Sasha Sarago

Posted 18 May 16

Sasha belongs to the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. Sasha is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish decent. She is the Editor and Founder of Ascension Magazine. Kalinya is a proud partner of Ascension, Australia’s first Indigenous and Ethic women’s lifestyle magazine.

Sasha’s upbringing was guided by deep-rooted values in ‘culture, community and connection’ an ethos she still possesses today. Sasha was introduced to entrepreneurship at an early age. Working alongside her mother in their family business Majal – the first Aboriginal owned beauty salon in Cairns. This childhood experience later formed a catalyst for a series of firsts in Sasha’s career.

In May 2001, Sasha appeared in a fashion editorial in Cosmopolitan Magazine Australia: the first time Cosmopolitan featured four Aboriginal models in an editorial spread. That same year, Sasha modelled at L’Oreal Fashion Week Melbourne Centenary of Federation fashion parades.

In 2008, Sasha collaborated alongside contemporary Indigenous artist Bindi Cole and curator and Kalinya founder Jirra Lulla Harvey in a photographic series A Time Like This: an indigenous perspective into the women’s suffrage movement in Victoria.

Enlivened by her passion to articulate a new definition of beauty, in 2011 Sasha founded Ascension. On 24 November 2014, Sasha officially launched The Colour of Beauty Ascension’s first digital edition: a new dialogue of cultural identity and self-representation from an Indigenous and ethnic woman’s point of view.

Who is the Ascension woman?
She is a woman that has a certain magic about her that is often hard to describe but when you are in her presence you just feel it. She renders you speechless in the way she carries herself; the way she sees the world and navigates her place in it. We all know an Ascension woman. In no way am I confining the Ascension woman to one group of women but honestly she was birthed in my mind as a woman of colour – the woman that has always been invisible in the eyes of society. Similar to the movement #BlackGirlMagic – a movement designed to reaffirm and praise black girl’s/women’s blackness and uniqueness, #AscensionWoman is inspired by the same principles. It’s an open declaration: “Australian women of colour it’s your time to shine.”

What makes you proud to be an Aboriginal woman?
I was raised within a strong matriarchy; everywhere I went powerful women surrounded me. Each Elder, aunty or cousin regardless of their placid or vivacious personality impressed upon me the importance to fight for my place in this world. I learnt spirit was designed to protect and guide us through this life. In the counsel of these women, I saw each of their spirits, each one different to the next playing a special role in our family and community. I think this was the first time I grew proud of my Aboriginal heritage, through the beauty and strength of Aboriginal women. I am proud to be an Aboriginal woman because of our beauty, not just physical, but our spiritual beauty.

Growing up, did you see images in the media you could identify with?
From the age of three to nine I grew up in the U.S.A. During this time I was afforded a plethora of strong and diverse imagery of African-Americans. Shows like The Cosby Show, A Different World and Moesha affirmed one part of my blackness (African-American). Coming to Australia in 1990 with only two TV channels on offer, I gravitated to the music show Rage. The first time I saw Aboriginal people on TV was on Rage. I remember Yothu Yindi’s song Treaty came on and all my cousins got up and started to do shake-a-leg in the living room. Even though I was young and didn’t know what Treaty was, I knew it was a song of great pride for black fellas.

In 1993, Elaine George graced the cover of Vogue Australia. Elaine made history that year being the first and only Aboriginal woman at the time to be emblazoned on this internationally iconic publication.

Another piece of imagery that was pivotal for me was the film Radiance directed by Rachel Perkins. I saw a spirited and feisty Deborah Mailman on screen playing the character Nona. All throughout that movie I wished I was bold and fierce like Nona. The film also depicted characters and a story line that touched on topics of taboo; the unspoken shame and unforgiveness that I felt existed in my own family.

Lastly, it was in 2000 when Cathy Freeman won her gold medal at the Sydney Olympics – a controversial time for Australia when Cathy ran with the Aboriginal flag. That year it became clear to me the fear and hate of Aboriginal people and our culture. I was so disgusted by Australia’s ignorance around the controversy that I wrote a ‘Letter to the Editor’ for the Cairns Post in Cathy’s defense – that piece sparked my passion for fighting for Aboriginal issues with a pen. On a positive note it’s because of Cathy’s athletic achievements that I still envision I’m Cathy Freeman when I run on the treadmill – can you imagine how many other Aboriginal women feel the same.

Why are diverse images of Aboriginality important?
Positive and diverse images of Aboriginality are important because it helps destroy colonialism – systems of oppression that were formulated to erase our existence.

When we see ourselves, it’s a constant reminder to Aboriginal people that our culture will never die. We exist. We matter. We thrive. We are beautiful. We are deadly. We are First Nations people; the original and first custodians of this land known as Australia.

The more we see ourselves in a rich cultural context; beautifully blending our identities that exist in two worlds without compromise, our spirits will find a lasting peace that will make our ancestors rejoice.

When each one of us heals by reconciling culturally and spiritually the way we perceive ourselves that is often in opposition to the way the rest of the world see us we will know a power that they try to take from us. Even if it is one positive image of Aboriginality we see amongst a sea of others, it’s a clear statement that we are survivors.

Why is it important to have Aboriginal run media initiatives?
For us, by us, is essential. Self-determination: the power and freedom for Aboriginal people to be seen and heard on our own terms gives us purpose. When we see our mobs, stories and achievements it connects us in ways non-Aboriginal media will never be able to. When Aboriginal success is reinvested into our people, we restore a balance that was lost.

Using our own language ‘lingo’, doing business and establishing partnerships the ‘black fella’ way is activating the way we created wealth in a contemporary way in our communities before invasion.

There’s an indescribable passion and purpose that’s instilled in us when we create, represent and share amongst our mobs. I don’t know about anyone else but more times than not I get misty eyed when I watch NITV. To see my people as media personalities staring back at me or just content depicting my people in diverse walks of life is enough to give me goosebumps.

The misconception that someone can be “Too Pretty to be Aboriginal” has been a theme in your work, from the 2008 collaboration with artist Bindi Cole and Kalinya founder Jirra Lulla Harvey for the photographic series A Time Like This, to the Ascension article, film and social media campaign #2P2BA. How did you feel when you saw the Black Comedy skit on this topic?It validates Aboriginal’s women’s angst, hurt and frustration with this statement. But it also horrifies me that years on it’s still an issue. There’s this ignorant notion that remains in white Australia’s psyche that there is no beauty in Aboriginality – or its women. What’s most disturbing about this issue is that people; a majority of them with little to no interaction or relationship with Aboriginal people openly declare they know all about Aboriginality; who is and what an Aboriginal woman looks like through this statement. We have a way to go in changing these perceptions. As an Aboriginal woman, I was proud to see Nakkiah Lui’s use of comedy to bring this issue into the mainstream. I find it hard to speak out about issues like this out of fear of being painted the ‘angry black woman’.

Where to from here? What exciting things are you working on?

We recently launched our new website. Our first edition of the Colour of Beauty will be able free for our readers to download, along with some new and exciting content.

Our team has just finished filming a series of interviews for our #AscensionMatters Campaign: a digital dialogue about diversity. I am about to commence the casting for our #2P2BA documentary – a spin-off from the article Jirra Lulla Harvey wrote, which aims to spark a national conversation for Aboriginal women.

And lastly, looking into creating a new range of Ascension merchandise.

Photo: Eliza Harrison