Chindia was a project that comprised an exhibition, short films and an artist talk that was hosted as part of Sydney Chinese New Year Festival 2018 and presented across Gaffa Gallery and 107 Projects from 15 – 26 February 2018. The project addressed themes of culture and migration, particularly the experiences of the Chinese and Indian diaspora communities. The exhibition presented six artists, Anindita Banerjee, Anurendra Jegadeva, Guo Jian, Lilian Lai, Lucy Wang (Ru Xi) and TextaQueen who all featured in the artist talks. The program was accompanied by a screening of four short films around the same themes.
The following is a conversation that occurred online between Sydney-based creatives, Sasanki Tennakoon and Tian Zhang in the weeks following their experience of Chindia. Both consider themselves 1.5 generation migrants, born elsewhere and migrating to Australia when they were quite young, and reflect on their own experiences through the scope of this project.
Sasanki Tennakoon: Were there any themes in Chindia that struck a chord with you? If so, for what reason/s?
Tian Zhang: I don’t know if this is a theme per se but I was struck by the distinct aesthetic and cultural styles used by each artist. In particular, I recognised the influences of traditional Chinese painting in Lilian Lai, Guo Jian and Lucy Wang’s works, which they have used alongside contemporary elements. The familiarity of the traditional Chinese aesthetics resonated deeply with me in a way I was not expecting.
Being less familiar with the aesthetic styles of the artists towards the ‘Indian’ end of the ‘Chindian’ spectrum, I was intrigued by the works by the other artists. It was refreshing to see an exhibition that did not have foundations in Western art history. It became apparent to me that these works draw from their own cultural, aesthetic and historical lineages that are distinct and powerful. They should be appreciated as such and not through a white/Western gaze.
TZ: What were your first impressions?
ST: My first impressions are telling of my lack of exposure to contemporary artists of colour. I found it amazing that I was in a room filled with their artwork and it challenged the mostly anglo-centric experience I’ve had of the arts through art school and in subsequent years. It also made me doubt the reasons I’d been telling myself that I wasn’t making art, namely that I didn’t feel confident enough in my sense of identity either as a Sri Lankan or as an Australian and not really knowing how to traverse that area in between. I actively rejected my Sri Lankan culture because I was uncomfortable with being “different” but the flip side of that is that I have never been considered properly Australian either, so I’ve inhabited this cultural limbo for most of my life and that’s something that I’m only starting to reconcile with now in my thirties. During the artist talks one of the artists said something that has stuck with me since: “We’re all from somewhere.” To hear that in a time where the world seems to be doubling down on securing perceived borders from equally perceived ‘outsiders’ was a profound reminder that the world couldn’t be what it is today without migration and different cultures interacting and engaging.
ST: Did you identify with any of the artists’ stories? (around migration, cultural identity, intersection of identities)
TZ: I think the exhibition did well in showing a multiplicity of perspectives around migration and cultural identity. Diasporic experiences are so personal and individual. There are so many variables and intersections, such as differences in country of origin, ethnicity, generations, gender…the list goes on. I’m considered 1.5 generation—born in China but migrated to Australia when I was very young—so my experiences are somewhere between first and second generation. I felt the exhibition had a stronger focus on mixed identity and first generation stories, at least with the films, which are less reflective of my own story.
More generally, I identified with the questions of culture, history and belonging that the artists were grappling with. Interestingly, I think I connected most with Texta Queen’s work, even though we come from different cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it’s because we share similar experiences as young-ish women of colour living in Australia. I find her works so provocatively and irresistibly feminine.
On another note, the short film The Apprentice was entirely in Cantonese, the dialect that my family speaks. My Cantonese is pretty terrible but I was surprised by how much I could understand without looking at the subtitles. My parents would be so proud!
TZ: Were there elements that you felt were distinctly from your heritage? How did it feel to see that?
ST: Not so much that were distinctly from my heritage but it was fascinating to me to see how the artists’ had responded to their own heritage and experience living where their heritage was a minority. It felt powerful to see their bodies of work and be amongst so many artists that I have that one thing innately in common with – being from a different cultural background and negotiating that fact with the places we find ourselves settled in.
ST: What do you think is the value of facilitating more presentation opportunities like ‘Chindia’ for contemporary artists from different cultural backgrounds?
TZ: Multiplicity is always better than homogeneity. Our contemporary art scene is so homogeneous and upholds a particular style that is heavily influenced by Western aesthetics. Exhibitions like Chindia help to disrupt these dominant patterns of thought. I hate saying this because I sound like a politician — but Australia is one of the most multicultural places in the world! Why is this not reflected in our art galleries? I also think galleries and art institutions tend seek international artists when they want to showcase a culture or support ‘diversity’, often overlooking culturally diverse artists living in Australia. I think galleries and festivals often go for the easy option of importing culture rather than to engage with diasporic and mixed artists living in Australia, who don’t fit neatly into the required ‘boxes’.
TZ: Did you feel the exhibition challenged Eurocentrism?
ST: I think representing an entire line-up of artists who are of colour is in itself a challenge to Eurocentrism. The work of the artists, although responding to sometimes similar themes, were actually quite different in terms of medium and presentation. Bringing artists of colour together for the artist talk highlighted the varying depth and breadth of the practices of those involved — there is diversity amongst the group in age, gender, cultural backgrounds and the works themselves. Also, not all of them studied fine arts, so there are different pathways to cultivating an artistic practice which I think is also important to understand. The notion that to be an artist, one must have a degree is noble but often counterproductive. My own experience of art school was quite Eurocentric and it wasn’t until recently that I even understood that myself. It’s this passive truth that is constantly reflected and reinforced by a lot of Sydney’s institutions and it isn’t until you get out into some of the institutions outside of the inner city and the inner west bubble that this veneer starts to crack and the colour comes through. While it’s important to provide platforms for artists of colour, and focus entire shows on artists of colour, it would be nice to work toward a world where diversity of representation is no longer something to strive for but something that just exists.
ST: What are you finding interesting at the moment in Sydney/Australia’s contemporary art scene where diversity is concerned?
TZ: I think more arts organisations — and, importantly, funding bodies — are taking notice of issues surrounding diversity, representation and inclusion. There are some fantastic initiatives in screen and writing at the moment that support creatives and encourage diverse storytelling.
Diversity Arts Australia is also doing some great work to unpack cultural issues and counter structural problems. In the visual arts, I’m seeing the boards of smaller arts organisations and artist-run initiatives becoming increasingly diverse. It’s truly exciting when these changes come from the top. However, I think the larger organisations still have a lot to learn. It’s 2018. It’s embarrassing if an organisation isn’t doing anything to tackle this.
TZ: What are you finding interesting at the moment?
ST: Chindia represents a larger, global convergence that seems inevitable as our cultural borders dissolve. More so than the union of those from Chinese and Indian cultural backgrounds, is the broader scope of the migrant experience and the sense of belonging to both cultures but at the same time neither — belonging to a new guard of cultural histories. I’m excited for what this enmeshing of different cultures in general will produce over the coming years and decades, at home and abroad. As for what’s interesting right now, I’m endlessly fascinated by how digital access is transforming and reframing our traditional understanding of the institutions of art. At the same time that there is a democratisation of “art” there has also been this dissolving of the carefully constructed barriers containing those traditional notions of what “art” is supposed to be, look like and evoke.
Sasanki Tennakoon is an emerging artist, writer and arts worker based in the Blue Mountains. Sasanki completed a
Bachelor of Fine Arts at the National Art School in 2007 and a Graduate Diploma of Information Management from
University of Technology in 2010. Since 2012, Sasanki has been working with Blacktown Arts, formerly Blacktown Arts
Centre, in varying capacities across their programs and has recently joined the not-for-profit organisation, Sydney Story
Factory as their Volunteer Coordinator for their Parramatta chapter.
Tian Zhang is a curator and writer interested in exploring diverse modes of thinking, creating and practicing, often with a
socially-engaged or experimental focus. Her work has been shown at Sydney Customs House, Peacock Gallery in Auburn,
Brisbane Experimental Art Festival and Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane. She is currently a Director at
Firstdraft 2018-2019 and a participant in the Australia Council’s Future Leaders Program 2018.