Girl You Can, 2017
Girl You Can, October 26, 2017 – December 9, 2017
Blue Star Contemporary Berlin Residency Program in partnership with Künstlerhaus Bethanien
Michael and Noemi Neidorff Art Gallery in the Dicke Art Building, Trinity University
Girl You Can emerged from my residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, in Berlin, Germany during the winter of 2016. Although my work has always dealt with issues of race and identity from the perspective of being biracial, my time in Germany cast a new lens. Berliners, from cabdrivers in turbans to drunk college kids, called out my Asian-ness, and not my American-ness. My American identity was not visually recognized and this paradox of being accepted as wholly Asian left me questioning my fractured identities.
During these times of introspection, I find myself in a position of comfortable vulnerability of being half, mixed, and other. From there, I was able to turn my gaze towards American in a more critical way than ever before. American culture has long dominated and subsumed other cultures worldwide, but I began thinking, what does that “dominant culture” mean now?
This body of work was conceived before the November 2016 election, but created in the aftermath. As a nation, we are divided over what constitutes true American culture. Americans are being confronted with their icons, their fetishes, their appropriations. Many things in American society are designed, produced, manufactured, sold, and consumed without conscious knowledge of the source.
Working with porcelain, blue and white patterns, stereotypically Asian motifs, textiles, video, and photography, allowed me to consume dominant culture. Our demographic makeup and the rise of globalization are dissolving the boundaries they have always relied on. This work offers us the opportunity to see America, and white America, as the complicated, multilayer, new “other”.
Most scholars agree that blackwork embroidery originated with the Moors, but was described as “Spanish work” throughout Europe - the African history erased in the hands of white women. Even so, I was drawn to the innocence of embroidery, especially as a traditional pastime for young girls so different from the pursuits expected of girls in the digital age. Globally, girls still labor to be seen as equals, find their voice, defend their choices, while being endlessly critiqued. And yet, girls are increasingly finding solidarity in younger political and cultural role models, especially those of color. Blackwork, then, is an intersection of labor, innocence, girl power, and white ideals of beauty and industry.
The painstaking, meditative aspect of embroidery reminded me of the slowness of hair growth. Across the world, women and girls grow their hair for money. Different nationalities are prized for their virtues, but the hair dealer I met in China said Chinese hair was the best for wigs because it can mimic any texture or style, and be transformed into any color. We live in a world where identity can be manufactured and appearances appropriated without concern or even awareness. We question and desire authenticity of the other.
blue and white bowl, 2014
In September 2014, I started the process of turning my hair into a blue and white bowl. I wanted to turn part of my body into an object. In collaboration with hairstylist Melody Cuellar, we cut about 12 inches of my long and straight dark brown hair off and in stages shaved, cut, shaped, and bleached my hair to a white blonde.
After the perfect bowl shape was achieved, I cut paper stencils of traditional Chinese symbols to adorn my hair. Using a blue hair dye spray purchased from a beauty supply store, we were able to spray cobalt blue color through the stencil to create my blue and white bowl cut.
The bowl hair cut is what I consider a rite of passage for all Asian children. We were all the victims of our mother's at home haircuts that resembled the shape of a rice bowl atop our heads. It is a non gender specific hairstyle but easily recognized by Asians.
Dark and Lovely, 2014
“If we could watch in secret the rape of each lock, we should be able to give a series of pictures of human agony such as life but rarely presents, for we may be sure that, as a rule, a young woman almost as soon lose her life as that glorious appendage, on which so much of her beauty depends.”
- Andrew Wynter, “False Hair: Where it Comes From”, Our Social Bees, London, 1866
Hairs are tiny threads that link us to our past and present stories. These delicate strands have the power to identify us to the world, and this world can make assumptions about us based on its shape, color, and condition. Hair is contradictory; it is desirable or disgusting, pure or processed, innocent or sinful, an afterthought or a crowning glory. It is an extension of the body that grows in the womb before birth, and in the coffin after death, and the rate or length of growth is beyond our control. In Dark and Lovely, my focus is the emotive power of domestic objects and rituals that fix, organize, soothe, and beautify our hair – our lives.
My work has always dealt with identity, with the sense of being in-between, an imposter, neither fully Chinese nor Caucasian. I have learned to live with the constant question about my appearance: “What are you?” I change my response depending on my hair, make-up, clothes, what I am doing, where I am at, or what I am eating – who I am at the moment. I find people are rarely satisfied with my answer. I explore this conflict through my chosen media – porcelain, which nods to my Chinese heritage but also represents “pure” white – the white desire I find in both cultures. Bound by these conditions, I stitch together my individual nature, unravel the pressures of conformity, and forever experience pain in search of perfection.
"He loves me, he loves me not" was a game I played as a little girl. I would pluck flowers bare of its beautiful petals in hopes the last one spoken determined my hearts desired intentions. As an adult, I have allowed not only men to define my identity but that of my mixed race ethnicity and navigating the world as an 'other'. In this performance piece, I pluck my eyebrows bare until my identity becomes almost erased.
Star Crossed Visitors, 2016
“Star Crossed Visitors” was the phrase used to describe Chinese residents deemed foreign to others and forced them to live in neighborhoods of their own people. This fear created the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and was the first significant law restricting a group of people into our country and was not repealed until 1942. This unimaginable act broke families apart, continued xenophobic arguments, and its progressive racism can be seen today in our two Asian Americas – one suppressed by our system and the other somehow deemed the model minority because we have no voice.
The large concrete wash tub and fence rests on a triangular plot of land situated at a cross roads and not far from the Richards Cabin, the original site of a working Chinese laundry house during the Gold Rush. I was particularly drawn to this site because of the two different views the cross roads created. The large concrete tub and hair fence could be seen from the top of the road looking down, providing a sweeping image of the installation and Gold Hill. The other road only provided an above ground glimpse of the installation when the bright red human hair rope stood out against the green landscape.
For the fence in Star Crossed Visitors, the black Asian hair has been bleached to blonde and then dyed a shade of Chinese red. The ten-foot-long ponytail rope is threaded through concrete pillars to form a broken fence. This hair fence connects the sense of loss, displacement, and otherness the Chinese migrants experienced during the Gold Rush.