Four young female Australia-based artists explore cultural identity and ‘Asianness’ in exhibitions in Canberra and Melbourne.
Art Radar takes a closer look at the themes that intrigue all four artists.
From 27 April to 21 May 2017 Canberra’s Manuka Arts Centre presents the all women exhibition “Chinese Whispers and Other Stories” in their PhotoAccess Huw Davies Gallery. The exhibition showcases work from four young female Australian artists of Chinese descent: Pia Johnson, Tammy Law, Janelle Low and Siying Zhou. The photo-based work explores the personal experiences of each of the artists, drawing on their cultural identity and migrant stories. Later this year the exhibition tours to Blindside Gallery, Melbourne, from 22 June to 8 July.
Pia Johnson, curator of the exhibition, comes from a Chinese Italian-Australian family and grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs. She explains how the continuous questioning of her heritage and highlighting of her difference shaped the way she views the world, and how these experiences have shaped the other three artists:
Common questions like ‘where are you really from?’ ‘what’s your background?’ ‘what are you?’ have all been experienced by these artists, and has influenced their work and understanding of the cultural landscape we live in…the idea for this group exhibition has developed from my personal experience of being culturally different, and finding a community of other artists who share my concerns in their work too.
The artists explore questions of identity, racial discrimination and stereotyping from a non-white Australian perspective. The experiences sit within the context of global migration and its impacts across the globe, creating a situation where many people live in and in-between space that is neither entirely of one culture or another. Johnson insists that this is “the perfect time to engage with these issues, and hopefully challenge the way we think about and participate in the East and West cultural conversation”.
This is a particularly relevant discussion to have in the 21st century Australian context, in which the country is increasingly looking towards its Asian neighbours while at the same time contending with racial discrimination as exemplified in the rise of conservative political parties. The works in the exhibition, as the artistic statement explains, “reimagines the spaces we live in, what makes cultural differences and how it contributes to the narrative of a wider Australian identity”.
As part of the Canberra exhibition, there is also a public programme on 21 May, in which Mikala Tai (Director of 4A Centre of Contemporary Asian Art), artist Siying Zhou and Pia Johnson discuss Chinese contemporary art and the female perspective. Art Radar takes a look at the creative practice of the four artists.
1. Pia Johnson
Pia Johnson works in photography and performance and is known for her moving portraits. In her creative practice, she explores themes of cultural difference, diaspora and identity, drawing from her personal mixed cultural background of Chinese and Italian-Australian. Her work seeks an understanding of the social and personal aspects of cultural identity, delving into ideas of belonging and otherness.
Of her photography, Johnson reveals that “photographs are both part chance and part crafted composition”. She carefully composes the scenes she wants to create in her images, creating storyboards and drawing inspiration from other artists while maintaining an element of chance. She quotes Erwin Olaf, Todd Hido, Samantha Everton, Kanako Sasaki and Moyra Davey as her artistic influences.
Johnson moved into photography after a few starts in other areas. She explains that photography was something she did in her spare time:
From there I taught myself a lot of the basics and spent time assisting other photographers before going out on my own and making art and taking commissions.
In “Chinese Whispers” Johnson delves into ideas of kinship, resemblance and descent through a series of circular photographs of Chinese and Italian objects, rituals and dressings.
2. Janelle Low
Born in Western Australia, Janelle Low uses photography to study internal and external conflicts that result from growing up in multicultural Australia. She investigates the sense of displacement and ‘otherness’ as she lives between her Australian and Chinese heritage. As she worked on the Blonde-Haired Blue-Eyed Nothing series, Low realised this sense of dislocation was shared by many with Asian backgrounds, which brought her work into the wider discussion around multiculturalism in Australia and concepts of acceptance.
At 22, Low was the youngest person to win the prestigious 2013 National Photographic Portrait Prize. It was a portrait of a woman looking at her elderly cat, juxtaposing age and youth, human and animal. Low describes her approach for the piece, and for her creative process more generally:
I’d like this to be a bit of a statement of what I do from now on…It’s a very straight photograph. I like chasing natural light rather than setting up the shot, and you couldn’t do it for something like this, a quiet, intimate scene.
For the exhibition, Low presents large format square still-life photographs and portraits that examine the question of acceptance in Australia.
3. Siying Zhou
Born in China and now working in Australia, Siying Zhou is a multi-disciplinary artist as well as a curator. Her creative practice focuses on subjects that relate to the life of the nomad and the identity of individuals within the context of globalisation. She also looks at the relationship between the land and its inhabitants, and how this can give insight into understandings of physical and imaginary spaces.
For the exhibition, Zhou exhibits the video Our first Lamington made in Australia, which portrays her parents making lamingtons after recently migrating to Australia from China.
4. Tammy Law
Tammy Law is a Brisbane-based photographer who specialises in photo-documentaries. She investigates the social context of the stories within people’s everyday lives. In one of her documentary series, she focuses on the mundane fence that reflects the relationship between people in neighbourhoods in Brisbane. The series especially focuses on long term residents and their migrant neighbours, questioning ideas of acceptance, belonging and social inclusion.
The works included in the exhibition involve portraits and projections of people onto family homes and environments. The pieces provide an insight into the lived experiences of transnational families.
- “Marking the Infinite”: Exhibition featuring 9 Aboriginal Australian contemporary women artists tours North America – February 2017 – landmark exhibition highlights the female experience in Australia’s remote indigenous communities
- 6 highlights from “Vile bodies” at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney – January 2017 – Art Radar takes a look at some of the highlights of contemporary Chinese artists on display at White Rabbit in Sydney
- “Jogja Calling”: Indonesian and Australian artists at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney – November 2016 – “Jogja Calling” showcases the friendships and critical dialogues developed between Indonesian and Australian artists
- “Yellow Peril”: Australian artist Eugenia Lim at Sydney’s Artereal Gallery – October 2016 – Eugenia Lim’s current exhibition explores the impact of mining and immigration on the Australian identity
- New 4A Director Mikala Tai on the Asian-Australian cultural scene – interview – June 2015 – Art Radar speaks to Mikala Tai, the newly appointed Director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
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