This photo book addresses the fetishisation of Asian women
Using mimicry to subvert the stereotypes imposed on Asian women and their bodies, XING enlists a roster of photographers to explore identity and ‘Othering’
Promiscuity, intensity, delicacy, and vulnerability: these are four things that 23-year-old Singapore-born, London-based photographer and, now, book publisher, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee expects that you will see when viewing XING – her latest project. A collaborative photo book, XING features the work of artists such as Vivian Fu, Clara Lee, Ronan Mckenzie, and the photographer’s own work. A Mandarin word pronounced ‘sing’, ‘xing’ holds multiple meanings, including, ‘sex’, ‘sexuality’, to wake up’, ‘to grow aware’, and/or ‘essence of a person’, but here, it takes on the form of a visual dialogue about ‘Othering’.
The seedlings of XING were planted about a year ago, when, in the wake of Brexit and ahead of the shock result of the US election, Lee noticed that hate crime was undoubtedly rising – a behaviour she attributes to cultural misunderstandings towards the minority groups that are mostly targeted. “I saw an opportunity and a dire need to address the misconceptions of these ‘Othered’ groups through the language of photography,” she explains.
“Thanks to my own ‘awakening’ of sorts, I started engaging with the work of Asian artists, including my contemporaries and those of yesteryear.”
Lee lists photographers such as Shoji Ueda, Nobuyoshi Araki and Rinko Kawauchi, alongside directors Wong Kar Wai, Yang Fu Dong and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, as inspiration to tap deeper into her Chinese heritage. Ultimately, though, she says it’s been her interactions with other Asian women based in the UK that has largely fuelled it: “Their experiences fall far from monotonous and it is always a lesson gained each time I speak with my subjects.”
Under no illusions of the rocky terrain she might have to tread, Lee’s frustrations stem from the taboos that she believes still surround discussions of race. She recalls her own experiences with racism and stereotyping, as well as the sexual and emotional harassment she’s experienced as a woman. “The Asian woman resides in a polarity paradox: they are considered everything and nothing at once,” Lee says. “She can take on the role of the subservient trophy wife, or the dragon mother, or the Lolita school girl. Asian women are looked upon as objects that can be molded or claimed at the hands of her beholder. With hardly any neutral ground that the Asian female can call her own, this is one of the most concerning things – defining what being an Asian female is in 2017. Not all of us are petite, slim, docile and submissive.”
This is what underpins XING, with the book using sexuality as a jump-off from which to explore the nuances of Asian female identity. “The association between sex, sexuality and Asian women is almost inseparable – that’s not to say that it is wrong to consider Asian women as an attractive being, but it is more so the lack of agency that the Asian female is devoid of”.
To counter this, Lee’s curation of images in XING confront such powerless stereotypes head on. We see nude bodies solo or interacting with one another, women taking selfies on their phones, eating food, or in interracial relationships. Others are participating in bondage and sexual acts, or challenging beauty standards. It is a melting pot and something that Lee says uses mimicry “to satirise and subvert existing notions of Asian women”.
Marked as the first chapter of a series of XING-related projects – the next of which is still unknown – Lee admits, “I hope the book is a message to the West (as well as its Eastern counterparts) that the Asian female identity is multifarious, and it is ever-changing and independent.” She adds, “I hope it inspires people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities that it is important to own and be proud of one’s heritage.”
With a coinciding exhibition, XING launches tonight at Hackney’s Enterprise House from 7-11pm. A digital archive featuring research materials that have contributed to the book and exhibition can be viewed here