It’s the beginning of 2020. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia are still on the daily menu for many. Too many. Yes, we’re all woke and no, that doesn’t seem to change the way people are treated because of their gender, religion, race, and/or sexuality. Have I done anything to change this situation for the better? Do I ever question my privileges or even give some up? Self-assuredly, I’d say: “For sure I would!” In reality, I (and I guess many of you too) blindly take my privileges for granted, not taking into account how my ignorance could affect other people’s lives. I can travel freely around the world; I mostly walk through the streets carefree; I engage with artworks that deal with racism without being triggered; I can even feel badly about my privileges and lament about it on my blog. BUT have I changed my decisions and actions to help others even though that could hurt me? I’m not so sure anymore…
“Uncensored. We’re sick of it!” was the title of an event I visited at the Belvedere 21, which poignantly addressed the issue of white privilege in the arts. The organizers are, amongst other things, “sick of an art world that claims to deal “critically” with migration, racism, and colonialism, yet reproducing discrimination at the same time.” In their manifesto, they call out institutions and individuals, who “embellish themselves with “openness,” critical consciousness and discourses, while their decisions and actions never change.” There you have it. Black on white. They call on us white people to stop pretending to not be racist. And yes we are—often unwillingly, unintentionally, and unconsciously—still some behavior or statements hurt those people outside of our (imaginative) tribe.
Especially Asian women often face stereotypes that mainly reduce them to their oriental looks and are gazed at as the “Oriental Other.” In popular culture, they are either featured as obedient but hyper-sexual or as docile but mysterious. Especially today, these stereotypes get easily perpetuated and exaggerated online and have an influence on the way women get treated offline. This was the reason why the feminist group Mai Ling was founded. A group of artists from Asia formed the collective in Vienna in order to counteract the daily racisms they encounter by sharing their experiences as immigrant women and artists working in the West. I met Hui Ye and Yela An, founding members of Mai Ling, to talk about race and gender and the works these issues inspire.
Julia Hartmann: Hui, you regularly commute between China and Austria and have been showing your works in both countries. Can you tell me about your experiences as an artist exhibiting in both cultures and how you think they might be perceived differently?
Hui Ye: I came to Austria sixteen years ago. I started studying composition and electronic music in China and then moved to Vienna to finish my studies at the University of Applied Arts. Since graduating, I have worked as a musician and visual artist and have been commuting between China and Austria for four years. Arriving in and leaving from two completely different cultures every couple of months is interesting but also very exhausting. And yes, I do draw lots of inspiration from that experience and put it into my artworks. Interestingly, I rarely show the same works in both countries but when I do, they are definitely perceived differently. Works that deal with digitization, for instance, are not new or shocking in China. Chinese people are rather unimpressed about the fusion of real and virtual reality. In Europe, the work was rather surprising and the audience reacted with some kind of astonishment. One of the most difficult factors in my works is the question of how I can make them comprehensible and appealing to both cultures.
Julia: How about the work “The Full Colour Make-up Session” that is included in the Nothing Less! show in London. Have you ever shown that in China?
Hui: No, that work hasn’t been shown in China, yet. I think it’s not attractive to a Chinese audience. It speaks of the Oriental imagination of the Baby Asian Doll and how the color yellow is often associated with Asian people. This kind of colonial racism is not evident in China but rather in the heads of foreigners. It’s not to say that there is no racism in China. In Guangzhou, where I live, there exists an African community for a long time but in the last few years, they face difficulties with their visas and must certainly endure racism on some levels. Being black is difficult everywhere. Chinese people do not know the term racism in the same sense as Westerners and they do not think about their (wrong) behavior. But it’s also no coincidence that this work hasn’t been shown in China so far.
Julia: And would they regard the “Baby Asian Doll” stereotype as some sort of self-criticism or as a critique of social clichées?
Hui: I guess the assumption of the yellow skin is more problematic as that is prescribed on us by others. I can rather show this work in a Western context and criticize the issue of the stereotypical yellow skin as the Baby Asian Girl prejudice in a Chinese context as that image is very popular in many parts of Asia. The beauty industry creates this image and beauty Vloggers use it as their subject matter. For them, the video would not be interesting as they see these make-up tutorials on a daily basis. Also, the yellow skin stereotype is not an issue in China.
Yela An: In South Korea, where I’m from, this is not really a problem we talk about either. We don’t see ourselves as yellow but we want to have bright skin color. Our society pushes us to be beautiful and skinny. The beauty standards are always changing and are rather modeled after famous people.
What rather bothers me is the oriental gaze and assumptions of Western men when they see Asian women. We are not discriminated against by our skin color but exploited as an exotic object. Also, it’s not really a compliment to hear that you have a really nice skin color or beautiful straight hair. They think they are kind but it’s rather racist.
Hui: I think the beauty standards we’re striving towards in Asia are forming unconsciously in our minds. The ideologies of beauty are introduced from dolls we play with and stories we get told during our childhood. Like Snow White or Barbie. Think about it, they are all white!
Julia: Some people in Austria have never seen a foreigner. Even Vienna is not very diverse. Take my grandmother, for example. I’d say she’s quite open for her age and the mindset she grew up with but still, she says slightly racist things that stem from inherent biases. Her tiny hometown in Upper Austria has a priest from India now. And guess what?! He’s really nice!
Hui: Yeah, I mean these things happen everywhere. Foreigners in China are also strange objects and highly popular motifs for selfies. The difference is that as a migrant in a foreign country, we face very different obstacles.
Julia: And I guess this is why you started the feminist art collective Mai Ling? Is there a reason why the members stay anonymous when one of the goals is to make Asian artists more visible?
Yela: We don’t necessarily need to remain anonymous but the works should stay at the forefront. We include artists and curators from German-speaking countries and work collaboratively on projects. Every member contributes their opinion, expertise, and experience.
Hui: It’s really a collaborative process which can also be difficult as we need to hear back from all of them before the work can start. Everyone collects material and then we discuss the concept. In the end, the production process is done by a few but, all in all, our works are drawn from the lived experience of all our members.
Yela: One of the first interventions we did as a collective happened in a tram in Vienna. We sat there with a typewriter and typed stereotypical comments and statements we have heard before but corrected them as we saw fit. Another collaboration was included in a group exhibition at the Times Center in Berlin, where we showed a work that explicitly talked about our own experience. “In die Leere sprechen (Speaking in Vain)” is part of the series “Who is Mai Ling?,” which makes prejudices and fantasies about Asian women visible and investigates the institutional bias and the racism and sexism that we encounter in our everyday lives.
Hui: We invented the fictional figure Mai Ling that was inspired by the television sketch “Mai Ling” by Gerhard Polt.
Julia: Good that you mention that as I wanted to ask you about your video work and the original sketch it is based on. After I watched it, I immediately had to check whether Gerhard Polt’s video was a satire or not. Even though it was a very exaggerated story, at some point I was flabbergasted.
Yela: Yes, Polt’s work is a satire and exaggerating the situation but it’s not too far from reality. We didn’t want to shock but to show that for us these stereotypes are just normal. We experience a version of that on a daily basis. When I go out, for instance, it often happens that I get asked what my price is. Just google “female Asian girl” and you will see what I mean.
Julia: So what about “model minority” stereotypes. Asians are thought to be calm, polite, good at Math. How do you feel about this “positive” stereotyping?
Yela: A stereotype is a stereotype. There is not a “good” one. I might be deemed a “good immigrant” and not get scrutinized at the airport as much as other minorities but I’m still an immigrant and treated as such. No matter what I do, I’m expected to act like an Asian woman. In this sense, I’m not a threat but this is still racist.
Hui: It’s true. Stereotype is stereotype.
Julia: Well, I was expecting this answer but wanted to hear your opinion on it. To round things up, I want to quote a British performance artist, who said at the event “We’re sick of it,” where you were also involved as panelists: “I always feel invisible and hypervisible at the same time.” Can you relate to that?
Yan: Yes, absolutely. They always stare at me but they don’t see me.
Hui: Exactly! Especially in the art world context I often feel uncomfortable. They superficially try to integrate us “foreign artists” but we’re not taken seriously.
So what’s the solution, you might ask? First and foremost, don’t be racist! If you think you have achieved that, think again. Most of the times, the stereotypical pictures and implicit assumptions about other people that pop up in our heads at any instantaneous moment are already problematic: I wish I had those beautiful oriental eyes; this poor oppressed woman in her headscarf; how I’d love to touch this voluptuous black afro and oh, how I envy her sexy curves; and don’t get me started on the various penis sizes that are obviously determined by the country they are born in—you get the gist. These clichés do float around in our heads, willingly or not. There are inherent biases and prejudices that, even though they might not leave our lips, do exist in all of us. So, a good first step is to listen more, to take other people’s pains and complaints seriously, and to treat others the way you would want to be treated in your own home country.