As artists, Mandy Tsung, Lauren Young-Smith, Katie So and Shannon Elliott are all of half-asian racial ancestry whose works address issues of racial identity. In their upcoming exhibition, “Dirty Knees” will be hosted at Untitled Art Space and will run from August 12-29th. The following is an interview with Nomi Chi and Mandy Tsung.
You are curating a visual arts exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia on the theme of half-Asian identities. Could you elaborate on this identity? What inspired you all to do this exhibition?
Nomi Chi: The impetus behind this project was spurred by sheer coincidence: Mandy Tsung, Katie So, Shannon Elliott and myself live in the same city and share similar social circles (Lauren YS is our geographical outlier: she predominantly lives in the USA, and knows most of us via social media). Coincidentally, too, most of us are also tattooers – and it is our practices and similar aesthetic interests which brought us together. Discussions regarding race and identity are more frequently becoming topics of conversation, and we, the artists involved in this project, have occasionally come together in person or used our social media platforms to share our experiences as folks who have mixed-Asian backgrounds. I noticed this particular commonality coming up in conversation more frequently and felt that, since we are all adept visual artists, perhaps we could go beyond sharing gripes on Facebook and collaborate on an exhibition concerning our identities. I felt that this could develop into an interesting and nuanced project, and could be an opportunity for the five of us to go beyond our usual practices and delve into some more experimental and collaborative works.
I should clarify that, specifically regarding this group of artists participating in Dirty Knees, “half-Asian” refers to being half-East-Asian. Each of us has at least one parent who is predominantly of East Asian racial ancestry, and, additionally, we feel that being half-Asian strongly informs elements of how we identify with ourselves and the world at large. As a medley of mixed backgrounds we all have the shared experience as being perceived as not-quite-this, not-quite-that.
How does half-Asian identities fit into Asian Canadian? Or does it?
Mandy Tsung: I think the issue is that half-Asianness lacks a definitive identity at this point, but it’s really important for us because we are often othered in every community that we’re a part of, so that is my inspiration for doing so much of the work I do. I’m hoping to build an iconography, an identity, for us in order to connect us together.
Asian-Canadian is similar to being half-Asian in that those who I’ve talked to no longer fit seamlessly into their ancestral identities. They can face hostility for being different in both Canada and where their ancestors are from. Many also do not speak the language of their parents or grandparents, for a variety of reasons, which is another issue that half-Asians struggle with. But there are also different issues that half-Asians face, such as even higher rates of racism. For example, I encounter a lot of xenophobia, even more so than my Chinese father, because people do not immediately read me as Chinese and so do not hold their tongues, but it hurts the same as if I was fully Chinese because they are talking about me and my family. We also deal with racism from our closest friends and our parents, who again can forget that we are the very people that they are making disparaging comments about. Within my own nuclear family I grew up with often diametrically opposed values, and this has been hard to reconcile over the course of my life. It’s nearly impossible to find a community of other half-Asians, whereas Asian-Canadians often have established communities within schools, neighbourhoods, etc.
It’s important to bring awareness to issues that half-Asians face because often we exist in isolation without knowing that our issues are common amongst each other – for example, biracial people specifically face higher rates of anxiety and depression than mono-racial groups, and this is likely due to intense and conflicting cultural pressures and expectations coming from all sides. If you can imagine the culture shock of landing in a foreign country where you visibly don’t belong, you will understand what we feel within our homes and even our own bodies. Membership into our ancestral cultures is not something that is immediately granted to us, and often we are asked to prove ourselves in a variety of ways while never being fully accepted.
This becomes vital on the larger scale as Canada endeavors to be a melting pot country. People don’t realize that a truly multicultural country is not simply about eating “exotic” food and attending an annual cultural festival. It’s about melding traditional values, evolving what a democracy looks like to include those values, truly accepting difference and learning from our neighbors. Mixed race people are the future of Canada and the world, and our generation are the guinea pigs to see what that future looks like. We need to have the knowledge and organization to identify when something is or isn’t working, and that requires an understanding of where we come from, where we are now, and what we hope to be in the future.”
Nomi Chi: I would add, as an addendum, that Asian-Canadian is it’s own very nebulous and category with undefined edges. It is hard to say, then, if half-Asian-Canadian, an identity even further stratified, ‘fits’. So, I would say that it depends on who you ask, and their particular relationship with being Canadian/ being Asian/ being Half-Asian-Canadian. We participating artists have all adopted a kind of homogenous North American identity and way of being, to some degree (I myself would say that I am Canadian, before being Japanese or Jewish!). I would posit that this also extends to a lot of mixed and non-mixed-race individuals who may be a few generations deep into their Canadian nationality.
Why did you decide on the title “Dirty Knees” for this show?
Nomi Chi: “Dirty Knees” references the crass playground rhyme: “Chinese/ Japanese/ Dirty Knees/ Look at these!” – sometimes there are accompanying hand motions where one would turn the corners of their eyes upwards or downwards accordingly. The phrase “Dirty Knees” arguably refers to migrant workers often only being allowed to work jobs that forced them to work on their knees. The title, I feel, is conveniently provocative and interesting.
What do you hope to achieve in your art on your exploration of race and identity?
Nomi Chi: Discussions regarding race are predominantly framed in absolutes and singular races – and of course, that is important! However even in my own thoroughly critical academic upbringing, the topic of racial hybridity was glossed over or treated as a footnote. I would like to bring the discourse regarding mixed-identities more to forefront, an important topic as globalization continually allows different cultures to share spaces, meld, and interact. First and foremost, however, we are aiming to make this exhibition of interest to other mixed individuals and people of colour. As Mandy previously mentioned, it can be difficult for folks with mixed backgrounds to find a sense of community. Having parents of different cultures and nationalities can entail that we have essential and important experiences that cannot even be shared with our blood relatives. We may host a few casual drop-in drawing days in the gallery while the exhibition runs to foster a sense togetherness, draw, and chit-chat.
In terms of content, Dirty Knees we will exhibit installations, paintings, drawings, mixed-media works, and we are toying with the possibility of publishing a short-run zine. Meditations on transformation, sameness, otherness, pop-culture and the fetishization will be some of many motifs to be explored. The exhibition will be eclectic, yet this will also be a chance for us to foster a shared iconography – in aesthetic as well as concept. Most of us work in a similar vein so it will be interesting to see how our submissions function in dialogue with the work of our contemporaries.
We also aim to shape the exhibition so that the work is accessible: we do not want to be too didactic, and, additionally, do not want to posit the idea that one of us, or five of us, can speak on behalf of such a heterogeneous identity. Additionally, it may be easy to frame our experiences in purely relation to oppression – which, of course, is an incredibly important reality to acknowledge and unpack, but beyond that we hope to offer a message of empowerment and community.
Does the exhibit build on any previous art exhibitions or pieces?
Nomi Chi: In a way, yes. In fact, many of my (primarily Caucasian) professors took a particular interest in my racial background and urged me to explore it in my work. Due to pedagogical constraints and the structure of the classes I was taking, I was unable to really involve myself in those projects on my own terms. As mentioned previously, many of the artists participating in Dirty Knees have spoken about or published their experiences under the umbrella theme of identity, as far as I know this is the the first concerted effort we have all made to address this specific topic in our art.
Is there a political message or a philosophical stance in your art?
Nomi Chi: I have definitely become more politically-motivated in the last two years – many of my contemporaries seem to have as well. We catalyze each other in our increasing interest in identity politics – intersectional feminism being a focal point for the majority of us. This doesn’t always surface in our art, however. Myself and my Dirty Knees peers have art practices which are primarily commercially-driven. Political messages are often not invited by clients, or are glossed over by viewers as our work is passively consumed on social media as a form of entertainment.
What’s exciting about this exhibition in particular is that our political interests are at the forefront, it’s more aggressive – which will hopefully inspire a political reading of the work by viewers. We still want to make it fun, though, and entertaining. I think gallery-goers will be pleasantly surprised by what’s in store!