A new exhibition at Para Site explores race and the lived experience of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and beyond.
Hong Kong’s leading non-profit contemporary art centre, Para Site, has just launched a new exhibition exploring race as it relates to the lives of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and abroad, featuring artists from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Turkey, the Philippines, Mali, Germany, Spain, Martinique, Colombia and Japan.
Running from 19 March to 29 May 2016 at Para Site, “Afterwork” is a group exhibition that explores a wide scope of issues related to “race” – as constructed through ingrained socio-cultural, political, economic, legal and historical forces and representations – as well as its relation to class, labour and migration within and beyond Hong Kong’s specific context.
Representing Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong among other countries, the 31 artists in the exhibition work across a range of media to grapple with both personal implications within the daily reality of migrant labour in Hong Kong as well as universal structures of racial oppression beyond the local context.
The artists represented in the exhibition include, among others:
- Poklong Anading
- Xyza Cruz Bacani
- Cheng Yee Man (Gum)
- Imelda Cajipe Endaya
- Köken Ergun
- Harun Farocki
- Alfredo Jaar
- Abdoulaye Konaté
- Sakarin Krue-On
- Sun Yuan & Peng Yu
- Melati Suryodarmo
- Maria Taniguchi
Work and Privacy
The name of the show connotes a private sphere outside the all-encompassing realm of work in which migrant domestic workers might be able to engage in personal and artistic reflection. At the same time, coining “afterwork” as one word suggests that the boundaries between labour, rest and privacy are often blurred in Hong Kong’s cramped domestic and public spaces.
A recent, damning study from the Justice Centre Hong Kong claims that one in six migrant domestic workers in the city suffers from forced labour, and average working hours are in excess of 70 hours a week. As the largest minority group in Hong Kong, migrant domestic workers are highly visible, especially on weekends and holidays, when large groups vacate their usual domestic spaces for both work and rest to assert their physical presence as indispensable parts of Hong Kong’s economy in public spaces.
Although such statistics and observations reflect a big picture, they do not shed light on the overt and subtle discrimination experienced by migrant domestic workers, the diversity of their private experiences or their intellectual resistance towards disadvantage that, as the exhibition shows, need to be investigated as narrative parallel to the city’s dominant developmental trajectory.
Reflecting Diverse Experiences
Although the focal point of the show is Hong Kong and its specific context of migrant labour, the works by artists from different backgrounds weave a narrative of oppression of low-paid migrant workers all over the world through diverse artistic media and strategies.
Singaporean artist Brian Gothong Tan’s Imelda Goes to Singapore (2006) is a video showing a look-alike of the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, as a domestic worker in Singapore. With heavy make-up and an elegant coif, the look-alike brings to mind the infamous extravagance of the Marcos couple, making the scenes ironic as she sings plaintively about her yearning while doing mundane household chores.
The incongruity between the simplistic song – with lyrics that trivialise the complex personal reasons behind becoming a migrant worker – the affected appearance of the singer, and the performance of domestic work subtly indicts Ferdinand Marcos’ regime, during which the country’s economy became dependent on its labour export, a situation that has continued to this day.
Dancer and artist Eisa Jocson’s Princess Studies (2016) shows multiple pen sketches of white Disney princesses along with a costume of Disney’s Snow White character complete with a matted black wig. The eerily disembodied forms and costume comment on the narrow standard of beauty and representation of happiness spread by Disney’s cultural imperialism. In Hong Kong Disneyland, although most performers are from the Philippines, the characters most aspired towards are invariably white and played by white performers.
Hong Kong artist Elvis Yip Kin Bon’s If You Miss Home (2016) is another video work featuring edited clips of domestic workers – facing the camera frontally but with blurred faces – answering questions about their work ethic at employment agencies. The question repeated in the interrogation is “What will you do if you miss your family?”, to which the interviewee invariably gives some form of the impersonal and standardised response “I will just focus on my work.” The blurring of the faces adds to the stoic distance with which these interviewees answer highly revealing questions about their home and private existence.
Series of historical and contemporary photographs enrich the narrative on migrant workers, racial oppression and social hierarchies in the past and present. A set of legendary Hong Kong photographer Fan Ho’s shots of city life from 1950, entitled Cleaning, show low-paid workers performing a variety of menial tasks. These black and white historical photographs remind viewers that workers from mainland China did much of this low-paid work in the 20th century before Southeast Asian migrant workers took over these positions: as society changed and developed, groups of people treated as the “other” also shifted, often with arbitrary justifications for their “otherness”. Similar things have taken place in other societies where, for instance, “whiteness” as a racial distinction has had vastly different definitions throughout history.
Hong Kong painter Cheung Yee Man (Gum)’s Children Playing in a Playground (2016) is a monochrome oil painting depicting what seems to be an imaginary rural village among trees and fields. The slightly off proportions – for instance, the grazing pig is taller than a human figure further in the foreground – and clear labelling of “forest”, “field” and “house” turn out to be telling; the artist painted the work based on a Philipino domestic worker’s descriptions of her home in her native country – a vicarious mental exercise of recalling home from a place geographically and culturally far from home.
Jean-François Boclé, an artist from France’s Caribbean department Martinique, presents his Consommons Racial! (2010), an installation that turns half a side room into a veritable grocery store stocked with consumer items that use overtly racist imagery or messages with racist overtones as advertising. The real-life products run the gamut from napkins – declaring themselves “pure white” with an image of white European babies – to snack packages printed with cartoon figures with exaggerated, stereotypical black or Asian features. The items go from one end of the room, where the “whiteness” and “purity” of products are accentuated, to the other side, where non-white people are caricatured to sell exoticism. The sheer variety of products confronts viewers with how ingrained these modes of racial representation are in daily life in the past and present.
African-Colombian artist Liliana Angulo’s Black Utopian (2001) is a series of photographs of her made up in stereotypical male black-face and doing household chores. The actions and facial expressions of the artist are stylised and dramatic, recalling the stereotypical representation of black entertainers. She is dressed in clothes printed with the exact same patterns as the wallpaper behind her, making her “disappear” completely into the domestic background, speaking to the many black men and women, condescendingly called “the help”, who worked for white families in the Americas in the not too distant past.
A seemingly less nuanced work in the show is Larry Feign’s cartoon strip No Dogs, Rats, Roaches and Filipinas (1994 and 1998), which features a “white saviour” character decrying the overt discrimination of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, based on a real incident in a luxury residential building in the 1990s which asked “servants” to take the service elevator. Beyond exposing overt discrimination – which is much easier to spot and tackle than ingrained structural oppression – the work seems to go against the exhibition’s stated objective “not to be the vindicator for the struggles of migrant workers”.
The show’s overall narrative implicates not just the many Hong Kong employers who, as statistics show, exploit domestic workers, but also everyone who has, for instance, ever succumbed to the superior allure of a “pure white” box of tissues or laughed at performances of comedians in black-face. A white character condescendingly enlightening Chinese security guards about the faults of overtly racist behaviour against domestic workers – as righteous as the attempt must seem for such a “liberal warrior” – should be read alongside the other nuanced indictments in the exhibition, which expose racial oppression in the forms of powerful universal structures not just limited to the clear-cut binary of “racist Chinese employers” and “oppressed domestic workers”.
Joyce Lung Yuet Ching’s Susan (2016) consists of various porcelain sculptures shaped like the disposable plastic containers of detergents and other cleaning products. The white, glossy surfaces of the reinvented objects are painted with colorful words and images, including many familiar exchanges between domestic workers in Hong Kong and their charges such as “eat more choy choy” (“vegetables” in a young child’s Cantonese).
The images include blenders and vacuum cleaners to complete two-dimensional collages of domestic worker’s daily experiences in the three-dimensional work. By making disposable objects permanent, Susan seems also to comment on the temporary status of domestic workers in Hong Kong no matter how long they have worked in the city.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention (2009/2016) features pairs of photos showing a domestic space with a fake grenade in one and the back of a domestic worker in another. The artists asked the faceless participants to plant the fake grenade in a place of their choice in the home they work in to stage a “fictional assassination”. More than anything, this work highlights the domestic intimacy that many Hong Kong people share with their domestic workers but which, at the same time, denote so much distance in the inherent power dynamic.
An Ongoing Project
The exhibition covers much ground in exploring the work life and private experiences of migrant domestic workers in the context of a society that needs them close but keeps them at a distance. Dialogue and reflections in this direction will continue with Para-Site’s ongoing “Hong Kong’s Migrant Domestic Workers” project, aimed at engaging the domestic worker community through collaboratively organised public programmes and commissioned research. Apart from the diverse exhibition, an accompanying literary anthology called Afterwork Readings has also been published in collaboration with KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre in Jogyakarta, Indonesia. The volume comes in Bahasa Indonesian, Chinese, English and Tagalog.
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