Artists Holly Pereira and Diane Sabenacio Nititham both grew up in different countries – Holly in Ireland, Diane in the United States – but both have a shared experience of being of Asian descent. Holly has an Irish mother and Singaporean father and Diane is of Filipina/Thai heritage, and their experiences of growing up as Asian-Irish and Asian-American women – and feminists – has informed not only their lives but their work.
Their forthcoming exhibition, Ornamental. Oriental. uses photography, illustration and painting to examine these experiences and questions the prevalence of orientalism in popular culture.
Below, the women speak about how they have found their race and gender affects how others treat them; how it affects their sense of identity; how Asian women are represented in Western culture; and what needs to be changed about the view of Asian women in contemporary Irish society.
Can you tell me about when and why you came up with the idea for putting on this exhibition?
Holly Pereira: In 2009 I had an exhibition of work in The Joinery that I’d made during a residency in Singapore (Same Same but Different). Diane was there with her husband, who I used to hang out with in Bray in the good ol’ days. We got chatting and there was a moment of *ping!* where we realized that we both were interested in the same things, namely, Asian-ness, feminist perspectives and cultural identities. It helped that she bought one of my paintings, ha!
Diane Sabenacio Nititham: I have had many encounters where people read my visible Asian-ness and become flustered when they hear my American accent. Other times, people have said that in some photos, I look “more Filipino” or “totally American” there. For me, I am the same person in those photos, no matter what I wear or how I look. So after speaking with Holly about her previous work as well our own life experiences, we had a lot in common as far as our physical appearance and some people’s inabiity to reconcile our genealogical histories.
The aim with the exhibition is to challenge representations of Asians and Asian ethnic identity in popular culture – can you tell me more about this?
HP: During our research phase, we tried to identify how Asian women specifically were represented in cultural exports, such as film, television, art and in a wider cultural sphere. There’s the Dragon Lady, like a femme fatale but with the added bonus of exoticism and Chinese numchucks. Think Kissy Suzuki in the Bond films or Lucy Liu in whatever she does in Charlie’s Angels. Hard, sly but incredibly powerful. Mostly designed to trick white men into a tight squeeze. You also have the passive, gentle, subservient view of Asian women. We called this one Lotus Flower. Undemanding and ready to please, Lotus Flower accommodates all kinds of needs, like the Western understanding of a geisha.
Neither of us felt, as women of Asian extraction, that these stereotypes were very helpful or indeed flattering; in fact, they were a definite hindrance in some cases. Stereotypes they may be, but often in a minority situation, eg, Asians in predominantly white Ireland, this is all that the dominant culture has to inform them. So we wanted to raise awareness of these stereotypes, explore them, and perhaps debunk them a little at the same time.
DN: We had also talked about how if we were just wearing any type of traditional Asian attire, people may pay us no mind, particularly if we appear sweet and beautiful. So we were interested in presenting both this and the flip side of that, as the angry Asian/Dragon Lady, almost as though we could fill both of those roles without question. We are interested in the space between “either/or” and “both/and”
Did growing up as a female of Asian descent make you feel ‘different’ – or did others make you feel ‘different’? What does being half-Asian or Asian-American bring to your sense of identity and world view?
HP: Of course! Greystones in Co. Wicklow during the early 80’s was not the cosmopolitan, multicultural hub one might imagine. I think my father was the only dark skinned person in the village. When my brother and I were toddlers, my mother used to be asked whether she was a nanny as she is Irish, with blonde hair and blue eyes. I’ve never experienced outright racism in Ireland, but it’s more the polite questioning and insistence that you are different and “not really Irish” that bothers me. That you don’t understand, and you’re not the same. People used to ask, “Where are you from?”. The answer of Co. Wicklow only served to elicit a repeat question, but slower and clearer. Even recently, an aul lad tried to explain to me why Irish people curse with the word “siúcra”, it being as Gaeilge. I was foreign, Chinese, Oriental. Other. Not a sob story, but enough to make me appreciate the reality of sticking out.
The thing about mixed race is that you never really feel wholly one thing. Culturally, I’m Irish, or Western. When I go to Singapore, the locals know straightaway that I’m foreign (again), or ang mo (literally “red man” in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect used in Singapore). I try like bejaysus to fit in, using Singlish (Singapore’s take on English) at every opportunity, drinking copious amounts of bubble tea and showing a massive interest in Korean soap operas. My family berated me good-naturedly about not knowing the difference between “heaty” and “cooling” foods, about being clueless regarding my Chinese year of the Rooster, my lack of interest in marrying and settling down, and perhaps too much interest in drinking Tiger beer (a bit unseemly for a good girl). But it would all be excused because, after all, I was Western, therefore different, and “other”. The best thing about being mixed race, though, is exactly that duality. I’d say that I contextualise a lot of information and try to see various other viewpoints automatically. I try to take nothing for granted and to not assume anything about a person based on either looks or accent or background, though that can be hard as it seems like human nature. Another good thing is no fake tan, ha!
DN: I feel this is a very hard question to answer. On one hand, it is very easy to say yes, being of Asian descent made me feel different or that others made me feel different. On the other hand, it is much more complicated than that. Like, there are my individual experiences and my personal interactions with people around me, and then there are the institutional structures in which we live that maintain inequality and gendered and racial hierarchies.
I didn’t necessarily feel different all of the time, but being visibly different in my white neighbourhood certainly shaped my experience. Even though I grew up “Asian”, having a Filipino mother and a Thai father, and being surrounded by my mother’s large community of Filipino Americans sometimes meant that I would sometimes feel divided about where my cultural ties should lie. On top of that, trying to be American made it all the more complicated. I certainly didn’t think about this every day, but it would come up, usually in the small every day details, it felt very strong.
I grew up around other first and second generation Americans, and we would laugh about how our parents would still be embedded in their “old country” ways while we were trying to be as “American” as possible. There was and still is a stigma attached to being different, so some of us worked hard to assimilate and become what we thought was “American” – or basically, part of the white dominant culture. One of my best friends growing up, her parents are from Colombia, and we still talk about the ins and outs of being women of colour. We, like our parents, are still trying our best in a system that really isn’t in our favour.
Do you think Orientalism is something that is discussed enough in Irish society, or is it something that people do not realise is an issue?
HP: Orientalism is the view of the East from the West. That suggests direction and perspective ie, “us” and “them”. I think Orientalism is one of those things that is considered rather palatable, and therefore deemed inoffensive. Twenty years ago, there simply weren’t other nationalities to gaze at, so nothing to discuss. Now Ireland is at a point where there are many races and nationalities walking down Grafton St, but still they are considered outsiders. Lack of communication between these communities helps to create another “us” and “them” situation. However, it is like any preconceived or supposed notion.
Once that more people are aware of the effects of “othering” different races, Asian or African or Eastern European or whatever, it will change. When their kids are invited to a friend’s Chinese New Year or Deepavali celebration, or when they start to form lasting and sincere connections with people of different races, it will change. As Ireland enters its new intercultural phase, it will find a new vocabulary to describe its new citizens. No more Oriental, black, or just plain “furden”. We will arm ourselves with a language that is inclusive and nonjudgmental, and leaves space for creating a new Irish dialogue. However, Diane disagrees….
DN: I think Orientalism is definitely discussed, but not in a way that actually addresses the issue at hand. Being “Oriental” is almost decorative; items, products, culture and religion are devoid of context and therefore rendered ahistorical. I think this is why people do not think it is a serious issue. When friends of mine have dressed as geishas for Halloween, or even just for fun, I wonder what they would say if I dressed as an Irish traditional dancer with full ringlets and hairpieces and put freckles on my face. I have also wondered what reaction I would get if I decorated my sitting room with trendy images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in the way that portraits of Buddha hang on walls or a small figurine or status in entranceways of the home. Why is it that these items from the “Orient” are fully acceptable as simply decorative? That’s what drives me – the ornamentalization of my heritage and culture in front of me.
I think it’s completely problematic because Ireland is such a divided place – and this is very explicit in its immigration policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This Othering is a powerful symbol in Ireland today, and is currently seen as a problem to be solved rather than a system that produces unequal levels of opportunity and the ability to exercise that opportunity. I think that with the economic decline and the lack of challenges of racism and discrimination in the public sphere, especially when race is predominantly discussed as a black/white issue, I don’t think Orientalism is taken seriously enough – and it will continue to stay that way.
Can you describe some of your pieces that will be in the exhibition and the meaning behind them?
HP: Both myself and Diane are including individual work, and collaborative pieces. The collaborative pieces are a photo shoot where we tried to personify, in appearance, both Lotus Flower and the Dragon Lady. We also worked with stereotypical Irish “props”, like potatoes and Lyons tea. We tried to juxtapose those two facets to make an intercultural visual dialogue. One piece shows a painted “geisha”-esque mouth stuffed with teabags, another shows me giving birth to a pile of spuds. I was very aware as we were working of the element of sexuality and fetishism in the work. My individual work in the show is illustration on paper. I use my own travel photographs, images plucked from the internet, and visual metaphors to investigate femininity and mixed race identity.
I also have a strong awareness of patterns and repetition. My illustrations feature women who are dancing, vomiting, menstruating and idling. They are doing it in a visually beautiful way. I love the combination of beauty and ugly, like looking at a pile of menstrual blood but reading a gorgeous image in the silky liquid , like tea leaves. My working process as a graphic artist/illustrator is what I term the Artistic Sausage Factory: I stuff a load of thoughts and images and bits of history and reading into my brain, mix, and wait to see what gets shunted out. I’m fascinated by: original fairy tales, visual sex, lobotomies, patterns, slavery, gold paint, psychology, black holes, sound art, native American culture, Dada, Indonesian gamelan, serial killers (especially women), medieval painting, faceless Asians, insanity, the Hindu goddess Kali, toilet humor, sociology, Outsider art, and body hair.
DN: My photographs are part of a series called “Becoming FOBulous”, which addresses my Asian-ness in different contexts. My photos are self-portraits. I was interested in placing myself in visibly Irish settings wearing either Thai traditional dress, what I call “FOB-wear” (FOB is a term for Fresh off the Boat – a derogatory term used in the US to describe those who have emigrated and still maintain”old country” ways), or surrounded by Asian items. I wanted to see the different readings of this Asian-ness, especially in the backdrop of the country I have been living in for the last five years.
Can you tell me about the gender aspect to your work and how it relates to how Asian women are portrayed in popular culture?
HP: I paint and draw women, because that’s what I am, what I’m interested in. My personal narrative can merge there with the characters in my work. They are a starting point for exploring what happens in a wider context. Asian women in pop culture are, all too often, Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom….a very narrow choice for our minds. Asian women are often viewed as sexually available, exotic creatures, plying their white, male protagonists with opium before shooting ping-pong balls out of their vaginas. Or they are seen as hardworking, result-orientated geeks who need that same white, male protagonist to make ’em “live a little” and enjoy their innate sexuality, because, as we know, they’re tigers in bed. I want to explore those two tenets, but also the facts of women in general. Like, what is so “disgusting” about pubic hair? Imagine if we walked around with our pubic hair plaited or put into a bun: just as arbitrary as the hair on our head. Body image is another gripe; the media is so unimaginably saturated with images of skinny, gorgeous young ones that have very little reflection on actual women. In my work I want to create a place where not only all bodies are regarded and accepted, but also where outside appearance is only a small part of the total human experience.
DN: In one photograph, I am wearing a Thai dress in two-pieces in a kitchen. I wore a 1950s-housewife style apron over my dress, with my midriff showing. I don’t fall under the super-slender image often associated with the Lotus Blossom, so my belly showing is a direct challenge to being demure. Also, I look the camera straight on, which also defies any aspect of being submissive.
In your opinion, what has to change with how Asian women, or women of Asian descent, are viewed in Irish culture?
HP: More of them! If purveyors of the Asian Fetish culture chatted to Asian girls in the checkout at Tesco, or were given their annual check up by their Asian female doctor, or got their car fixed by an Asian female mechanic, perhaps they might look past the skin tone and the media interpretation. Communication and an open mind seem to be the key. It would be great to have an Asian, or mixed race, female politician, or public figure. However, going on the last outing, the chances of having a woman, Asian or mixed race or from the planet Zog, are rather low. I’d run myself, but frankly, I think I’m better off sticking to the pictures.
DN: As Holly said, visibility. Asian women are almost completely invisible in the public sphere and popular imagination in Ireland. Acknowledgment of this is the first step – followed by a massive restructuring of gender, race and identity issues. People keep calling for a revolution – it’s about time we get to it!
Ornamental. Oriental will be shown at The Joinery, 6 Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7 from 9th – 16th March.
The event will be launched with an opening reception on 9th March from 6-8pm
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