Interview with Dr. Tammy Wong Hulbert

Cultural Identity – What does it mean to be an Asian-Australian Artist in 2021?

Written by Kathryn Ruddick

The purpose of this artist interview is to gain an understanding of cultural identity, in particular Asian-Australian cultural identity. The research focuses on the work of Cantonese-Australian artist, curator and academic, Dr. 
Tammy Wong Hulbert
and informs about living across cultures, or in the gap between cultures (Kwok 2017). The discussion touches on the history of the Asian/Australian relationship from early Chinese migration to Australia during the gold rush, through the dark days of the White Australia policy, into the promising Labour government policies of the 80s and 90s, and the current period of intense anti-Chinese sentiment perpetuated by the mass media. Dr. Hulbert openly shares her childhood memories of art making, her early experiences as a young artist in Sydney, cultural influence working alongside dynamic curators and artists in Beijing with the (then) underground contemporary art community, and her recent socially engaged projects working with migrant and refugee communities in municipalities across the super-diverse (Vertovec 2017) city of Melbourne, Australia.

K: Today I'm talking with Dr.
Tammy Wong Hulbert
at RMIT University. And I acknowledge that we are working and living on the unceded lands of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung people of the eastern Kulin Nations. We acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging.  

I'd like to say thank you so much Tammy for your time today, we're looking forward to hearing a little bit about your work and your place here in Melbourne society. And we look forward to hearing from you. 

T: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
K: On your website, you define yourself as a visual artist, curator, and academic, and it's clear that you are quite busy with community engagement projects, lecturing, curating. How do all of these things overlap, do you have time to actually create? What are you creating? How does that fit in with your other work? 
T:  I do wear many hats. I think a lot of my work intersects with each other, being an educator and being an academic. And, of course having it centered around a creative practice, and also a curatorial practice has helped facilitate those sorts of things, because they are all interconnected. And it can be really difficult with family life and all the different roles as well. But I manage to make it all work together. It does mean some of my work can suffer, in terms of time management. But I do try and make it work together.

K: Are you making any ceramics because your background is in ceramics?
T: Yeah, I did train originally in ceramics. And ceramics, as you know, is not the most mobile of art forms, but I've always been craft orientated. I've always loved to work with my hands. And I think, even though I'm not working in ceramics, I sometimes go back to it. But I do tend to make things, make objects. I've been working in the last couple of years with quite a lot of different materials, mostly recycled materials. It's been interesting, I’ve been enjoying that, it is probably not that connected to my more conceptual work.
K: That’s great I enjoy working with recycled items as well. I'm doing a lot of a lot of recycled paper stuff at the moment, which is nice. On your website, you said that from a young age, you had a passion for arts as a way of expressing your individual cultural outlook. What art influences did you have at home and in school? How did these and your Chinese heritage, influence your art now?
T: I identified with being an artist way before I even had a sense of any cultural identity. I remember before going to school just absolutely loving making art. I think what happened is that I found a method of actually exploring those gaps that I was experiencing between home life and social life in Australia. So, I think that's how it helped - finding the tool to be able to actually understand, to reflect upon and to process these ideas. I think what I was experiencing was really a very important part of that attraction to art making from a young age.  I think it's really interesting thinking about it [because] it wasn't really what was happening outside so much that influenced me. It's actually came from the process of making and then reflecting that outside world back into my process. 
K: I read an article about Gallery 4A in Sydney and Michelle Antoinette discussed how the first director, Dr Melissa Chiu, was concerned with the risk of emphasising the marginality of Asian-Australians. Of putting a non-homogenous group into a little box. It appears to me that you embrace that hyphenated ‘label’. Given that you describe your art and curatorial practice as focusing on ‘the complicated, multi-layered and fragmented 'hyphenated' space between cultures’, do you identify comfortably as an Asian-Australian – what does that mean to you, and what does it mean to others in your community?   
T: Gallery 4A opened when I was at university. I was in second year university studying my Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in Sydney. I do remember realising there was an actual space dedicated to Asian-Australian art which was something new. You know, my classmates and I quite a few of us were of Asian background, I had two good friends that were Korean-Australians. The three of us we went [to 4A] to see an exhibition when it first opened in Chinatown.  I remember not relating to it at all because it was incredibly conceptually focused, we were coming from a craft art background, and not that I wasn't interested in conceptual art, but the kind of conceptual art that was showing at the time was really removed from craft. I think maybe our cultural background didn’t match completely with what they were showing at the time and it was also in the back end of Chinatown. The building had a very smelly, rundown lift, the sort of lift that puts you off Chinatown, but I persisted with it. I didn't feel like I belonged there straightaway. But over the years, I did build a relationship with that community and became more familiar. When I graduated in the 1990s, I did apply to have an exhibition there and was curated into a group exhibition Biomorphs (1999) the exhibition focused on artists dealing with issues around the body and emerging technologies. My work in the show Identiparts (1998) looked at the mutability of race and considered racial hierarchies in standards of beauty for women. It fit with the dialogues, but it wasn't just specifically about having an Asian-Australian identity, it was about other broader social issues. 

In relation to the term Asian-Australian, I have at times, felt comfort and discomfort with the term. I think with every kind of framing that you have around yourself you might fit with it sometimes, but not always. When I was a younger artist in the Sydney, Asian-Australian framing was the closest I could find to relating to a group of other artists, to a community.  I identified with coming from a non-Anglo background, having a different upbringing and having a strong connection to Asia both in Asia and here in Australia. I think that's the main reason why I have been okay with using the term, but I am aware that it is very broad. Asia encompasses so many different cultures and countries, but it is not specific as well. It is one of the challenges of having such a big term to describe such a large geography. I quite often prefer to talk about myself as a Chinese-Australian artist, and then even more nuanced than that, a Cantonese/Chinese-Australian artist, as I identify quite specifically with this cultural group. It brings it down even to a more specific level of cultural engagement and different histories of migration to Australia and political background as well.
K: Going back in history in Australian history, the Asian Australian Association of Victoria (AAAV), began in the 1950s. They once listed on the front of their monthly bulletin, the motto of friendship, understanding and good fellowship between the peoples of Asia and Australia. In their 1958 constitution they defined this lovely area of building the relationship between the nations. Sixty years on, the white Australia policy is gone, but we still have anti-asylum seeker politics, we have the media, fear mongering about Chinese land grabs, we have that horrible explosion of racism at the start of COVID pandemic, where everyone was blaming China. Do you think Australia has improved or actually gone backwards in our relationship and understanding and knowledge and friendship with our regional neighbours?
T: It's a good question, I actually think it's gone backwards. Even just in my lifetime when I look back, I am very keen on understanding Chinese, specifically Chinese-Australian history and just the way the community has been treated since the first group of Chinese migrants migrated during the Victorian Gold Rush, discrimination has been the backbone of that historical narrative towards the community. The White Australia policy era was a low point for Chinese-Australian communities, I felt the repercussions of this era during my childhood. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the Labour government, we saw Australia-Chinese relationships change and improve, as Australia saw itself as part of the region. That was a light at the end of a long, dark, tunnel. To see that positive change in my lifetime, and to see it change back again has been so disheartening. As an artist and curator, I've always been trying to create that bridge between communities. Creating these platforms opens up the dialogue to the wider Australian experience and for Australians to get a better sense of the complexity of the Chinese and Chinese-Australian identity, the many and diverse voices. I reject the stereotypes that are perpetuated in the media of the Chinese community and use curating as a way of opening up our perceptions of Chinese people in Australia.
K: That leads into the next question about bridging the gap with art. Laksiri Jayasuriya in his keynote to the first Asian-Australian Focus expressed ‘there was a “yawning gap” between official and community responses to Australia’s increasing Asian focus.  He called on governments and public institutions to play a more active role in enhancing public understanding of what is involved and required in fostering better relations with the countries of the region’ (Jayasuriya cited in Kwok 2017). With your experience with different local councils and other institutions - do they understand? Are they embracing ideas? Are they helping to bridge the gap? Or is it going to be entirely up to us as artists to do that hard work?
T:  I can say that, with projects that I've developed, especially the ones that have been more community oriented (I've been working out with community groups), local government have been incredible to work with and really open minded and have a good understanding of the value of diversity in their communities and recognizing different community groups. For instance, when I was working with the city of Moreland, working alongside the urban planner, for the local neighbourhood (this was in Glenroy, in the northern suburbs) the council really had a vision to support the community connect in a more productive way. There were a whole series of problems to do with the community infrastructure, not being quite adequate for the growing and changing diversity of the community. The council was excited to work with our team to develop soft infrastructure projects, focused on building those connections, and valuing the diversity, how we could support the community to feel a sense of pride in many diverse cultures present in the local area. I found that a really rewarding relationship to have and they were supportive of the work that I was doing.

When I worked with the City of Manningham, I didn't initiate the project they came to me, as they had seen the work I had done with the Broadmeadows Persian Asylum Seekers group. It was through the exhibition that I curated over at The Substation. They approached me and said, “we saw the work that you're doing and we're really interested in building better relationships with our local Chinese communities”. They had some ideas in mind about how they wanted to engage with local people in the community. So, it isn’t always me going to them saying that they need to work on their relationships; they are actually very proactive in recognizing that there are certain communities that they want to reach out to. The staff are very forward thinking in understanding in how to build these relationships, you need to do that in a more creative and enjoyable way.
K: It's really nice to hear and congratulations on being there and doing the work so that they can see where they can take that. Let's talk a little bit more about the migrant families and the refugee community.  This is art on a global context, that narrates a similar human experience the world over. Do you think do you think we need to be art activists and actively engage in these types of projects?
T:  The position I've come into it from, and before I got into curating, when I first started as an artist, was about expressing my own personal perspective of the world. Having that understanding of seeing disadvantage, from my own perspective, and then working in a curatorial capacity, I realized that what I'm putting out in the public sphere is having an impact on audiences.

I think that realization of developing a project and actually having a platform for distribution, has encouraged me to really think about how I use that. In the past, I worked more generally as a curator for organizations, such as the City of Sydney, representing contemporary artists, but I realized that there's a lot of people in the community that aren't represented. My PhD research was really looking at how we see the city as a curated space. Through that study, I realized that there's a lot of communities that just don't get a voice out in the public sphere. This is the reason why I started moving towards working with new immigrant communities, and that includes refugee communities, people that are our most vulnerable communities. I felt that that was really important for them to have that access to the arts, to the production of art and to show them their voice is important as well. To support them in gaining a sense of belonging as they settle into Australia.
K: We’re a very, very multicultural country. Until you actually hear some of the anecdotes you don't really realise how much difference goes on in household. Recently, I was speaking to an Australian born Vietnamese-Australian, fellow student, and she expressed that she grew up not visiting art galleries, because “they're not for us; we don't do that”. And I mean, I didn't visit art galleries, because I grew up in a tiny country town in Tasmania, and there weren't any - I had to move to Melbourne for that. But somebody growing up in Melbourne, thinking they were excluded from the art gallery, because they were Vietnamese or because their parents were Vietnamese, that’s really disappointing. How do we adjust the Euro-centric, white way of doing art galleries to meet everyone's needs?
T:  I guess that the issue is the infrastructure doesn't attract people often of diverse backgrounds. I mean, I don't think my parents really had a good understanding, I was always really into art when I was growing up (growing up in Australia) and they just thought I was very peculiar, there was definitely a cultural gap between us. They just knew it was an activity that made me happy, but they didn't really understand what I was doing really. I think my parents appreciated that I made things and that I was always very productive, that is how they related to my activities. And they saw me making things, but what they didn't really understand was the culture of art. It wasn't until I was working at Customs House, for instance, for the City of Sydney and I was the Exhibitions Manager. I remember I told my mother, I worked there, I manage the exhibitions she understood that. I remember one morning, she showed up at my work and she went to the front desk and said, “Oh my daughter works upstairs, is she around?” And then my Mum was just walking around looking at all the exhibitions. I think then it was then it occurred to her, this is what my daughter does, she puts artworks on display. It had taken them awhile to understand what it was that I do as a curator.

I spent quite a bit of time in China in my younger years working with contemporary artists and I was exhibiting over there at the time. I was really fortunate to meet this wonderful curator (and now also an artist) called Zhang Zhaohui who curated me into some of his shows. He wrote an article about me for a local women's magazine, about my practice, my perspective in relation to being part of the Chinese diaspora, it was a beautiful article featuring my work written in Chinese. That was a real moment for me when I came back to Australia, I gave my parents the magazine and they read a whole article about me, finally being able to understand why I made the things I do. It suddenly made sense for them what it was about. But I think there was always a language and cultural barrier, which never made sense to them, or maybe it did make sense, maybe I'm giving them less credit than they deserve. 
K:  I’m going to talk about the message of art. Here in Melbourne, the most famous Asian artists that we've seen at the NGV, and other exhibitions, they've got a political message and a strong cultural message. It almost feels like it's compulsory for that; it’s an obligation on them to respond to cultural identity in some sort of form of activism. They're doing big in your face kind of shows and artworks. Do you feel that your art, for example, needs to narrate your experience as an Asian-Australian? Or those that you work alongside? Do they feel that they have to get the message out there? Or would they rather just make art? 
T:  Perhaps some of the reasons why some of the artists that are being very loud and political are being given a platform is because there are a lot of issues; especially with Chinese artists, there are a lot of issues around the personal relationship between personal expression and cultural expression and national expression, so it's a struggle. It has been a struggle for the last generation who are dealing with China’s dramatic transformations. That relationship is changing all the time; but it has produced a lot of artists that are quite critical in their approach with the kinds of expressions that they come up with.

I do believe that because if you are Asian you frame yourself as an Asian artist, that you're distinguishing yourself from an artist that has an Anglo-Saxon background, but your expression doesn't have to be about your identity. When I started doing my PhD, I had a curating background and I was used to work with lots of different types of artists, I didn't want my research and artwork to just be about my personal experience, which is why I wanted to work with different communities and broader society.

There are lots of stories, there are many nuances and different ways of seeing a community group. For me, it was about how these people see themselves and maybe similar in some of their cultural practices and their outlook. At the end of the day, they all have the universality of being human, and being part of the human culture. I think every person is so different, their upbringing is so diverse, that you can't really generalize about anyone.
K:  It's thought provoking to have empathy with everybody rather than just, you know, that shoe boxing I suppose. 
T: Having been framed as a specific type of person because of my cultural heritage, I think it is very much about awareness, acceptance and change and helping the broader community to aware that we’re not just one identity, we actually have lots of identities and opening up what that experience is, that's very different for every person, I think.  
K: There's just so much for us to gain from all of the different cultures and what they bring back to our city.  Melbourne’s not just a white European city anymore - it probably never was.
T: I don't think it ever was. When you look at some of the histories around the Gold Rush it was extremely multicultural even at that point. I think it always has been.
K:  Do you have a favourite Asian artist that influenced your work? And why do you love their work?
T:  I do have a couple of favourite artists. They're not all Asian. When I spent time in China, working with the contemporary art scene, I was really inspired by some of the artists that I worked with, and challenged by some of them to. Some of my favourites are Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, I love both of their work very much, the ideas and exploratory nature of their work. I love Song Dong’s work for the poetic nature of his work and his creative playfulness with his video. There's also a combination of this sentimental storytelling that he weaves into his work. With Yin Xiuzhen–that’s actually his wife–I was very inspired by her quite early on, because of her social engagement projects. I think, seeing her in action actually got me to understand what social engagements is really about. I worked for ‘’ in my early 20s (a web-based journal on contemporary Chinese art in the early 2000s) and [I remember] being invited to attend the launch of her exhibition, a collaboration with the staff of the Siemen’s Beijing office. She actually worked with their community to reflect and understand their own position in society, where they were going in the future. They co-created the project with her and ended up creating an installation of a plane together, made of clothes from their own wardrobes. Looking back, I was so impressed by the way she worked with these people, it was over 20 years ago, it was an early encounter with socially engaged art practices.

Huáng Yǒng Pīng’s is another conceptual artist that I absolutely adore, also from China but he migrated to France later in life. In France he was really celebrated; [he] represented France in the Venice Biennale, he is a very highly conceptual artist, that brought together Chinese philosophical ideas like Chan Buddhism with Dadaism. I love his humour and rebellious kind of rejection of everything in his approach. A lot of the artists that I admire are anarchists, total anarchists, and Huáng Yǒng Pīng back in the 80s, he was organising mass burnings of paintings in the town square. These were his Chan Dada works, which were about letting go of everything, everything being reduced back to nothing. He always playfully experimented with materials such as his works where he literally washed art history (books) in the washing machine and producing piles of pulp, which became his artworks.

There's a lot of different Chinese artists, probably too many to mention. An artist I've been thinking about a lot lately is Maya Lin, who is actually also Chinese, but Chinese-American and grew up in America. She's very well known as a public artist and she has an architectural and an art background. She's someone that I was very influenced. She created one of the first monuments in America that was all about absence - there was no people in her monument, her Vietnam Veteran’s memorial. It was back in the eighties, so it was very controversial, because it was quiet and conceptual work. It was controversial because she was very young when she won the competition which was blind refereed, and she didn't come from an Anglo background.  The concept and the story behind the work really inspired me. She's still very interesting now. She's been making environmental work like the Ghost Forest in New York to comment on environmental issues. I was so excited to read about that the other day.  These examples are some of the artists that have Chinese heritage that really inspire me that.  There’re other ones as well that aren't from Asian backgrounds.
K: That sounds great, we, we just don't we don't get exposed unless we reach out and look for that here.
T:  You have to have a look at some of the Chinese art history books, there are some really fantastic works.
K:  We had a great experience. Our lecturer had asked us to bring at least the name or, links or some pictures to our online class to share with everybody. And it was a really moving experience. Especially the couple of Chinese students in our class were able to explain the artworks on the artists. Fascinating.

What about your work? What's your favourite work that you've created? Why was it so meaningful?  

T: That is a really hard question to answer actually. I think with every work that's been a significant work that I've spent quite a bit of time on. I think each time there's something new I learn from that process - there's a reason for being a favourite work each time. One that was really meaningful for me was a project called The Anonymous Sojourners in the Australian Bush (2017). I worked with the St Andrews community for about 6 months, it was a temporary public art commission for the “Living in the Landscape” program. I’m really interested in site specific projects and looking at trying to understand the place and make connections with the narratives that exist in a place. How do we use our imaginations to tell us about an aspect of that place?

With that particular project I didn’t know St Andrews that well, but my husband had spent a bit more time there, so he was trying to explain what kind of community it was to me from his own impressions. I began going through a lot of historical heritage information, I hadn’t realised that there was a mining history in St Andrews; its origins were as a mining town. Then I discovered that there was actually a Queenstown cemetery – St Andrews was originally called Queenstown. Originally, that there were 35 Chinese Cantonese miners that were buried there with little information about the community, so some of their names were known, maybe their ages, but there was very little information these people. I came across this document and it said [that] the St Andrews community is generally more of an Anglo-Saxon community but then it had in brackets (and Chinese). That was the only information that was in this historical document and I was really intrigued by this (and Chinese) in brackets, so I went about trying to investigate what that meant. I discovered that there was in fact these 35 people laid to rest there; that they’d had mining accidents and died for various reasons during that period of time in the Victorian era.

I thought it’s a bit of a hungry ghost of that community. I proposed that I would work on a project that actually retold their story and recognised that they’re forever a part of the St Andrews community, but that they’re not really known about. I worked with the St Andrews Historical Society who were supportive and fantastic. They got all of their records out they could find. I found out a lot about these people, that they were young men that had left their families and had that ambition of making money in Australia, to return and support their families and they worked under really terribly hard conditions. One man died trying to walk to Little Bourke Street to get supplies and some passed away from opium addiction and had horrible accidents. It was very sad to read and that that was the only record about that community.

I wanted to look at ways that we could retell those stories from a more positive perspective and to give better context to their story and to value their stories. Also, the sojourning concept is a really common concept with early Cantonese/Chinese migrants. It’s all about returning home, to create a better life for themselves, my great grandparents were sojourners. We needed to find a way to return them to their communities, metaphorically.  

I worked with the Men’s Shed and I proposed to build a series of eight boat lanterns (which is a number representing prosperity in Chinese culture) which will celebrate their presence here but it also metaphorically sent them home. I worked closely with a team of really fantastic community who were part of the Men’s Shed. There was Kevin the craft superhero on my team. He was a retired tech teacher, he was so wonderful – anything I wanted to be made, he would whip it up in the workshop. Warwick was also a great supporter, there was a whole team, they embraced the idea they all worked really hard.

I had referenced this very famous Li Bai poem ‘On a Tranquil Night’ which was about the poet’s journey of migration on the silk road and how he missed his family and I remember one of them community members saying, “Oh! I’ve been to Li Bai’s the poet’s house in China”. I was really impressed, and I think what was so lovely about it how they really embraced the story and they wanted it to really be part of their community.

They helped me design the forms, I did the research and we tried to make a form that replicated an Asian boat that looked like one that people could have lived in and the boat lanterns were solar powered. And they were actually in the community, in the garden of the Wadambuk Community Centre. They were exhibited for the summer months, each night they would light up as they were solar power. That was a really meaningful project to me. It was a great learning process.  
K: Looking way down the track in future years when you look back on your life, how would like Tammy Wong Hulbert to be remembered?
T:  Ohh it’s a difficult question. Well, the one thing I don’t want to be remembered for is that I was very good at sending emails. I am seriously getting a bit worried that that is going to be my reputation, that I will have that read out at my funeral, “She sent 4,000,658 emails in her lifetime”. Maybe I should actually make that into an artwork. Ha ha ha.  

I hope that people will recognise that I spent my life dedicated to trying to improve the relationship between Australian and Chinese communities and through a cultural means, through creating better understanding of the struggle of the Chinese community. I do hope that’s what comes out of all the work I do; it has become my lifelong mission. The thing that does really drive me is that on my father’s side there has been a lot of political intervention into the family because of the work my family has done in relation to Chinese community involvement.

My great uncle Fred Wong was the founding president of the Chinese Seamen’s Union in the 1940s in Sydney. He was very involved with supporting Chinese sea-workers and the broader Chinese community. He was active during the Cold War era, he was suspected by the Australian Government to be a Communist leader, although his organisation was a community organisation, there was a lot of suspicion of Chinese people during that time. He mysteriously drowned in the 1940’s.  These kind of histories in my family history, really do inspire me to keep trying, even though at times it seems like a bit of a losing battle. I’m still trying to work hard to improve Chinese-Australian relationships and make my contribution and speak up for the community when there’s the opportunity to. I think it’s really important. 
K: You come across to me as just the most empathetic and open-minded and generous person, I can’t help but think that you will always be successful in building relationships that are positive. I’m really, really grateful for being able to hear just this little snippet of your story and I guess I will be looking out for further opportunities to get involved in some of your projects and be a part of that relationship building. 

Figure 1:
Tammy Wong Hulbert 2018
. Image courtesy of Tammy Wong Hulbert.

Figure 2: Tammy Wong Hulbert,
Two Wongs Making a White
, 2018, porcelain and wooden furniture. Image courtesy of Tammy Wong Hulbert.

Figure 3: Maya Lin,
Ghost Forest
, 2021, 49 dead Atlantic white cedar trees installed in Madison Square Park. Commissioned by Madison Square park Conservancy May 10 – November 14, 2021. Photography: Andy Romer, courtesy MSPC/Maya Lin.

Figure 4: Tammy Wong Hulbert (in collaboration with the St Andrews Community),
The Anonymous Sojourners in the Australian Bush
, 2017, wood, silk, paper, LED lights, 80 x 40 x 25cm. Image courtesy of Tammy Wong Hulbert.

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