Disguise me 明月松间照,清泉石上流

A photographic installation at Mailbox Artspace

11 July - 2 August, 2019

Image: the digital scan of the medium format negative film. 2019. 

As she stood on this foreign land, it felt unfamiliar. She pressed her feet into ash-like soil. It was sandy and mixed with dry twigs. She realised that this could have been the same land over which many Chinese men - the gold diggers, farmers and merchants – had passed over. She suddenly felt a warmth inside her: she wasn’t completely foreign here, there was some kind of familiar tradition embedded in this place. 

crunch, pooph, swish and swash

She walked further down into the bush. 

The bush became thicker and the grass appeared taller. Many small, charcoal-coloured branches stuck out in all directions. The spiky grass started to scratch her skin. She thought that no one could see her. “This is a safe spot.”

She pulled down her pants and squatted to release a full bladder, the cause of the sore in her belly, that she had held for a while. 

While she was feeling free and relaxed, she wondered, “How many other Chinese women have squatted here?” 

She could see a white young woman sitting on a tree trunk. Her thick red brown hair was not so tidy. It beautifully contrasted to her green outfit. This white lady had an innocent face. She seemed to be thinking, daydreaming or watching something in the distance. 

No, this white woman was not real. She was a memory, an image lifted from Frederick McCubbin’s triptych The Pioneer. 

The image of her is the first panel of the triptych, which also marks the beginning of a white couple’s new life. The second and third panels that follow are part of a progressive linear narrative, which tells the story of an Anglo couple who are settling in the raw, untamed bush of a new colony. Altogether, the three panels depict the changes in their lives along with the transformation of landscape. In the last panel, the thick bush has been cleared out for a road leading to a city painted in the far background. McCubbin’s work has been celebrated because it represents a coloniser’s success story and is a portrayal of the stoic Australian. The painting breathes out this message: on this ‘free and virgin’ land, you have the opportunity to make a happy and successful life, only if you are willing to work hard for it. 

As the image of the white woman dimmed from her mind, she thought, It must have been the same thought that had lured many Chinese men at that time to take their chances in Australia.” This Australian dream in McCubbin’s painting was also sold to the Chinese, butonly White families existed in these paintings. 

In these paintings, settlers are often depicted as innocent and peaceful pioneers, a far cry from the truth. This ‘free land’ is not free at all. Settlement has been the result of colonial robbery and the genocide of sovereign owners of the land. ‘Terra Nullius’, as colonists had romantically and violently reimagined it, is not ‘virgin’. In fact, it has always been managed by Indigenous communities.

“How close am I to that white woman in the image?” She thought of her Australian citizenship and what that signified. 

For many Chinese people, this citizenship would bring great happiness and luck, as it was the means to escape the unsatisfactory life that they once had in China, and to reinvent a new life, perhaps, a new self. But, if her citizenship was issued by the current Australian government, which was currently operating by the same violent principles of early colonists, did her citizenship reinforce the injustice and wrongs that the colonial government perpetuated? Was she part of the exploitation of Indigenous people? Would this new life and new self already have been framed in a crooked way? 

She was hit by an explosion of shame, anger and anxiety. She was angry that she had internalised a traumatic history, and that she had come to live in a deeply wounded place. She was angry that she felt stuck and did not know what she could do. As she further interrogated the conditions of settlement, her rage increased. 

Suddenly, she did not recognise herself. Growing up, she had heard the saying, “A wise Chinese doesn’t show his anger. Neither a good Chinese woman, especially a Chinese woman. An angry woman is an unattractive and an uneducated kind.” Many Australians weren’t held back from showing their anger. “But I am an Australian now. I am free from these Chinese social expectations and cultural bindings. As an angry woman, am I still be seen as a Chinese or more as an Australian?” 

“Who am I?”

“Fuck that! Fuck this bourgeois identity tagging! I am what I am! I will work things out in this place.” At that, she straightened up her clothes and walked out from the deep bush. 

Editor: Allison Chan. Proofreaders: Andrée Ruggeri 

-- The poster of the exhibition --------------------------

-- The installation view at Mailbox --------------------------

The installation view of the Mailbox Contemporary Art Space. 2019. Photography by Brent Edward. The image courtesy of the artist. 

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