Jason Wing & Shaun Tan: Biracial Artistic Identities Within and Beyond Australia

Written by Andrew Pod Poduska

Australia’s local identity is made up of a global melting pot of cultures, beliefs, and experiences that meld together to form a complex, enriching, and tumultuous reality that encapsulates us as Australians. Within this context I will explore this relationship through the works of Jason Wing and Shaun Tan, two contemporary Australian-based artists who have come from separate, yet similar biracial foundations within a shared environment. Their respective bodies of work explore issues such as racism against Indigenous Australians, immigrants, and refugees within a colonised society, and how these dynamic influences one’s sense of identity within a diverse existence.

Jason Wing’s personal and public identity is instantly made more complex by the combination of two cultural histories that have shared a tumultuous past within Australia that bleeds into present day. This tension is expressed within his street art installation ‘Between Two Worlds’, drawing on his Cantonese and Indigenous Australian heritage, his work uses location within Australia to talk about these shared identities and his place within the local community (Marlow 2016). 

The installation is set within Kimber Lane, a prominent location for the Asian community within Sydney’s China Town district, which historically served as a haven for Asian immigrants that came to Australia during the gold rush between 1851 to 1880 and subsequently settled (Mathew 2018). This is also a place where Wing has family gatherings and holds a familiar fondness within his heart. As shown in
Figure 1
, the artwork consists of 30 blue LED backlit ‘spirit’ figures that are suspended above the laneway, its walls and ground are donned with sandblasted granite cloud patterns in the style of traditional Chinese scroll art (Wing 2013).

Inspired by his travels in 2012 to a sacred mountain in China that was enveloped in clouds, Wing wanted to depict the heavens and celestial beings from Chinese mythos within a modern Australian setting, thus melding his father’s traditional Chinese beliefs with the country of his mother’s people. Wing comments that the work “speaks to those modern-day challenges that you want to retain culture and practice it in a western world that doesn’t really value it over capitalism and economics” (Xia & Wing 2019, para. 28). His work uses the modern techniques of street art and electric lighting to showcase these traditions and values. This evolution is a necessity to keep up with a constantly changing world where places of antiquity are destroyed in the name of progress, a fate experienced by both sacred Chinese and Indigenous Australian cultural sites.

Another example of Wing merging his paternal backgrounds is the piece ‘ABC (Aboriginal Born Chinese)’, depicted in
Figure 2
, which consists of a stencilled image of an Asian child’s head coloured in yellow hues set in the middle of a black and red background which mirrors the Aboriginal flag (Wing 2018). The striking colours, bold crisp design, and subject matter encapsulates his experiences of being part of both cultures but not feeling as though he fully belongs to either.

The method of its construction is equally as important as the imagery itself. The use of cutting paper is a reference to traditional Chinese paper artforms used to create intricate images and the technique of stencilling is taken from Aboriginal methods of rock art which involved spraying paint from the mouth over a form to create negative and positive space (Xia & Wing 2019). The use of these methods together, also references the modern Street Art community of which he is a part of and incorporates into his art practice including ‘Between Two Worlds’, making for a piece that shows his connection to his Chinese and Aboriginal heritage as well as how he positions himself within the modern Australian art scene.

The Australian illustrator and author Shaun Tan has had a shared experience with Jason Wing as both come from biracial backgrounds that explore this through their work as modern Australian artists. Being born first generation Australian, Tan’s connection to his extended family was limited which hindered his sense of belonging to his overseas heritage. Growing up a solitary soul in Western Australia, he was often bullied for being different as he did not fit in within white Australian culture at school, a feeling that fed into his disconnection from both his mother’s Irish-Anglo background and his father’s Malaysian Chinese roots (Banerjee 2016).

Tan’s experiences with this detachment of place have been a main driving force within the themes he explores, both narratively through stories and visually via illustrations. The voyage of his father from China to Australia was highly influential to this as it reflected his own lived experience of alienation and racism within Australian society in his formative years (Ling & Tan 2008).

A culmination of these sentiments is present within his graphic novel of pure illustration ‘The Arrival’, a book that holds no words, which allows the audience to be fully immersed in the position of being a stranger in a strange land and how one may experience a new country of which they are ill-equipped to interact with (Nabizadeh 2014). The illustrations explore this sense of detachment from a host country by depicting a world filled with alien objects of unclear purposes and overwhelming landscapes that are both magnificent and daunting. The protagonist must navigate these foreign challenges to lay roots in his new surroundings in preparation for his family’s arrival, a shared experience by both Tan and his father (Banerjee 2016).

The colour scheme used in the illustrations are very important to the message of the work as the contrast of the black and white is shaded with various sepia tones, a reference to photography of the 1800s which both represents the documented influx of immigrants to Australia as shown in
Figure 3
, and the photos brought with them of loved ones and birthplaces (Tan 2004). These elements, coupled with the landscape sharing the same tones, are arranged together to create a rich world made up of both the host nation and immigrants and refugees seeking a better life, a parallel shared within Australia’s history (Nabizadeh 2014).

The narrative of Australia is paved with the numerous ethnicities of many countries, the most prominent being white British settlers in 1788 when the First Fleet landed in Sydney, and with them came a plethora of other cultures, either by choice or by force (Mathew 2018). This dynamic of power formed the basis of modern Australia’s tempestuous relationship with both immigrants and Indigenous Australians and our local and global connection to the world (De Vries & Wing 2020).

A study of these issues is explored through two works by Jason Wang that use the visage of Captain James Cook who led the First Fleet. The first entitled ‘Captain James Crook’, depicted in
Figure 4
, is a bronze cast of Cook’s head and shoulders whose identity is obscured using a balaclava (Wing 2013). This sculpture is modelled after the monuments of many white men of power depicted all over Australia and other colonialized countries, that have committed genocide in the name of exploration and glory for their birth country (Wing 2017).

The second piece, that shares the same title, also uses this image of Cook but depicts him on a UV light sensitive digital silk screen print that holds a blacklight within its frame as shown in
Figure 5
(Wing 2019). The blacklight is triggered when the print is approached for closer inspection to reveal the same balaclava clad Cook’s face as its sibling work (De Vries & Wing 2020). This portrays the same genocidal themes but challenges how the public interacts with these truths, do they shy away when faced with this information and step away from the piece, or do they venture closer to learn more from the artwork (Dowse 2020).

These confronting pieces deal with the destruction caused by colonialism to the Aboriginal people, as well as the treatment of other cultures by modern Australia. Delving in further, Shaun Tan’s ‘The Lost Thing’ explores this through following a metallic, organic, hybrid creature that does not fit within its surroundings and is ignored by everyone. The protagonist notices this lost creature and endeavours to find where it belongs which leads him to ‘The Federal Department of Odds and Ends’, a cold sterile city building that offers nothing but endless paperwork and no solutions as illustrated in
Figure 6
(Tan 1999).

Tan uses this building as a metaphor for how the Australian Government treats refugees that seek asylum within Australia and in turn, how the public perceive them. Instead of offering support and understanding they are ignored and hidden away under masses of red tape, or worse, criminalised and persecuted without proof to create fear and division (Rudd 2010). Modern examples of this are seen from Pauline Hanson and The One Nation Party, referring to asylum seekers as ‘terrorists’, a ‘threat to Australian culture’, and a ‘crisis that must be delt with’ (Sengul 2021). Ironically, these are sentiments that the Indigenous Australians may have legitimately felt back in 1788 when white settlement first threatened their existence.

Both Tan and Wing’s local identities within Australia have allowed them to bridge the gaps between contemporary Australia and its complex past, thus creating a dialogue through their work on how past transgressions effects the culture of both Indigenous and Australian immigrants.

‘The Rabbits’, a book written by Australian author John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan, explores how colonialism influenced Aboriginal culture and shaped modern sensibilities. As pictured in
Figure 7
, it is a retelling of the British settlers who are depicted as rabbits landing and colonising Australia (Tan 1997). The Aboriginal population of whom are portrayed by the native numbats are decimated by this invasion (McGlasson 2013), making for a strong metaphor as many introduced species to Australia devastated the existing local flora and fauna and permanently change the native ecosystem (Nabizadeh 2016).

The story begins in 1788 when the rabbits first engage the numbats, take their land, and systematically eliminate them via slayings, stealing land, and the segregation of children from parents, this being an obvious reference to the ‘White Australian Policy’ which implemented the seizure of Aboriginal children in the hopes of controlling and eradicating the Indigenous population. 

This same policy was also used later to discriminate against Asian and other immigrant goldminers by taxing heavily any gold that was found, essentially creating slave labour, and monopolising the goldfields for the government (Mathew 2018). Acts such as these ultimately led to the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854.

Similarly, Jason Wing explores the destruction of culture through an untitled piece that occurred only by chance during his 2012 trip to Beijing to take part in the Red Gate Residency Project. Within this foreign setting he became homesick and reflected on his Chinese and Aboriginal heritage that formed his local identity. During this state, he came across a temporary stack of bricks that formed a wall, on which he spray-painted the aboriginal flag across its face (Xia & Wing 2019).

As documented in
Figure 8
, the following day the brick stack was deconstructed and reassembled to create the walls of a cheap city building, the bold colours that previously donned the bricks facade now lay as scattered scraps of yellow, red, and black within this unrecognisable display (Wing 2012). Wing reflects on this experience, “In China, I witnessed how these amazing heritage structures were replaced by these cheap and disposable high-rise buildings - [just as] priceless Aboriginal artefacts have been destroyed every day by mining” (Xia & Wing 2019, para. 22). In the same way as colonialism destroyed Aboriginal culture, so too does the Australian government continue this disregard of history by allowing the desecration of culturally significant sites for the sake of monetary gains.

In conclusion, this exploration of Jason Wing’s and Shaun Tan’s local and global identities through their art reveals that the issues they raise are highly important, not only to Australia as a country, but to us as a people and how they shape our relationships within Australia and abroad. The key topics of racism, immigration, refugees, and colonialisms effects on Indigenous people, are all connected by cultural clashing, and it is only through understanding each other that these problems may be constructively confronted. This can only be achieved through the sharing of experiences, a lifelong endeavour of these two remarkable Australian artists.

Figure 1 : Jason Wing,
In Between Two Worlds
, 2013, LED lights, granite, spray paint, plastic. City of Sydney. Photograph Paul Patterson. viewed 28 May 2021, <www.timeout.com/sydney/art/in-between-two-worlds. Photograph: Katherine Griffiths>.

Figure 2: 
Jason Wing, ABC (Aboriginal Born Chinese)
, 2018, spray paint on paper, viewed 28 May 2021, <www.sbs.com.au/chinese/english/audio/the-aboriginal-chinese-artist-whose-work-reflects-life-between-two-worlds>.

Figure 3: Shaun Tan,
The New Country
, 2004, graphite pencil, digitally coloured, viewed 28 May 2021, <www.shauntan.net/arrival-book. The Arrival published by Hodder Children's Books 2006>.

Figure 4 : Jason Wing,
Captain James Crook
, 2013, Bronze, Edition of 5, 60 x 60 x 30cm. Photo credit: Garrie Maguire. viewed 28 May 2021, <collections.anmm.gov.au/objects/203146>.

Figure 5 : Jason Wing,
Captain James Crook (black light)
, 2019-2020, Hand-painted silk screen print, UV light-sensitive ink, black light bulb and light fitting. Photograph by Zan Wimberley, viewed 28 May 2021, <collections.anmm.gov.au/objects/203146>.

Figure 6 : Shaun Tan, 
The Federal Department of Odds and Ends 
(detail), 1999, acrylic oil and collage on paper, viewed 28 May 2021, <www.shauntan.net/the-lost-thing-book. The Lost Thing published by Lothian Books, 2000>. 

Figure 7 : Shaun Tan,
They Came by Water
, 997, oil on canvas, viewed 28 May 2021, www.shauntan.net/rabbits-book. The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan. Published by Hacette Australia, 2008

Figure 8 : Jason Wing, 
, 2012, spraypaint on bricks, viewed 28 May 2021, <www.sbs.com.au/chinese/english/audio/the-aboriginal-chinese-artist-whose-work-reflects-life-between-two-worlds>.

Banerjee, B 2016, ‘Creating a ‘Well-Fitted Habitus’†: Material Culture, Homemaking and Diasporic Belonging in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival’ Journal of graphic novels & comics vol. 7. 1, pp. 53–69.

De Vries, T & Wing, J 2020, ‘Talking Deadly with Travis De Vries & Jason Wing’, viewed 5 April 2021, <www.sl.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/events-online/talking-deadly-travis-de-vries/talking-deadly-travis-de-vries-jason-wing>.

Dowse, B 2020, ‘Battleground’, viewed 5 April 2021, <artereal.com.au/exhibition/jason-wing/>.

Ling, C & Tan, S 2008, ‘A Conversation with Illustrator Shaun Tan’, World literature today vol. 82.5, pp. 44–47.

Marlow, K 2016, ‘Jason Wing: challenging audiences with contemporary cross-cultural art’, viewed 5 April 2021, <www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/06/09/jason-wing-challenging-audiences-contemporary-cross-cultural-art>.

Matthew, J 2018, ‘Not on Your Life’: Cabinet and Liberalisation of the White Australia Policy, 1964-67.’ Journal of imperial and Commonwealth history vol. 46.1, pp. 169–201.

McGlasson, D 2013, ‘A Toothy Tale: Themes of Abjection in John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s Picture Story Book, The Rabbits’ The Lion and the unicorn (Brooklyn) vol. 37.1, pp. 20–36.

Nabizadeh, G 2014, ‘Questions for Shaun Tan’, Journal of graphic novels & comics vol. 5.3, pp. 361–365.

Nabizadeh, G 2016, ‘Of Rabbits and Pirates: After-Images of E. Philips and Fox’s Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770’ Adaptation: the journal of literature on screen studies vol. 9.1, pp. 35–45.

Rudd, D 2010, ‘A Sense of (Be)longing in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing’ International Research in Children’s Literature vol. 3.2, pp. 134–147.

Sengul, K 2021, ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: Pauline Hanson’s Exploitation of COVID-19 on Facebook’ Media international Australia incorporating Culture & policy vol. 178.1, pp. 101–105.

Wing, J 2017, ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’, viewed 5 April 2021. <nga.gov.au/defyingempire/artists.cfm?artistirn=37727>.

Xia, Y & Wing, J 2019, ‘Sydney artist Jason Wing strongly identifies with his Aboriginal and Chinese heritage – and it’s reflected in his work’, viewed 5 April 2021,  <www.sbs.com.au/chinese/english/audio/the-aboriginal-chinese-artist-whose-work-reflects-life-between-two-worlds>.