Disobedient Daughters’ Exhibition Review
Counihan Gallery, Brunswick 6 February to 21 March 2021
Curator: Sophia Cai

De-Orientalising Asian Women in Australia

Written by Aisha Hara

Curator Sophia Cai’s exhibition Disobedient Daughters is a force of 10 female and non-binary artists of Asian diaspora within Australia. This exhibition creates visibility for Asian Australian women, providing a space to contemplate the fluidity of bicultural identities and confront the notions of white supremacy. This exhibit is a form of empowerment for ‘diaspora’, a term literally meaning a scattered population away from their homeland. The show embodies this increasing symbol of identity among those excluded from an oppressive hegemony. This is to prompt those displaced out of their disassociation and to instead impart a sense of being a ‘people’ with historical roots outside this host country, Australia (Clifford 1997).

Disobedient Daughters was exhibited at the Counihan Gallery from 6 February to 21 March 2021 and is Cai’s second expanded iteration of the project. In 2018, the first exhibit was held in Brisbane; this time, in Melbourne, it includes a compendium of diverse mediums including photography, installation, video and sound. Whilst retaining an autobiographical narrative the show portrays Asian women in a global context asking the question of what it means to perform a role in society based on gender and race (Cai 2021). Outside the Counihan Gallery on Sydney Road, the exhibition is introduced with a provoking appropriation of the 1999 film American Beauty in Andy Mullens Australasian Beauty. The poster, a fetishized depiction of the artist herself, creates a sense of discomfort which fuels the desire to enter the contemporary gallery space.

Upon entering the large modern space, comforting hums of conversations and song bring photographic mediums to life. Family memories bounce around the room from sound installation work by Shirvajani Lal and a crescendo of mournful song in Sancintya Mohini Simpson’s Amma (Mother) video. The curatorial efforts of these elements echo each other uniting the many narratives of mothers, daughters and sisters, and their conflictions to be an innately humanitarian social concern.

By situating such personal voices, Cai repositions viewers on their reaction to the topics of the inhumane, orientalism of Asian women and their un-representation in the media. Zoe Wong’s Questions from Strangers and I’m a Shell is an example of this. Wong explores the complex identifications of being half Chinese and half Australian and the influence pop culture has on these identities. Her three scrolls hang in a regal dominant manner and her oriental style English text, plays on this sarcasm as she talks back to casual racism. It is a powerful depiction of the fetishized oriental object mirroring the human as an object of cultural decor. In the essay Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman, Professor Anne Anlin Cheng writes on these Western depictions of Eastern people as a collectible ornamental and this objectivity is clear within Wong’s scrolls (Cheng 2018).

In I’m a Shell the whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood is contested with the strong feeling of justification of ‘Asian-ness’ in the text ‘Now even Scarjo is more Asian than me’. This text is referring to actor Scarlett Johansson’s role of a Japanese woman in Ghost in a Shell 2017. The lack of Asian roles in Hollywood even when Asian characters are being played is a clear depiction of cultural appropriation and orientalism of Asian women as object, not human. The lack of these Asian roles within Australian media is furthermore concerning. Broadcaster and writer known for the novel Family Law, Benjamin Law states the facts of this under representation in the 2019 diversity art report ‘Shifting the Balance’. He reports that around 10 percent of Australians have Asian ancestry, a similar ratio of African Americans in the United States (Diversity Arts Australia, 2019). To consider the disparity of Asian representation in local media is clearly a cause for anger and ‘disobedience’.

The silk scrolls with direct sarcastic text aerosol sprayed clearly express Wong’s practice, as she describes in her artist statement, as a ‘De-Orientalising’ (Anjalia et al. 2021). The oriental puts Eastern people into a category of consumption to a Western context. Scarlet Johansson’s role reduced Asian women to an ornament that can be reproduced with garments and makeup. Wong has deconstructed this notion by regaining sovereignty of these objects and her own culture. They also include the sensible tension Wong has between the East and West being mixed between two cultures having both identities. The work is demanding disobedience to the objectified Asiatic femininity and is most directly linked to the curator’s initial inspiration of literature and media.

As media disparities and cross-cultural literature fuelled Sophia Cai’s curatorial practice, she has published a book which accompanies the exhibition. A publication with 10 more artists on their written reaction are paired with the 10 artists of the exhibit. The book which was available to be viewed freely as a gallery copy or sold at the gallery added a deeper engagement for viewers to a now 20 total disobedient daughters. This is alongside an archive that could live on longer than a single exhibition (Cai 2021).

With this exhibition book in mind, I revisit the work ‘Bian Lian Date’ by Meng Yu Yan which first greets viewers as the beautiful silk chiffon print floats in the corner of the room. Using a motif of mirrors, the artist explores the reflection as a metaphor for internal conflict and Chinese superstitions of ghosts. Bian Lian Date introduces the fluidity of identity as the name translates to ‘Face Changing’, a traditional Chinese performative dance using masks. Yan, who is a non-binary Chinese Australian, works to confront the disparities in race, culture and gender identity (Anjalia et al. 2021). In this setting, her work portrays the diligent roles they had to play and the disassociating concept of ‘daughter-ness; for non-binary and trans identities’ (Cai 2021). Yan expresses this diaspora with the use of self-portraiture and mirrors which reflect Yan’s face back onto covered hands. Chinese societal expectations are depicted along with the internal conflict that comes with living in a Western colonial sphere. The idea is expressed with Professor Jaqueline Lo’s concept of Asia ‘out there’ and ‘Asia within’, enriching Australia as a nation being ‘both within and without normative Asian and Australian’ (Lo 2014). Visual tropes of this abstract dialogue between Asia within is embodied with the transposed Bian Lian mask tattoos on both arms. Yan hunches over in this emotive honouring of the family burden of normative roles of the stereotypical Asian woman. However, Yan’s clean focus on self-reflection, mirrors and photographic tricks solidifies the work without the need for a normative cultural framework. Whilst other portraits in the show directly address diaspora, migrancy and hybridity with strong iconography, Yan’s photographic print alludes to these facts naturally as a narrative for the Asia within Australia. The monochromatic photographic print is minimal, yet the exhibition’s contextualisation alludes audiences to read into the works reflection of identity labels.

For diaspora of both gender and race, identity labels can be seen as increasingly inequitable. Professor Ien Ang’s writing of Chinese diaspora in Together-in-difference: Beyond Diaspora, into Hybridity argues the importance of moving forward. Diaspora will become a porous identity, evolving, and shaping daily (Ang 2003). In this piece the envisioning of a new shape shifting identity can be embodied as the glossy silk chiffon reflects and sways in the air a gentle protest which balances the bold directivities in other works.

White assimilation and the disobedience against reform is significant to the work of artist Lara Chamas. The large floor installation titled Double Disobedience/ have you assimilated yet? / yea but who’s your audience? is both a 2016 work and a 2021 performance. The piece was a reworking of a previous Persian rug which Chamas had bleached, stripping it of all its colour. This was a performance of assimilation and cultural eradication. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings the work was reassessed and reflected upon remaining as a final installation (Cai 2021).

Lara Chamas is a second-generation Lebanese Australian artist investigating postcolonial and migrant narratives in the context of cultural identity. The rug is flocked with text that can only be read well in person. The text features both a recipe for hummus and her narrative of her experience and pressure to assimilate to European Australian ways growing up. This storytelling leads viewers to consider our colonial ignorance of Australia’s Black history whilst forcing white assimilation in our daily life. Diaspora within Australia and especially the artists of colour within this show can embody the Australian state and challenge the ways the foundational history of white settlers has been told (Chakraborty & Walton 2020). As the work has been adjusted to consider White audiences, this act becomes an integral part of challenging audience intention and impact. Chamas had looked at the ‘self-orientalism’ and the way in which she readdressed her practice for a Western audience. This added elements to her title, ‘Yea but who’s your audience?’, bringing the question of her own reflection of who the artwork was serving and ultimately who will be there to see it.

This idea of audience intention and the public majority creates a layer of complexity within the inclusivity of the show. Cai (2021) expresses to ABC radio in her talk on The Art Show that Disobedient Daughters was a personal depiction and an exhibit that she ‘selfishly’ would have wanted to show a younger version of herself, providing visibility in a very white centric art world. Evidently the exhibition is made by a certain community for a certain community on the representation of casual racism and sexism in Australia. Therefore, for the public the exhibit comes to be a surprising brutal honesty of a community left in the dark for an unexpecting gallery visitor. Founding editor of Pencilled In commented that nobody wants to be the angry Asian in the room but that ‘Anger-and for that matter disobedience can be a positive force’ (Wong 2018, para. 10). Too often ingrained in the media are female artists thought to have only beautiful things to paint and ornamental objects to create but these works disobey these roles within society (Miekus 2021). This is the bravery of contemporary Asian Australian artists to not fear their perspectives being too direct.

As a biracial Asian Australian viewer, the experience of these raw authentic voices and self-portraits is akin to a cathartic experience. The four walls of the space become comforting safety and I wonder why I had not seen anything like this before. As I look out from the gallery windows onto the Halal restaurant across the street, my perception emerges that this is just one diverse group among many minorities in Australia. Minorities whose stories I have yet to comprehend and who my unawareness may have impacted. Most strongly do I think of my understanding of Australia’s First Nations people and how I can further acknowledge Aboriginal Australians with how I live on their stolen lands. With a sense of heightened awareness and accountability for how I present myself moving forward, I leave the exhibition. I walk over to the Counihan Gallery receptionist and in a knowing smile of what I have just experienced, I leave with glassy eyes.

Figure 1: Installation view,
Disobedient Daughters
, Counihan Gallery, Photo: Aisha Hara.

Figure 2: Installation view,
Disobedient Daughters
, Counihan Gallery, Photo: Janelle Low.

Figure 3: Zoe Wong,
Questions from Strangers
, and ‘I’m a shell’, 2020. Aerosol on silk mounted scroll. Installation view, Disobedient Daughters, Counihan Gallery. Photo: Aisha Hara.

Figure 4: Meng-Yu Yan,
Bian Lian Date
, 2018. Digital photographic prink on silk chiffon. Installation view, Disobedient Daughters, Counihan Gallery. Photo: Aisha Hara. 

Figure 5: Lara Chamas,
Double disobedience/have you assimilated yet? / yeah but who’s your audience?
2016. Faux Persian rug, screen printed flock, vessel and 2021 performance. Installation view, Disobedient Daughters, Counihan Gallery. Photo: Janelle Low.

Ang, I 2003, ‘Together-in-difference: Beyond Diaspora, into Hybridity’, Asian Studies Review, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 141-154.

Anjali M, Arcilla M, Chua S, Gill S, Griffiths M, McIntosh L, Qian J, Shim S, Silva D & Wong Y, Disobedient Daughters Exhibition Catalogue February 2021, Joy Li, Heart of Heart Press, Australia.

Benson, N 2021, Rescue dogs and the good life: the art of Lucy Culliton, The Art Show, podcast program, ABC Radio podcast, 17 February, viewed 10 April 2021. <www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/the-art-show/lucy-culliton-celeste-mountjoy/13162618>.

Cai, S 2021, ‘Disobedient Daughters: images of Asian women in a global context’, lecture recording, HUSO2403, RMIT University, viewed 28 May 2021,

Chakraborty, M & Walton, J 2020, Asian Australian Identities: Embodiments and Inhabitations, Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 41, no. 6, pp. 667-676, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2020.1843780.

Cheng, AA 2018, ‘Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman’, Critical Inquiry, University of Chicago, pp. 415-446.

Clifford, J 1997, Routes: Travel and translation in the late twentieth century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Diversity Arts Australia, 2019, ‘Shifting the Balance: Cultural Diversity in Leadership Within the Australian Arts, Screen and Creative Sectors’, BYP Group and Western Sydney University, Sydney. <diversityarts.org.au/app/uploads/Shifting-the-Balance-DARTS-small.pdf>.

Lo, J 2014, ‘Australia’s Other Asia in the Asian Century’, in M Antoinette, C Turner (eds) Contemporary Asian art and Exhibitions: connectivities and world making, ANU Press, The Australian National University, Australia, p. 219- 231. <press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p298341/pdf/book.pdf>.

Low, J 2021 Installation view Disobedient Daughters Counihan Gallery, viewed 6 April 2021, <www.instagram.com/p/CMgooK3jteh/>.

Low, J 2021 Lara Chamas, ‘Double disobedience/have you assimilated yet?/ yeah but who’s your audience?’ 2016 work, 2021 performance, viewed 6 April 2021 <www.instagram.com/p/CLte6SQB4dy/>.

Miekus, T February 12 2021, ‘Around the galleries: our pick of exhibition to see this week’, The Sydney Morning Herald viewed 3 April 2021,  <www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/around-the-galleries-our-pick-of-exhibitions-to-see-this-week-20210208-p570hx.html>.

Wong, Y 2018, ‘Disobedient Daughters’,‘Unprojects’, viewed 6 April 2021