In late July 2020, Vastari led a discussion with Gordon Cheung, British born Chinese artist based in London and Inez Suen, Chinese American Director of ICFAC in Chicago about their experiences of being stereotyped in the art world and beyond based on their Chinese origins. Here are the key points from that discussion:

People from a diaspora origin live constantly in an in between state of belonging.

Being of a non-white diaspora and living in a western society frequently attracts the question “But where are you really from?” People of Chinese diasporic descent, like those of other eastern diasporas, inherently live in between two opposing cultures and philosophies. While this position can cause people to struggle with identity and belonging, a more positive outcome is the unique perspective attained, which can be used productively to facilitate communication and understanding between two conflicting worlds.

“We are not either/or, but both” - Gordon Cheung

Gordon Cheung’s work lives comfortably in this ‘in between space’ and seeks to bridge divides between cultures. In his practice he attempts to demystify the grand narratives of good vs evil, communism vs democracy, or the us vs them mentality. For example, through his research he has tried to look impartially at the ways Chinese society has been uplifted because of their unique economic efforts. Alternatively, he strives to look at the democratic and capitalist ideologies objectively rather than through the Western romanticised lens that we have been conditioned to see. Reading between the lines of propaganda from both cultures, looking at the two philosophies from a geopolitical perspective and questioning the ‘order of things’ are at the heart of his work.

Installation shot from Cheung's show Here Be Dragons

You can see all Gordon Cheung's shows available for hire on our platform.

Chinese is used as a blanket term despite one's national identity

Growing up in a diasporic community you receive a very limited amount of information about your culture through the traditional western education system. The western definition of “The World” has not included include China in its narrative. Only later through their own research, outside of a traditional education system, did Gordon or Inez ever learn about their Chinese culture and history.

“I grew up thinking that China was a barely mentioned, insignificant nation.” -  Gordon Cheung

Scarcely featuring the history of eastern cultures in western "World History" classes proliferates the systemic issues of Asian cultures being lumped together, within the art world and beyond. Inez states for example, “There are 56 individual Chinese ethic groups, yet all identified as one culture and that's just China. There are tons more cultures and diasporas from other Asian countries.” And so the question remains...Why are all these cultures under the same grouping of ‘Asian Art’?

There are a plethora of art and artists that aren't receiving the attention they deserve simply due to ignorance and blanket terminology. For example, there are 5 million people of Chinese descent living in the US and the work of these artists is being categorised under the blanket of “Asian Art” when in fact some of these artists might have never even set foot in their so called "home country". In the art world, people think that “being Chinese” automatically equals being “from China”, but in reality being Chinese is a part of one’s cultural identity and being from China is a national identity.

“We shouldn’t be included in the Asian Art department at all, because well I’m American and he’s British.” - Inez Suen

The discourse surrounding diasporic artists in the art world is being oversimplified simply because people aren't even aware this large diaspora exists, or if they are, how to facilitate conversations around it.

How to move away from this oversimplification

The way forward is by actively having discussions about diasporas, telling individual stories, and making society at large aware of these communities. Cultural organisations are in the privileged position of being able to provide an educational platform where they can cultivate knowledge and understanding of other cultures as well as create forums where people can say:

“My identity is valid, my history is important and I want to know more.” - Gordon Cheung

One impactful yet simple way that arts organisations can combat the oversimplification of the “Asian Art” narrative, is by looking locally at artists of Chinese descent and using their voices to tell new stories in a neutral public space.

Giving representation to diaspora’s is a highly complex project but essential to promoting a larger acceptance between opposing cultures, especially when western nations are doing everything they can to polarize them. Diaspora communities act as the bridge to facilitate these difficult conversations, and arts organisations have the opportunity to be the conduits for knowledge which can dispel ignorance and dangerous racist mentalities towards people of all diasporas and racial minorities.

If you would like more resources centering around Chinese art and literature please visit. https://www.icfac.org/library

Create an account with us at Vastari to receive exclusive access to all webinar content.