Words by Vivien Chan
XING is the photography platform created by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee that challenges the fetishisation of Asian women. Elizabeth explains the motivation behind the project and discusses the bigger issues she hopes to address through her photography.
Tell us a little about yourself - what's your background? How did you get into photography?
My name is Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee and I am 23 this year. I’m from Singapore and am now based in London. I’ve always been meddling with photography since I was a child. This passion was always there and it has been a couple of years since I decided to go all in with this craft.
How did Xing first come about?
For a while now my interests in postcolonial theory and representation of Otherness have taken form, especially in my creative practice. At an increasingly alarming rate the hate crimes around the world against minority groups has risen, and I believe that misunderstanding stands at the root of this. Considering the state in which the global community is at today, I saw an opportunity and a dire need to address the misconceptions of these ‘Othered’ groups through the langue of photography. After developing and cementing a vision for the project, the medium naturally followed after. In short, the form came after function for XING.
It’s fantastic to see the range of Asian artists that Xing has brought together – how did you all meet? How has the internet influenced these collaborations?
I started delving into research for XING slightly more than a year ago, and have since gathered a international roster of upcoming and established photographers. I am drawn to artists that share a similar vision to what XING stands for, as well as work from new photographers that show promise of delivering something bigger than what they perceive themselves to be. The material in the book is primarily photo-driven—with photographs accounting for 98%, and written content framing the work within the context XING works in. The images are a heady mix of promiscuity and intensity, challenged by a sense of delicateness and vulnerability. The Internet has definitely been a useful tool in the way people disseminate information and interact—because of the Internet, I’ve been able to engage and establish bonds with online communities of united Asian women from around the world from my gadgets.
What stories are you trying to tell with Xing?
One of the main aims with XING is to explore alternative narratives to the Eurocentric mindset, and to provide a platform that engages the West with lesser known Asian cultures. In exploring Asian identities I am better able to provide a voice to the subaltern. Racial issues will always persist, but I think that it is a start on my part, and I couldn’t be more happy to contribute to the existing field of racial debate with this project. Another main theme of the book explores is sexuality, an issue that couldn’t be more important to address especially when exploring the identities of Asian women. The association between sex and sexuality and Asian women is almost inseparable; there is a considerable amount of fetishisation and objectification of the Asian female figure. In the book, some of the contributing photographers have directly addressed this issue of powerlessness by allowing their subjects to reclaim their intersectionalised identity as a woman, and as a person of Asian ethnicity. A lot of the images in XING draw from mimicry, and it is for its utilisation of miming that allows the images to satirise and subvert existing notions of Asian women.
There has been a noticeable rise in the presence of East Asian women in mainstream media in the West – how do you think that has helped (or not) with the stereotyping of Asian women?
The media holds a lot of power and influence in forming perceptions in people’s minds. Unfortunately, due to the mainstream media’s heavy reliance on emphasising and regurgitating archetypes, stereotypes of Asians, and in particular, Asian women, often fall into polarised categories. We can be everything and nothing at once: the vengeful dragon lady, the cherubic virgin, and the mysterious temptress. The mainstream media has, throughout it’s yesteryear history, portrayed Asian females alongside a mass of contradictions. This makes it unsurprising that these stereotypes that the Western mind has on Asian females are ingrained in their subconscious. However in recent years, alternative media outlets and independent initiatives has called for a change in the way traditional media approach issues of race.
How has it been working with other East Asian practitioners from all over the world? Have you had crossovers in your personal experiences of identity?
It has been rather encouraging and frankly, pretty empowering to connect with a community of Asian women around the world—be it practitioners or not. When it came to the work front, it was like a support system where we as creatives could express our ideas without any prohibitions. On the whole it was an experience that was both humbling and intimate, a process shared amongst contributors and our subjects.
Do you think self-publishing is a good platform for switching the narrative? How so?
Self publishing definitely gives artists more agency over their content, right down to the nit and grits of their publication. It gives more free reign to creators, allowing them to be more self aware of the messages they want to disseminate and share with their audiences. In my opinion, self-publishing also promotes greater creativity, and encourages one to push the envelope as there are little to no restrictions on publishing rules.
Particularly in comparison to other diasporas in the UK, and to Asians in the US, East Asian groups have historically been less vocal as a community – why do you think that is? How do you feel like this is changing?
This lack of a voice and coverage in mainstream media was one of the reasons that spurred me on with XING. Personally, I think that the East Asian population—in both native and diasporic environments—possess an ambivalence in which they reside in, a space that fluctuates between the strange and the familiar. More often than not, Asian cultures and its communities slip through the cracks on a global scale in coverage, and this may be due to the history of East and Southeast Asia self-contained in their bubble at the other end of the world from early times. That said, I feel that this silencing of East and Southeast Asian communities are slowly changing for the better with the advent of technology together with a mutual awakening amongst millennials today. With the help of digital platforms, the youth of this generation are able to connect, share, and experience cultures that was left behind in their childhood. This rise of a collective consciousness amongst East and Southeast Asian youth has created a domino effect in individuals inspiring one another to engage with their cultural roots, and to rediscover and rekindle an identity that was once lost.
The Xing Instagram features quite different content to that of the book – what is your thinking through this archive of images? Where do you source them?
One of the ethos of the project was to pay homage to the area’s history and its women. Combined with my interest in archival images, I thought it would be an interesting idea to have the Instagram act as an archive of sorts, a digital documentation of the past and present. Most of the images come from online archives, all amazingly available public domain use. There is a lot of internet scouring involved, with the Instagram page assuming the role of a WWW forager.
Any books, films, television shows etc. from your archive to recommend?
The essays of Bell Hooks ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ and ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’ by Gayatri Spivak is great for a read on feminist and Othered beings. ‘The Lover’ by Jean-Jacques Annaud is an interesting take of the Western perspective on interracial relationships while the Pinky Violence film genre boasts a wealth of humorous (and dark) films of narratives that champion feminine prowess and independence; ‘Sex and Fury’ by Norifumi Suzuki and ‘Female Yakuza Tale: Inquisition and Torture’ by Teruro Ishii is a good place to start.
What’s next for Xing? What’s the next dream project?
With this first chapter just launched, things still are still in the air with future instalments. In the next part of the project XING may explore the geographical region of Southeast Asia, an area that is even more contested and its cultures even lesser-known in the West. The form of XING may change in the next chapter, but its function will always remain the same.