers program from Museums Victoria. For season one of this inaugural program, which runs from April to November, seven Melbourne creatives have been chosen to present their art and stories. The works will be shown across Museums Victoria’s three museums: the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, and Melbourne Museum. Jill Mitchell, Head of Public Programs and Education for Museums Victoria, says the program has a clear mission.

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“The program is really focused on advancing participation, diversity, and belonging, and breaking down barriers to participation and engagement with diverse audiences. The values of culture makers are inclusivity, visibility, collaboration, change, and reciprocity.”

Mitchell says the program aims to create “a space for every voice.” She adds that the selection process was led by Museum Victoria’s Inclusion Working Group and an independent Creative Advisory Panel. During this process, emphasis was placed on outreach to artists who are emerging in the industry and therefore may not have worked with larger organisations before.

“People who perhaps wouldn’t have worked with a large cultural organisation before or known about these opportunities are getting a chance through this supported program.”

Upcoming programming in Season 1 of Culture Makers (free, but bookings essential) includes: A Journey to Ghana - cultural workshops with Wala Drum and Dance Ensemble on Friday June 9 and Saturday June 10. Digital gaming workshops for international students with RMIT game designer Michelle Chen on Thursday June 29 and Friday June 30. And coming soon at Melbourne Museum, Maori visual and vocal storyteller Irihipeti Waretini will invite participants into the pride, power and solidarity of haka.

First up is Janfa’s show at the Immigration Museum, which runs until August 24.
This showcase of Janfa’s work will explore his experiences as a migrant who emigrated from Ethiopia to Norway as a teenager before settling in Melbourne in 2015. Janfa is a self-taught artist. He first picked up a paintbrush in 2018, and in the five years since he’s collaborated with major Australian and international brands, working on projects like designing a vibrant basketball court at Atherton Gardens in partnership with Nike, as well as a collaboration with Melbourne fashion label Obus.

“Most of my work makes people smile,” says Janfa. “I want people to understand my experience, what it feels like living in those different places. That’s my experience – that’s how I see things.”

Janfa mainly works using acrylic, oil and pastels on recycled timber. The nine works selected for this exhibition have been enlarged and displayed as murals lining the hallways of the Immigration Museum. His style is characterised by bold shapes, colours, and a sharp wit that delivers cutting social commentary. He’s described his art as a medium that strips away the barriers of language and allows him to engage with his experience of community and culture. A commitment to community has run alongside Janfa’s art career – he coached soccer at Atherton Gardens before the design collaboration with Nike, and regularly teaches art to culturally and linguistically diverse youth.

“If you stay close to your community, you’ll understand where you belong. I think that’s why diversity and community are really important for me. When you have those things, you always stay humble and you don’t get lost, because you understand where you come from,” Janfa says.

He hopes that visitors from all backgrounds will enjoy this collection of works, which chronicle his experiences living in Africa and Europe. In particular, he’s eager for immigrants to visit and share in that understanding of being asked: What is your gov’ment name?

“It’s not about achievement,” says Janfa. “It’s more about expressing myself and showing people what my experience is. My achievement is hearing other people who understand what my experience is as a refugee, as a black person, and as a person who [has experienced] actually living in Africa and living in Europe. I think my achievement is showing people the way our cities are different.”

The exhibition will showcase Janfa’s love for the “resourceful imperfection of broken English,” as well as how he has used art and humour to explore the implications of the migrant label on an individual’s sense of place. Regardless of cultural background, language, or age, he hopes audiences will connect with his story of community and belonging. Most importantly, he hopes visitors have fun.

“I would love kids, young people, and older people to go and enjoy my show and see what my experience is,” says Janfa.

What Is Your Gov’ment Name is on at Immigration Museum until Thursday August 24, 2023.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Museums Victoria. The Culture Makers program is now at Immigration Museum.