A review on the exhibition: m<other> by Kim Jee-Yun
While the research on ‘tracking Hong Kong visual traits’ is still on-going, I came across this exhibition m<other> by a Korean artist Kim Jee-Yun. The work on interracial families and the question on ethnic identity formation for the offsprings felt somewhat related to the fate and background of Hong Kong, a city of an intersection between the West and the East.
As I walked into Soluna Fine Art Gallery located in Sai Street, Sheung Wan, on the right there was a family portrait of Alia Eryes, the current CEO of Mother’s Choice, and her mother. And to the left by the stairs, it was the artist statement written by Dr. Vicky Lee, who wrote a book on Being Euasian: Memories Across Racial Divides. The tone sets in to focusing on mothers and femininity immediately, mirroring the theme of the exhibition. What drew my attention was the book shelf beside the artist statement. There were two archival images of Euasian family portraits in Hong Kong taken in 1900 and 1924 alongside Dr. Lee’s book. It gave me more context into thinking about the history of Eurasian community and how it all began in Hong Kong.
© Michelle Chan @ Soluna Fine Art Gallery
Little Edith Eaton says to herself, ‘Why are we what we are? I and my brothers and sisters. Why did God make us to be hooted and stared at? Papa is English, mamma is Chinese. Why couldn’t we have been either one thing or the other? Why is my mother’s race despised? … I believe that some day a great part of the world will be Eurasian. I cheer myself with the thought that I am but a pioneer. A pioneer should glory in suffering.’(Sui Sin Far [Edith Eaton] , ‘Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian’, 222) – Extracted from Chapter 2 of the book ‘Being Eurasian: Memories Across Racial Divides’. https://hkupress.hku.hk/image/catalog/pdf-preview/9789622096714.pdf
From the artist statement, it felt that the artist was more interested in the mothers, and their visibility and presence needed to be acknowledged more so than the fathers within the interracial families. I wondered, why not the fathers? Lee wrote in her book that, “Any European employee who violated the colonial etiquette by interracial romance was jeopardizing not only his career but was also risking ostracism…Kenneth Andrew recalled that the first document he had to sign was a promise not to marry a Chinese female (Langford, 1998)”. It feels as though the hostility of interracial marriage is mutual between mothers and fathers, so I wonder whether there was something else that the artist felt with mothers that needed to be acknowledged.
Looking at the images, the images of the mothers and their child often took place on the bed, or sofa or a corner of their home. Lying down, sitting or standing, they were stoic with seriousness or slight grin on their faces. Perhaps it carried on from the idea of traditional painting where wider smiles were “associated with madness, lewdness, loudness, drunkenness, all sorts of states of being that were not particularly decorous”. Or perhaps the artist wanted the images to represent power and seriousness of these interracial families. Serendipitously, I met the artist on the day of visit. She told me her photographic process, “I asked them to find a place that is comfortable. For example, for a baby it would make sense to have the 2 hours photography session on the bed. I asked them not to smile, because this is documentary photography. During the shooting, I show them the photographs I took. The camera is a mirror to show them how they want to be represented. They changed their pose to adopt to that and we agree together on the final image.” The work became interesting in that it is a collaboration with the interracial families in creating a pictorial representation of how they want to be seen. And then what fascinates me is when the family being photographed have the power to control how they are being represented in images, their choices of poses can also infer how they want others to see them. The power of their presence becomes not only being who they are in front of the camera, but also how they want to be seen by others.
From the clothing that the mothers wore, the objects, and surrounding environment in these portraits, all the works presented in this exhibition reflected social-economic privilege in the interracial families photographed. The artist mentioned to me that the choice of families are those amongst her network – friends, neighbours. Slowly she advertised on social media recruiting mix-raced families who want to be photographed. How is her method of selecting families to photograph affect the way audience understand and learn about the psychological and emotional depth of interracial families in Hong Kong? Perhaps this is something to explore further too.
© Michelle Chan @ Soluna Fine Art Gallery
Amongst the photographs, one photograph of an Indonesian mother with her baby boy drew my attention. According to the gallerist, she was often mis-represented as the domestic helper. I wonder how her interracial marriage experience is in comparison with the others, especially in relation to the culture of this city Hong Kong. It was a shame that the exhibition only presented the images of family portraits. I felt the exhibition would have been more enriching if sound recordings of interviews about the families’ experiences of interraciality were included. I felt this would have given more layers to the body of work and to the theme that the artist wanted the viewers to ponder upon.