Disobedient Daughters

Written by Mia Markowicz

‘Disobedient Daughters’ Exhibition Review

Metro Arts Brisbane, 4-21 April 2018
Curator: Sophia Cai

Artists: Mihyun Kang, Gwan Tung Dorothy Lau, Pixy Liao, Janelle Low, Andy Mullens, Ma Quisha, Sancintya Mohini Simpson, Sad Asian Girls, Zoe Wong.

Situated within Metro Arts, a brightly lit, spacious and extensive interior, ‘Disobedient Daughters’ displayed a vast array of emotionally intricate and outspoken artworks that detailed the traumas and personal struggles of women born into a confined Asian culture. Contrasting to the meanings in the artworks, Sophia Cai created a liberating dimensional journey through the perspective of existing as an Asian female and the battles that are endured. The space was broken into unique sectors complemented by achromatic walls, strong white lighting, and dark wooden floorboards that left echoes of the eloquent words spoken from the paintings, photographs, video footage, prints and objects from these nine artists.

The thematic message from this exhibition that I will assess and deconstruct is Feminism, with every artist apart of the show being female. Not only do they share their conflicts associated with being Asian-Australian but attached is another diversion from being considered as an established artist, simply existing as the opposite sex is detailed in this exhibition as a strife that is hard to push past.

The exhibition highlights the disobedience Asian women and young girls have a fear of, that there is a box that is formed from when they are born and that this box cannot be unlocked. A review of ‘Disobedient Daughters’ by Yen-Rong Wong states that this body of work reverses these feelings,

I never saw disobedient Asian girls or women in the media I consumed, so I didn’t think they could really exist. And this is why Disobedient Daughters, curated by Sophia Cai, was, for me, akin to a religious experience (Wong 2018, para. 1-2).

This review stated by an Asian woman who has studied in the Fine Arts is a critical point of view when assessing this show. It outlines the succession from Cai that unravelling these restrictions have had a progressive impact and has dissembled the conventional mentality that Asian women need to ‘disobey’ to be free. This notion is further proved in the artworks displayed as sexism and stereotypes are tackled, referencing Sad Asian Girl’s (SAG) piece ‘Asian Women Are Not’ (2016), which was an array of 100 printed A3 posters that state ‘Asian Women Are Not ...’ followed by different stereotypes accentuated by bold white lettering adjacent with a black background.

The work first appeared as a public artwork with global participation as SAG asked for the statements to be submitted online. Featured on a large main wall, this series encapsulates the entire exhibition’s intent with compelling statements: ‘Asian Women are not your anime fantasy in real life’, ‘Asian Women are not stupid or lesser if they have accents’, ‘Asian Women are not boxable’. These statements expose the continuous sexism and the obvious connotations that Western society associates with Asian females. The forwardness and simplicity of this artwork made it the most confronting and direct piece out of all of the bodies of work. I want to follow up with a statement regarding their approach which they wrote after announcing that they will discontinue, ‘SAG taught me that constant unpacking is necessary to progress as a culture and generation’ (Sad Asian Girls 2017, para. 12). This statement outlines their intention as progressive artists and correlates with the motive behind ‘Disobedient Daughters’ which in effect will help the change of perspectives that the exhibition is seeking. Deconstructing the pre-determined racial misogyny has helped explore a freer consciousness and perception of Asian women in society.

Delving into the societal expectations of Asian women, their quiet trauma is mostly overlooked. In ‘Disobedient Daughters’, Cai created a deafening ambience of voices that unveiled this trauma. The exhibition catalogue included a piece by Michelle Law, an Australian writer who derives from her experiences growing up Asian in Western society. ‘Red, Hot Anger’ discusses the anger and physicality of existing with Asian heritage:

I gave up on any ideas of romance and focused on fitting in. I restricted my wardrobe … when you’re a cultural minority in Australia, fitting in means assimilating in innumerable ways that confound your identity … You begin denying your own culture(s); you try to become white. (2018, p.3).

Law’s piece encapsulates the objective behind Cai’s collection of works and integrates living as a woman while escaping a racial torment. It sets the tone for the following exhibit, walking through the bright spaces illuminated by the intricate artworks allows the viewer to not distract themselves from the aesthetic physical imagery but rather focus on the red, hot feeling that created the works itself. Furthermore, Law and Cai have particularly chosen to explore the traumatisation as a result of diaspora in Australia, looking at the notion of a ‘ghostly position’ from Asian diaspora and exploring the ‘feminist diasporic position’ (Shi & Hazel, 2019, p. 13). It is clearly noted through the works that the artists in the exhibit are trying to address the quiet suffering Asian women experience due to the lack of support for those migrating into a new country. Shi and Hazel, researchers of Asian diaspora in the USA and Australia, both outline the ‘loss of origin and perpetual ghostly emptiness of racial otherness’ from a feminine perspective which can be applied to the works shown in ‘Disobedient Daughters’, that women of Asian culture have been segregated and as a result feel out of place.
Upon researching the exhibition’s nine artists and how they have chosen to display their vulnerabilities, it became known that Asian female artists who are rarely acknowledged are thought to be missing from art movement and history. Yến Lê Espiritu and Lan Duong discuss how Asian artists need to convey their trauma as it is ‘a visual art component to history—to engage other realms such as feelings and emotions in our search for the stories and lives that are not publicized’ (Espiritu & Duong, 2018, p. 1). It is made aware that ‘Disobedient Daughters’ is one of the rare known collections that gather these stories and lives to be read and understood. It positively allows a spatial freedom for women from different Asian cultures to explore their losses and traumas in a respected environment.

‘Disobedient Daughters’ addresses the ‘stereotype’ agenda that has been placed on those deemed different to Western cultures in Australia, implementing strong works that challenge these perceptions. Janelle Low’s featured piece ‘At Your Surface’ (2018) which are inkjet prints with gold leaf, expose the cracks underneath the surface; that Asian families have tried to mould a picture-perfect daughter into an unjust stereotype. Creating a layer of gold coating over her ancestor’s faces symbolises the ‘use of gold for dowries’ (Low 2018) to represent a higher ‘worth’ than the daughter that is being married off. Low ‘questions and highlights the measuring of worth’ by choosing to remove the face and worth of the Asian woman presented on her wedding day. The succession of dismantling these traditions implemented with metaphorical sculptures and photographs embody the entire exhibition into one artwork. Low has accurately portrayed ‘fine china’ (Low 2018) to symbolise the physical representation of a young Asian woman but the fragility to show the damage that has been done over time. Referencing Wong’s review, her experience of the exhibition perfectly encompasses the authentic emotion derived after viewing such overwhelming and stimulating pieces, ‘[Disobedient Daughters] provides a space for Asian women to talk back to the one-dimensional images we so often see reflected back at us in the mainstream media’ (Wong 2018, para. 3). Wong explains that works like Low’s are so impactful because of the unique deconstruction of stereotypes that had not been dismantled before. Cai’s exhibition has alternated a new point of view and adequately debated the harmful stereotypes that were isolating Asian women.

Feminism and its values need to be discussed when examining a group of artists who have been criticised for evaluating their purpose for their entire lives. Considering each piece breaks down each thought, trauma, and individual healing processes from racism to sexism, it should be noted that Asian women are not represented or heard within their own culture. Referencing Greg Doyle’s article, a researcher of Asian Australian art value, on Asian female artists, ‘feminism is a troubling term locally redolent with leftist and aggressively confrontationist implications. … the presentation and discussion of art by women in Indonesia is often undertaken timidly …’ (Doyle 2018, p. 10). I noted this within my own research when approaching ‘Disobedient Daughters’ as this may be the first time seeing a true representation and acknowledgement for many Asian women. One other claim made by Chilla Bulbeck discusses ‘“feminism” [having] even less currency in Asian nations’ (Bulbeck 2003, p. 4) which exposes the inequality of Asian Australian women. This also justifies why there are many dark themes presented through Cai’s light-filled exhibition. Ma Qiusha’s ‘Must Be Beauty’ (2009), is a loud five-minute clip that entails clinking bottles and drinking noises as a woman digests beauty products with disarrayed emotion. This is a symbol in ‘Disobedient Daughters’ that addresses the unrealistic Asian beauty standards which have not yet been properly heard, an intention also made by Doyle and Bulbeck. Ma states while addressing the intentions of her work, ‘Men do not have these kinds of problems’ (Young 2016, p. 5) and that artworks like ‘Must Be Beauty’ address the ‘social pressure’ of being Asian and female. In support of the captivating exposure of what beauty standards have done to the self-perception of Asian women, I further delved into Asian eating-disorders as a result from ‘internalized negative views’ which are ‘self-objectification as a way to adhere to how others believe they should look and act.’ (Le, Kuo & Yamasaki 2020, p. 128). ‘Disobedient Daughters’ has taught me that Asian women have to act and look a certain way, even within their diet. By Quisha taking this concept and changing the woman to digest beauty products speaks volumes about the pressure of existing as a woman within Asian culture. The presentation of the footage within a dark corner allows each viewer to absorb the work intimately. It creates a private atmosphere for the audience to see where the figure in the video is deriving her sadness from. Artists like Ma Quisha should be applauded for discussing such deep and disturbing issues as it is not welcome or usual within Asian culture. That is why ‘Disobedient Daughters’ has been such an emotionally impactful exhibit that is not only eye-catching but so intricately unique.

My interpretation of this exhibition has not been negatively impacted in any degree as each artwork has personally touched me in confounding ways. As another female artist, I was so encapsulated to learn more about women from other cultures and journeys in fulfilling their artistic ambitions. Each part was a success, and I say that based on my research in my last paragraph, that an exhibit has never been done quite like this before. This is why this exhibition needs to be made aware of so that other Asian women know that there is a platform out there and a collection of voices that share each racist trauma. No matter how little or small a work is, it is significantly important to be voiced. That is why my critique only remains positive as there cannot be an opposing side to raising awareness on an issue like current racism or sexism against one gender that causes isolation. I thank Sophia Cai and every artist for exposing these expectations with such empowering works. ‘Disobedient Daughters’ was an eye-opening exhibition which had also promoted acceptance and equality.

Figure 1.
Sad Asian Girls
(Esther Fan and Olivia Park), Asian Women Are Not, 2016, printed posters, installation view, Disobedient Daughters, 2021, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Louis Lim.

Figure 2:
Janelle Low, At Your Surface
, 2018, inkjet prints with gold leaf, installation view, Disobedient Daughters, 2018, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Louis Lim.

Figure 3:
Zoe Wong and Ma Qiusha
, installation view, Disobedient Daughters, 2018, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Louis Lim.

Bulbeck, C 2003, ‘“I wish to become the leader of women and give them equal rights in society”1: How Young Australians and Asians Understand Feminism and the Women’s Movement’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, vol. 7, no. 1/2, p. 4

Doyle, G 2018, ‘Review: Feminisms and Contemporary Art in Indonesia by Wulan Dirgantoro’, New Mandala, viewed 6 April 2021 <www.newmandala.org/review-feminisms-contemporary-art-indonesia/>

Espiritu, Y, & Duong, L 2018, ‘Feminist Refugee Epistemology: Reading Displacement in Vietnamese and Syrian Refugee Art’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 43, no.33, pp. 587–615.

Law, M 2018 ‘Red, Hot Anger’, Disobedient Daughters Catalogue, p. 3.

Le, T, Kuo, L & Yamasaki, V 2020, ‘Gendered Racial Microaggressions, Feminism, and Asian American Women’s Eating Pathology: An Intersectional Investigation’, Sex Roles, vol. 83, no. 3-4, p. 128.

Low, J 2018, ‘At Your Surface’, JanelleLow.com, viewed 28 March 2021 <www.janellelow.com/?page_id=1839>

Pineschi, E 2017 ‘A Eulogy to Artist Project Sad Asian Girls Club: Esther Fan and Olivia Park’, Drome, viewed 28 March 2021 <www.wearedrome.com/features-2/sad-asian-girls>

Shi, L & Hazel, Y P 2019, "Introduction: Locating Feminism in Asian Diasporas", Women's Studies Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 13-28.

Wong, Y 2018, ‘Disobedient Daughters’, Unprojects, viewed 21 March 2021, <http://unprojects.org.au/un-extended/reviews/disobedient-daughters/>

Young, M 2016, ‘Great Expectations – Ma Qiusha’, Art Asia Pacific, Magazine, Issue 98, viewed 8 April 2021, <artasiapacific.com/Magazine/98/MaQiusha>