Redefining artistic borderlines
Within the borders of identity there are many lines; some drawn from the way we appear to others, others from how we see ourselves. Each of these lines create marks in thoughts and actions, influenced by past and present times and places. Similarities and differences, the depth and width of these cultural imprints on our personalities, challenge each of us in the many dimensions of who we are. This is especially apparent in the north of Australia, where tensions between appearance and identity merge as a living history and daily experience of people whose heritage is extremely diverse and individual. It is obvious that the people in this place are made up of many groups from other than Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Homi Bhabha, an influential cultural theorist who considers the role of art in defining how a group of people see themselves, suggests that, “communities negotiate ‘difference’ through a borderline process that reveals the hybridity of cultural identity”. He supports the notion that people create a sense of themselves to and through an idea that there is a group ‘other’ to themselves. However, he argues that this is not a static process and that there is a ‘third space’ wherein groups that once were the ‘other’ in a hegemonic view of a culture, stand strongly together to project a more accurate view of self on equal grounding (Bhabha 1995, p. 16). Categories such as race have been used in the past to position individuals in a low or high level of social hierarchy as each age and society re-creates its ‘others’ (Said 1979, p. 332). It is equally apparent that this changes and members of ’other’ groups more recently use these same categories as places of empowerment through the idea of difference.
Balancing the multiple layers of identity with her extensive skill as a visual artist and printmaker, Glynis Lee pushes the borders of a search for identity in the ‘third space’ into new dimensions. Her installation explores the tension between diverse cultural characteristics, focusing on her heritage as an Australian born Chinese who are often self-referred to as ‘ABC’. Her ancestors first started to move between China and Australia in the 1880s and she represents the journeys that have ensued between two continents over generations. Born and raised in Innisfail, Glynis has lived in Darwin since 1994, completing her undergraduate studies in visual arts with first class honours in 2007, her extensive skill as a printmaker is recognized in the multiple works she has produced independently and helped to produce at Northern Editions (a print studio located at Charles Darwin University) for over 7 years. In this exhibition, Glynis Lee has extended her practice from printmaking to incorporate video, sculpture and textured works on paper. She brings the lines of the past into the present, using printmaking in traditional and new, innovative ways.
For Glynis Lee, art is a visible expression of culture, felt deeply, reflecting inner thoughts and spirituality. Material culture supports notions of identity, the things that are touched and passed among people who share a language and a writing form to reinforce the sense of togetherness and solidify a reality joined in appearances. To describe a little of the process of creation, Glynis described an inspirational moment for her ‘bowl installation’. When visiting Pine Creek, where her paternal great grandfather had searched for gold in the 1870s, she related how she found some broken shards, blue and white Chinese pottery, scattered amongst the red clay and sticks of the savanna. Drawing on this brokenness with a high level of sensitivity, she returned to her studio to carefully mould bowls made of finely stranded silk paper. These delicate sculptural forms are printed in symbolic colours, some of China blue, others of Australian ochres, highlighting the fragility and transparency of physical identity in place. They sway on modern material, clear acrylic, moving through the air as if reflecting the many journeys that members of her family have made between Australia and China for over a hundred and fifty years. They are also symbolic of Glynis’ own efforts to return to her Chinese heritage and learn the Mandarin language. The importance of language and its power in communication and attitudes towards belonging runs through her work.
Lee explains her integrated approach to her art practice. “Incorporating both Western and Chinese forms of traditional printmaking and painting, as well as contemporary sculptural forms and audio-visual production, I merged aspects from the two cultures into individual works.“ The correspondence in the theme of balance in form is apparent in a variety of modes of expression. Long drifting scrolls as Territory Meditations (2010-11) are printed in lithograph, drypoint and etching. These integrate calligraphy and landscapes drawn from photographs taken in the Northern Territory, and cohabit the space with more formal framed screen prints of an ancestral home in Macau in Rue de San Roque (2011). At first, there appears to be a sameness in the prints, but on closer viewing, there are subtle differences in each embossed paper.
The CBA-ABC III (2013), series of screen print and watercolour on Xuan paper scrolls, highlight the personal connection and the historic stereotyping of ABC people in Australia, challenging the unsubtle notions of difference that existed with the White Australia policy in the past. As a sharp contrast to this brightly coloured confrontational newspaper text and family photographs, the Territory Meditations (2010-11) series considers the landscape on which social differences settled in the dust, and moulded a new perspective on culture, language and life for ABCs in the north of Australia.
Not content to explore printmaking as a mode of expression into two and three dimensional objects, Glynis moved into producing audio-visual media to explore other ABC people’s ideas about being Australian or Chinese. Her recordings of experiences of being an ABC are brought together with video art interpretations of her print work about ABC identity and are projected onto the same hand-made silk paper that she used to create the transparent bowls.
The search to express the empowerment of the hybridised ‘third space’ for Australian Born Chinese (ABC) as an artistic expression extends previous exporations of this topic. Works by Lindy Lee (2003), Greg Leong (2005) and Pamela Mei-Leng See (2004) as ABC artists who have addressed this experience in different ways using a variety of mediums, are referenced in Glynis Lee’s work. She has interpreted this to provide a nuanced understanding of the shift that has come in a particular time and location, stimulating further conversation and critique of the identity of the ‘other’ in Australia, particularly in the north.
All the mediums she has used resonate in different ways to situate the viewer, asking one to question one’s own perception of identity defined by appearance and place. Glynis Lee has stretched the boundaries of representation of the reality for ABCs in the north of Australia and these series of works add another subtle layer to the cultural dimensions of a northern identity. Added to this is a sense that in viewing these sensitively and skilfully produced artefacts, one must question the similarities and differences of identity for people in all cultural groups.
Dr Birut Zemits
Bhabha, HK 1993, ‘Culture’s in between’, Artforum International, vol. 32, no. 1, p. 167(4).
Lee. L 2003, Birth and Death (installation) Accordion books made from inkjet print on paper mounted on wood , Variable dimensions
Mei-Leng See, P 2004, A Change in Frequency Paper-cut moth installation
Leong, GKK 2005, The Sojourners Installaion in Mindil Beach, Darwin
Said, EW 1979, Orientalism, 2004 edn, Vintage Books, New York.