A Politics of Skin: Using Art as Intervention

 

If the function of skin is to protect us, why does it often lead to hurt, shame, discrimination and pain?

Skin is a layer we cannot take off, and something that I am reminded of everyday. When I was younger I was embarrassed of my brown skin, I would constantly reframe my brownness as a ‘nice’ hue of caramel. Reflecting on this, I realised I wanted to be a safe shade or a better sounding kind of brown. My skin has often forced me to do something, to take on racial conversations and to help others think about race in more productive ways. This responsibility, while tiring at times, has opened up the possibilities in thinking about the politics of skin. It has become the layer of myself that I no longer try to hide, but rather use as an opportunity to talk about social inequalities.

Skin can be an investment: allowing the potential for an intervention, whilst also posing a stake in terms of making visible and taking action against persistent and systemic discrimination. There have been many before me who have given us ways to talk about race and the importance in its constructions and lived realities. I am deeply indebted to activist and intellectual figures such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Stuart Hall who have carved out spaces in thinking seriously and politically about race. They not only opened up the academy, but also creative spaces. But in centring the need for racial dialogues, they also faced hardships. This remains in the social fabric today. As Lorde reminds us in Sister Outsider, “it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes…Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity”. In the Australian context, where simmering racial tensions continue to reinforce a white, settler-colonial nationalism, political artworks might play a role in drawing to our attention certain social inequalities, and often, this falls on the marginalised who have no choice but to be political.

I know not everyone would agree that art should or needs to be political and this is a fair point to make. But artworks that address social inequalities activate more than a response: art speaks to different groups of people, and makes visible – through creative intervention – a space to talk back, with and for. Art that functions as political protest and social activism is useful in relaying more than critique, it offers a way to change social conditions from the visual world. When art is used to attract attention, it can draw us to worlds and experiences we may never have known. Coming from outside of the art world, I am drawn to artists and artworks that make an intervention.

“Art speaks to different groups of people, and makes visible – through creative intervention – a space to talk back, with and for.”

Sydney-based artist Jason Wing, seeks to push past the simplistic, and at times reductionist notion of racial identity as singular. Wing reflects on his Aboriginal and Chinese heritage as a community-driven artist. What is interesting about Wing is how he views the world from different experiences and lenses, stating, “There are always layers in my work”. These cultural layers he refers to take shape in how he comes to his artist practice. Many of his pieces, exhibitions and community-based projects such as In Between Two Worlds (2012); Australian was Stolen by Armed Robbery (2012); and >>Brute Force>>Merge Sort (2017) think about the role and politics of race and ethnicity.

Image: Jason Wing, BruteForce >> MergeSort, 2017, animated digital still. Photography: Alex Wisser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of Wing’s skills, as he notes, is to distil complex histories and social, political challenges in the world into simple ideas that can be more easily unpacked. He uses his artist platform to illustrate the relevance of ongoing settler-colonial struggles. I was enchanted and taken aback when I first came across Wing’s work in person at the Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest. I was writing an exhibition review at the time and was confronted with how his work >>Brute Force>>Merge Sort (2017) made me think about my own experiences with technology and racial discrimination. While he speaks from his experience of marching in the 2017 Invasion Day Protest and his interactions with police who were filming at the event, it resonates with me in how I feel when I go through airports. My constant obsession that I will be stopped because of my skin colour. I am always taken to a place of paranoia, concern, anger and uncertainty – will I be stopped? why was I stopped? why wasn’t the white woman beside me stopped? why should I have to laugh this off? I could feel these questions when I saw the barcodes of Wing’s artwork flash across his own face in the video installation. We are not only talking about airports here, but we are talking about our ability to protest and ultimately, to be in the world.

“In his case he recounts being threatened with arrest, but for viewers and audiences of his piece, he is speaking to the ways in which racial othering is related to the ethics of surveillance and the uncertainty or threat for those who do not fit into particular nodes of whiteness.”

I am aware that Wing’s experiences and my own are different, and it is not my intention to equate them. What I am gesturing towards is how we can understand our own racial politics through art. Wing’s political emphasis in his artworks, which is especially seen in >> Brute Force >> Merge Sort, pose a commentary on the role of technology and racial discrimination. In his case he recounts being threatened with arrest, but for viewers and audiences of his piece, he is speaking to the ways in which racial othering is related to the ethics of surveillance and the uncertainty or threat for those who do not fit into particular nodes of whiteness.

The powerful way in which art can and is used to engage in activism makes a point. What makes art an important site of intervention, is how it can open up conversations without text. It takes us into the layers of skin we may recognise, but may not fully know. We can pull inspiration from artists such as Wing in the hopes of also thinking about our own skin in the game and wanting to do something. I am inspired when I see how art visualises what can be hard to talk or write about. It offers another platform to put race on the agenda; open up dialogues; and teach others about the misconceptions, stereotypes and ‘alternative facts’ about race, which again, is almost always burdened to the racially othered. Skin, in this way, will always be political for some more than others. But, what if we all had skin in the game? What could it mean for all of us to have a stake in thinking more seriously about race and racial politics?

Jason Wing and I spoke on issues of identity, the politics of art, and activism. A big thank you to him and to the artists who continue to produce such integral and political works. Our dialogue can be found below.


Alifa: Something I find really insightful in your artworks and practice when I have been thinking about how to approach ‘skin in the game’ art and art activism is how you think about identity. Both from your personal standpoint of being an Indigenous Chinese Australian, and also the socio-political nature of your work. When I first saw Brute Force at the Penrith Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, I was really taken with the ways in which you were drawing on your embodied experiences,

How do you think experience shapes the ways in which you come to your art practice, and what might the importance of this be?

Jason: I experience the world in many layers. My experience is mixed being an Aboriginal Chinese Australian man with white skin. I do not experience the racism people with black skin face, however I experience different forms of racism.

As an Aboriginal man my existence is political. My existence reminds Australia of its colonial, illegal invasion of Aboriginal Australia. As an Aboriginal man, not being political is also a political act.

Art has always been a vehicle for social change, however it has a limited reach. We hope to reach and educate the public and politicians contributing to the ongoing oppressive policies specifically targeting minority groups and low income communities oppressed in the designed poverty cycle. It is important to inspire the next generation to stand up to injustice and make some noise along the way. It is our human duty, to ensure human rights still exist.

Alifa: When I was thinking about your artwork In Between Two Worlds, what I appreciated was how you were thinking about both Chinese and Aboriginal culture. I am wondering if you could speak to this in relation to why it is important to highlight these aspects of your identity. What kind of intervention are you seeking to make? How are your personal politics and identities at play when it comes to your art practice?

Jason: My skin is a double-edged sword. It is interesting that the colour of my skin has afforded me white privilege. I create works that respond to past-present snapshots of how the Australian Government and society treats its minority groups.

Alifa Bandali

Author: Alifa Bandali

Alifa Bandali is a lecturer in the Department of Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her research interests include women, care and emotion work; feminist and creative activism; and decolonial feminisms and perspectives. She takes seriously the importance of bringing to light racial and gendered dialogues and opening up spaces for women of colour.

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