To Master Your Mother Tongue | Pavement Projects, November 2018

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition To Master Your Mother Tongue at Pavement Projects, Melbourne (15 October – 15 November 2018).

“When your life exists between the margins, you’re always not enough of one thing and too much of another.”[1]

What does it mean to be ‘Australian’, anyway? Our national identity is contested and fragile, forcefully re-asserted at the hint of any perceived threat to ‘the Australian way of life’. The diversity of lived experience across a multitude of social and cultural contexts is overshadowed by everyday acts of micro- and macro-aggression toward those who dare to resist the status quo. Why is it that the loud majority feels entitled to hegemonise physical and virtual spaces, shouting over the top of other voices in an attempt to intimidate them into silence? Perhaps it is the insidious and persistent fear of ‘difference’ as pejoratively defined by the dominant cultural group that rocks their insecure foundations. One such shameful historical incident was the ‘Lambing Flat Riots’ of 1860 – 1861, when growing anti-Chinese sentiment among European miners exploded into acts of racist violence. Chinese miners were subjected to horrific hate crimes: tortured, killed and driven out of their camps due to baseless paranoia.[2]

This festering undercurrent of xenophobia resulted in clampdowns on Chinese immigration in what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, enshrined in law in 1901. It enabled the newly-formed Federal Government to restrict the flow of non-British migrants to Australia, as well as to deport ‘undesirables’ who had settled here prior to federation. Although this explicitly discriminatory policy eventually gave way to the rhetoric of ‘tolerance’ that emerged along with multiculturalism in the early 1970s[3], racist ideologies continue to have a stranglehold on the national psyche. Siying Zhou’s exhibition To Master Your Mother Tongue investigates the ongoing tensions between white Australians and Chinese immigrant communities – or, rather, the unidirectional prejudice levelled at the latter by the former. Zhou questions the validity of multiculturalism as it has been packaged up for white Australian consumption – evidenced by a demand for ‘exotic’ cuisines, but not a truly egalitarian nation.

The reality is that stereotypes are reinforced through food: certain ingredients, certain smells, certain flavours come to stand in for an entire group of people. Zhou inserts a familiar dish into her assemblage of objects, drawing attention to one trope in particular: the fetishisation of Chinese women in Australian popular culture. Two bronze chicken feet rest on carved wooden poles, glistening as they slowly rotate (and surely mesmerising the pedestrians of Hoddle Street). Three flashing LED signs spell out ‘YEAH’, ‘YAEH’ and ‘YEH’, reminiscent of a takeaway shop. A small white bureau has been emblazoned with ‘SUK MY EXOTIC FINGERS’ in delicate diamantes. To the left, a latex-gloved hand pulls on a woman’s tongue, rendering her unable to speak. Upturned mannequin hands – perhaps giving the finger to racism and sexism – are impaled by chopsticks, with two kangaroo fur pom-poms dangling underneath. Is this a phallus, a cultural mash-up, or both? One thing that is made abundantly clear in the display of these “temporary material artefacts”[4] is Zhou’s refusal to be subjugated by the white male gaze.

A gold brick acts as an improvised support structure for a lamp festooned with two wigs: a blonde mane overlaid with a black lob. Against the soft pink wall, the flaxen hair brings to mind Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. This is a film in which there are virtually no POC characters, and a privileged sorority girl takes centre-stage (spoiler: she graduates from Harvard Law School and delivers the valedictorian speech). Both Zhou and the author of this article are critical of the overbearing whiteness of mainstream feminist discourse. Black American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde powerfully has articulated this prejudice: “When white women ignore their built-in privileges of whiteness and define woman in terms of their experiences alone, then women of colour become “other”, the outsider”.[5] By symbolically foregrounding female Chinese Australian identity, Zhou rejects the ethnocentrism of white feminism and the pressure of performing a certain identity to feel accepted in conventional circles.

SiyingZhou, To Master Your Mother TongueSiying Zhou, To Master Your Mother Tongue, 2018, mixed-media installation. Image courtesy of Pavement Projects.

In the course of her research on the history of Chinese Australians in Victoria, Zhou came to realise that female representation in migrant narratives was lacking. While this was in part due to the fact that, initially, there were less Chinese women migrating to Australia than Chinese men, this gap in the archive reveals the urgency of revisiting past cultural records in order to build a treasure trove of empowering stories for current and future generations. Further, Zhou contemplates the idea of being ‘Chinese’, and how it relates to being ‘Australian’. She is fascinated by the space between these identities, deftly navigating a social and political world very different from the one she grew up in. Zhou’s embodiment of cultural hybridity in a new environment raises complex issues: constantly having to negotiate her ‘in-betweenness’; tokenistic categorisation according to how others narrowly perceive Chinese culture; and having to be well-versed in a fresh set of social conventions. The artist’s sense of social justice has also led her to the question of how this country can move forward as a fully-formed society if it has so far failed to resolve the traumatic impact of colonisation on First Nations peoples.

To Master Your Mother Tongue extended beyond the exhibition space to local community engagement: firstly, through a public conversation with Chinese-born Australian artist Pia Johnson, activating Collingwood Library Meeting Room (a vital cultural hub); followed by a playful dumpling workshop at Otao Kitchen in Richmond, in which participants invented dumplings that referenced their favourite family food. This public program gave Zhou the opportunity to demonstrate her father’s dumpling-making techniques and the recipes passed on to her.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] S Chua, ‘The Short Stories of Another New York: An Interview with Jenny Zhang’ in Lindsay Magazine. June 2018, viewed on 21 October 2018, http://lindsaymagazine.co/an-interview-with-jenny-zhang/

[2] S Cai, ‘The Burrangong Affray’ in un Extended. July 2018, viewed on 22 October 2018, http://unprojects.org.au/un-extended/reviews/the-burrangong-affray/

[3] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1998, p. 82.

[4] S Zhou, ‘It’s Neither This Nor That’, artist website, viewed on 22 October 2018, http://www.siyingzhou.com/it-s-neither-this-nor-that-2016-2017

[5] A Lorde in T Ball, ‘Still talkin’ up to the white woman: Encounters with corporate feminism’ in Griffith Review 56: Millennials Strike Back, J. Schultz & J. Head (eds), Griffith University Press, South Brisbane, 2017, p. 43.

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