Explorations of Chinese-Australian diaspora:
Ah Xian and William Yang

Written by Emily Yujie Song

The term diaspora describes groups of individuals who have experienced or have a familial history of dispersion from their original homeland, which often involves a certain connection to their homeland as a part of their identity (Mu and Pang 2019). In an increasingly globalised world, experiences of diaspora, migration and multicultural identities are becoming more common. Expressions of these diverse cultural identities are essential in challenging and reshaping established norms, as well as supporting the development of inclusivity and awareness amongst those who do not have such experiences. For those with diasporic identities, such as the Chinese-Australian artists Ah Xian and William Yang, portrayals of similar experiences can bring about a sense of belonging and community that otherwise may be limited.

Both Ah Xian and William Yang explore their Chinese-Australian cultural identities through their practice, where diaspora informs the work they create. Although these artists have similar cultural backgrounds, their experiences of diaspora differ: Ah Xian migrated from China to Australia in his adult life, while Yang was born and raised in Australia with Chinese heritage. These varying backgrounds have shaped how each artist explores their culture and their Chinese-Australian identities, which I will explore through the analysis of their works. Specifically, this discussion paper will focus on Ah Xian’s China, China - Bust 81 (2004) and Human, human - Lotus, cloisonné figure 1 (2000-01), as well as Yang’s Self-Portrait #2 (2007) and William in scholar’s costume (2008).

Known as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, Ah Xian (b.1960) is well-recognised in the Western art scene for his bust sculptures that centre around the artists’ Chinese culture. His history of seeking political asylum in Australia after the Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989) is a significant influence on his practice, and this experience of dislocation has ‘opened up a space for [him] to produce work that would not have been possible in China’ (Maravillas 2007:259).

China, China - Bust 81 is one of his many works in the famous China, China (1998-2004) series. This bust is adorned with a landscape of trees, mountains, clouds and buildings, and is cast from an anonymous live model. The material choice of porcelain, and the decorative motifs hand-painted in a cobalt blue underglaze, signifies a certain “Chinese-ness”. That is, by using porcelain and such motifs, Ah Xian creates an immediate association with China in a Western audience, as the history of trade has contributed to understandings of such material and imagery as a ‘quintessentially Chinese visual language’ (Catalani 2005:85). These designs are adaptions of traditional patterns of the Ming (1364-1643) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, often found on plates, bowls, and vases, sourced from pattern books and catalogues, and selected by the artist (Catalani 2005; Devenport 2000). Although early works in this series were created by Ah Xian himself in Sydney, the majority, including Bust 81, were produced during visits back to China to Jingdezhen, known as the “porcelain capital” of China. Here, he worked with local artisans who specialised in these traditional motifs and patterns, directing them to adorn his hand-moulded cast porcelain forms with the selected designs (Fernstein 2002; Devenport 2000). Hence, the materiality and the traditional motifs imbue this sculpture with an inherent Chinese identity, both in their thematic visual imagery and source of production.

Although the majority of Ah Xian’s works are busts, Human, Human - Lotus Cloisonné Figure 1 is the artist’s first complete figure cast from life (Catalani 2005). This free-standing cast of the female nude took several failed trials and over twelve months to complete (Young n.d.). Likewise with China, China - Bust 81, this figure is made from traditional Chinese materials and embellished with Chinese imagery, with cloisonné as the artist’s medium of choice. The intricacy of the motifs, with long stems climbing up the figure’s legs, the emerald green and yellow of the blooming leaves, and the blossoming lotus flowers, demonstrates the expertise of the enamel artisans Ah Xian worked with. Although the Chinese symbolism of the lotus flower suggests notions of purity (these flower rise unsullied from the mud of which they grow), these traditional motifs carry the role of representing Chinese culture to a Western audience without necessarily revealing the specific symbolism behind its iconography (Catalani 2005:84). Through this implementation of traditional Chinese patterns, motifs and techniques, Ah Xian imposes a collective Chinese cultural identity on his sculptural busts and figures, adapting these classical traditions to a contemporary context.

Ah Xian’s exploration of his Chinese identity and appreciation for traditional Chinese art forms are informed by his lived experiences in China’s history. His use of classical Chinese patterns, materials and techniques have often been interpreted as a response to the political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in which traditional art was devalued, suppressed and destroyed (Burchmore 2018). This likely affected Ah Xian’s experiences growing up, limiting his exposure to porcelain forms and other traditional practices. However, in doing so, this encouraged a later interest in these mediums, instilling an appreciation of traditional forms of Chinese art (Burchmore 2018:262). Thus, these works can be understood from a political lens in which Ah Xian focuses on celebrating traditional Chinese art in response to this historical devaluation and suppression of classical art forms.

Despite the artist’s ‘inescapable connection to China’ (Feinstein 2002), Ah Xian has explained that by immigrating to Australia, he was ‘released from the intense political pressure of China’ (Xian 1999:8). This decision to seek political asylum and migrate to Australia in 1990 was likely to escape government-enforced control, violence and restrictions evident through historical events such as the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Massacre (1989), in search of more freedoms and liberty to create. This geographical, political and psychological distance from his homeland allowed him to reconfigure and transform Chinese traditions to reflect on the complexities of his own cultural identity (Maravillas 2006). Western influences also play a crucial role in the artist’s practice, as the use of the bust is linked to the figurative tradition of classical Western art. The method of casting from live models also surrounds itself with Western concerns of mimesis and representational accuracy (Maravillas 2007; Catalani 2005). By overlaying the ornamental designs of traditional Chinese symbolism onto Western notions of the human bust and body, Ah Xian reflects upon his multifaceted diasporic identity and cultural relocation.

Furthermore, the divide between the sites of production and display demonstrates the artist’s cultural negotiation between China and the West, as many of Ah Xian’s works have been created in Jingdezhen but have been predominately exhibited in Australia, the US and Europe (Burchmore 2018). His multifaceted identity reflects his experiences of being caught between worlds, from the conceptualisation of work in Australia, production of busts in China and the display predominantly in the West. These diasporic experiences are also evident in his career, remaining relatively unknown in China despite his success in the West. In addition, many of the artisans Ah Xian worked with ‘generally did not understand or share his intensions’, where he received ‘‘mixed reactions of laughter, incredulity, surprise, curiosity, even suspicion and accusations of instability’ (Burchmore 2018:276). This lack of understanding from a Chinese audience’s perspective implies a certain "cultural alienness”, in which the hybridity behind Ah Xian’s works creates a cultural distance and ‘othering’ from his homeland (Catalani 2005:85). This reflects upon the artist’s sense of cultural dislocation and the exploration surrounding his diasporic identity.

In contrast to Ah Xian’s experiences of migration, William Yang (b.1943) is a third-generation Australian-born Chinese contemporary artist and storyteller. Known as a photographer and performer, his practice involves documentations of Sydney’s gay community and the AIDS crisis, as well as navigations surrounding his cultural Chinese heritage and identity. His ‘twin issues’ of being gay and Chinese are integral aspects of his understanding of self, as this heavily informs the artist’s practice (Leong 2002).

Self-portrait #2 is a photographic work that depicts Yang as a young child, posing for the camera next to what seems to be a bicycle. The contrast between the dark surroundings and the figure draws attention to Yang’s childhood self, and lack of sharpness of the image encourages viewers to focus on the text imposed onto the work. These words, hand-written by the artist, have been arranged to fit within the shape of his clothing, which recount a childhood experience where Yang first became aware of his Chinese ethnicity. This anecdote describes an act of discrimination, where a classmate’s taunts had revealed Yang’s social ascription of being Chinese to himself for the first time. From this moment onwards, Yang’s Chinese identity is something he rejected (until later during adulthood) and was viewed as a ‘terrible curse’ that marked him as an outsider amongst White Australia (Yang and Lo 2008). This diasporic experience of growing up Australian whilst being othered because one’s racial appearance is a shared experience by many Australian-born Chinese individuals, including myself (Lee 2013).

This work explores Yang’s experiences of internalised racism that he experienced, which he described as a ‘colonial experience… [of] internalis[ing] a loathing of one’s own race…’, distinct from the externality of racial discrimination perpetuated by others (Yang year, cited in Leong 2002:82). The nature of this social phenomenon is seen as a result of racism being taught by a dominant culture, which is passed onto even those who belong to the marginalised groups that are being discriminated against (Leong 2002). Yang’s Western upbringing likely contributed to this, as he was largely brought up in an Australian environment, in which assimilating to the dominant culture was a choice his mother made to allow for the most opportunities for her children (Yang 1996:21). However, through this process, ‘the Chinese side was lost and denied, and for most of [Yang’s] adult life [he] felt uncomfortable about being Chinese’ (Yang 1996:21). This limited exposure to his Chinese background led to a cultural distance between Yang’s Australian identity and Chinese heritage, which has later informed his diasporic practice as an artist.

William in Scholar’s Costume is a work that explores Yang’s journey in reclaiming his Chinese heritage and embracing his diasporic Chinese-Australian identity. This photographic work involves the artist standing slightly off-centre, dressed in traditional Chinese attire and headdress. His clasped hands and solemn face, alongside the bright colours and ornate patterns of his clothing, confront the viewers with an overt Chinese identity. Above his head, the artist’s hand-written text describes his acceptance of his Chinese heritage and the process behind it. This journey of embracing his Chinese identity began with learning Taoism in 1983, in which the artist reflected on his cultural heritage and ‘realised that [his] ethnicity had also been suppressed by society in the same way that [his] gay sexuality had been’ (Foster and Yang 2021). For Yang, this had ‘remained a sense of shame without acknowledgment’ (Yang year, cited in Leong 2002:83), and from this he had to ‘work hard to reclaim [his] heritage’ and to challenge his internalised racism (Yang 1996:22). This newfound awareness of his diasporic identity allowed the artist to begin to share his experiences of being Chinese in a predominantly Anglo society.

This storytelling of Yang’s initial rejection of his Chinese heritage towards embracing his diasporic Chinese-Australian identity is mainly communicated through his use of text. Both Self-portrait #2 and William in Scholar’s Costume utilise hand-written words to invite the viewers to gain a privileged understanding into the personal significance behind his works, and in doing so allows for a deeper insight into the artist’s diasporic identity (Foster and Yang 2021). This written text operates in a diaristic way, where Yang shares private and personal stories about being Chinese in a predominantly Anglo-Australia society.

As this essay has demonstrated, although the experience of diaspora becomes progressively more universal, nuances in the process of migration and lived experiences affect how one views their own cultural identity. Ah Xian’s use of traditional Chinese art forms, evident through China, China - Bust 81 and Human, human - cloisonné figure 1, demonstrates a cultural separation from his country of residence and his homeland, while Yang’s Self-portrait #2 and William in Scholar’s Costume tell a story of reclaiming one’s cultural heritage through generations of diaspora. The contrasting nature of Ah Xian’s navigation around his Chinese culture as an immigrant to Australia, compared to Yang’s experiences of internalised racism as a third-generation Australian-born Chinese, illustrate the complexity of diaspora and the nuances that characterise the hybrid nature of cross-cultural identities.

Figure 1: Ah Xian (2004) China, China - Bust 81, 2004 [glazed porcelain], Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/2008.21/

Figure 2: William Yang (2007) Self Portrait #2 [inkjet print], National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/106773/

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