A Conversation with Pia Johnson

By Leah Jing

Pia Johnson is a photographer and visual artist, whose practice seeks to investigate issues about cultural difference, diaspora and identity. She also has a strong practice in portrait and performance photography, working with major and independent arts organisations in Australia. Pia has exhibited throughout Australia, the USA, Japan and Mexico. Her work is collected in private and public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria.

Leah talked to Pia about her creative practice, expressing cultural identity through art, and her upcoming show at Manningham Art Gallery, 'She That Came Before Me'.


When did you first pick up a camera? When were you first exposed to photography as an artistic medium?

I can’t really remember when I first picked up a camera. I don’t think it was artistic. I’m from a family that captures every ‘first’ moment, or ‘family’ moment, so there were always cameras around. I learnt analogue film photography when I was about sixteen, and then didn’t really pick up a camera until in my early to mid-twenties, as an extension of my installation and textile work at the time. As an artistic medium, my photography has developed slowly, and in a way I now realise that I do ‘see’ photographs all the time—just walking around the world.

Your work seems tied to your conception of self: you write that you ‘seek to investigate issues about cultural difference, diaspora and identity’, concerns which stem from your ‘cultural background.’ How have you come to this point, what have been some trials along the way?

I have been fascinated with this subject matter since 2000. I think back and remember an exhibition I saw at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra that year, called ‘Inside Out: New Chinese Art’—it has changed the way I have made art since. I felt extremely connected to the artworks, the issues and the ability to express cultural identity and its concerns through art. On reflection I must have realised some of these issues were part of my own experiences also.

As an artist looking to speak to these concerns, I try to make my personal experience link back and relate to a wider community experience. It isn’t an easy path, but I have found a range of different ways to explore this material and make work from.


For a half-Asian viewer, Who’s the Chinese lady that picks you up from school? is really something! It is so rare to encounter half-Chinese representation, let alone an entire collection of portraits. 

This was my first photographic exhibition, and came together very organically. It represents a web or network of people that I know, a Eurasian cohort all aged within ten years of each other. It remains one of my main works that has had an incredible impact on so many different viewers. The idea came from a conversation with my husband about notions of community, otherness and belonging. The choice to photograph each individual in this similar style (close up, bare shoulders, minimal expression) was in part to play with historical notions of ethnographic portraits and the identity or passport photo, as well as to find a typography and ability to ‘read’ the portraits together. I guess in one way they can all be seen to be ‘the same’ and yet all the differences are very obvious to me.

In tandem with this—it seems that self-portraits compose a large portion of your oeuvre (Finding Yourself At Home Alone, The Widening Gyre, In Our First World, In a dim light…). This seems an active decision—what is behind this choice?

Yes, it’s definitively a choice and active decision. Self-portraiture is one of those ways that I mentioned earlier in which I can explore ideas of self and identity, especially when it comes to relating to an outside world, or perhaps a new environment… for series such as Finding Yourself at Home Alone and In a dim light… I am situated in relationship with an environment (the former a familiar one seen afresh, the latter being a foreign environment abroad). The Widening Gyre and Untitled series for All We Can’t See uses the body, its shape, and rawness to express more emotional territory and finally Into Our First World looks more to situate the self within a cultural /social setting, one that invites gender and racial interpretation also.

 Of your upcoming show at Manningham Art Gallery, She that Came Before Me, you write that the works ‘draw upon and feature your family archive of photographs, shared stories, familiar places’ and, most intriguingly, ‘the strong desire to be more’. Can you speak to this?

This show looks to engage with my Chinese cultural background but through a particular lens, specifically my Mother and my Por por (maternal grandmother). An extension of the work I did in 2014 photographing my Por por’s house (series is of the same name). She that Came Before Me features specifically chosen family photographs from a number of family photo albums, new photographs that I have taken in Singapore on a recent residency there, and in addition a two-channel video featuring my Mother and Por por in conversation. The exhibition is a purposeful and curated series of moments, places and portraits.

I have a strong connection to my Chinese background, which I feel is influenced by my relationships with both my mother and Por por. At the same time I feel the difference of their lives, their ambitions and their values compared to mine. They have experienced very different worlds and times to me, and to what my three-year-old daughter will experience too. We are lucky to have four generations alive, and it is very important to me to acknowledge this.


It seems you’ve been making art related to your identity for such a long time now; but in 2018 it seems the rest of the world is only just catching up. How do you deal with this— for lack of better word—lag?

Ha, thanks Leah. Yes, I must say it is really nice to have people engage with my work now – they are interested in cross cultural identity, being Eurasian, thinking through diaspora and creating images to speak to these ideas.

There isn’t much you can do about the lag. The world is changing and right now conversations are about who we are and how we are situated in the world… For me, it’s just important to make the work that you need to, which speaks to you. The last couple of years it has become clearer that you need to put the artwork out there to start the discussion, and hope the world comes to the party!

 How do you find working as a photographer in a world increasingly saturated with images? As a digital photographer, have you found the influx of image—iPhone, Instagram—has changed the nature of your work?

I really like it—people look at the world differently, and through a photographic engagement, whether it is through a phone, filters, instagram, social media... I enjoy taking photographs that I wouldn’t normally be interested in on my phone and sharing them via instagram – things like landscapes of the countryside, and macro photos of flowers in my garden, or my daughter’s activities. It’s freeing in one way, so that when I’m making art, taking portraits or photographing performance I have a deeper concentration and deliberation to my craft and the way I make pictures.

For the gearheads out there—what's in your camera bag? 

I now use digital cameras 99% of the time – Canon 5D mk III, with a range of L series lenses, my favourite being my 50mm f1.2L. The last few years I’ve started to print my own photographs too, which has been a huge technical journey for me—you can always learn more!

What does your creative practice entail? What does your day look like?

My creative practice is constant. I am thinking about art, looking at art (in many forms), reading and engaging with the arts and various other things that can all be seen as part of my practice. Even great conversation should be counted! In terms of my day—no day is the same for me. I juggle parenting, making, thinking, photographing, teaching and general life stuff altogether, all the time.


As both Chinese and Italian, how do you negotiate/navigate your hyphenated identity? 

Great question, and it’s definitely something that I’m always asking myself when I’m making work. At home, I know no different. My life is a negotiation through different cultural rituals, traditions and superstitions—I have recently threatened to make a series of work titled ‘Family, food and face’, which for me very much sums up both Chinese and Italian cultural values— it’s incredible how similar they actually can be! I love my hybrid, fusion, mongrel identity. I have recently taken on the term Eurasian Australian, as that does situate my identity and the complicated history of transnational migration and belonging that is part of my heritage within Australia. In the end I get to own and be part of a range of cultural identities, and their mixing – I really enjoy this. I love being Italian, being Chinese, being Australian. I make work from the in between space, sometimes this includes not feeling included, or not being part of any culture. Yet I can’t imagine my life without these colourful and dynamic influences and safe spaces. Of course I am hyper-aware of racism, and stereotypes, but in the end for me the cross-cultural identity is a privilege and gives me a better understanding of all different cultures and cultural mixes across the world.

How do you navigate being in a cross-cultural relationship? 

My relationship with my husband is a wonderful one – we both love, support and challenge each other. He is my rock, my life, and artistically someone that I talk to about all my ideas and artworks, and he is very much part of my practice. In terms of being in a cross-cultural relationship – part of me wants to ask: aren’t we all? It isn’t really something that I have specifically thought about. We are from different cultures and have grown up with similar and different values, but in the end we make our own life together. I guess more recently there are cultural considerations that we have taken as active thoughts in our lives, in particular in thinking through bringing up our daughter. We gave her a Chinese middle name (I have one also), and we celebrate Chinese family occasions – such as Chinese New Year or Ching Ming (all souls day). My parents have also taken culturally appropriate grandparent names – Por por (Chinese maternal grandmother) and Nonno (Italian for grandfather), and my sister Zia (Italian for Aunty). In the end, we live in Australia, we are both Australians, and I think being from a multiplicity of cultures is totally natural, as long as everyone is respectful and embracing of those cultures.


For you, what does the current arts sector look like? What can be done to help increase the representation of POC in the industry?

The arts sector is a strange and familiar territory for me. I have always lived in the arts (for work, inspiration or social), and for me I feel very ‘at home’ within it. I love the performing arts, and so much of my photography work is situated there – I am lucky to have that community. In terms of the visual arts sector, I guess for me, having not gone through the usual institutions or fine art courses or having certain teachers/educators/artists to guide and be mentors, it’s harder… I have always had to create my own path, my own opportunities for exhibitions, artistic relationships or engagements. I have more recently embraced the non-white, female, cross cultural box or label, and have felt strength by owning it. At the same time I feel uncomfortable to be boxed in by it – it is complex.  That said, I take a lot of pride in putting my work on a wall, and more recently putting other artists I respect on a wall too. A couple of years ago I could see there were few conversations about cross cultural identity or Asian-Australian identity in the visual arts, the way it was happening in the literature, theatre and film worlds. I wanted to see contemporary Australian artists talking to these ideas and identity issues. Where are they I thought? So I decided to curate my first exhibition, gathering three other artists together, toured the show to Canberra and Melbourne, and put on two different artistic panel discussions. I chose emerging female artists with Chinese descent. I wanted this particular perspective, their intersectionality of being female and with a non white background to start a discussion, to fuel the activity and representation for POC in the visual arts. I think since then the scene is definitely shifting. More forums, publications, artist works and collectives have come together to present POC in the industry, and very much to include Asian Australians in that arena. I hope in the future however that the art can be framed without the boxes, and just be intelligent, culturally engaging and incredible art that we can all share and find audiences for it.


Who are some of your favourite artists?

Oh I have so many. To name just a few: Fiona Tan, Anselm Kiefer, Simryn Gill, Doris Salcedo, Todd Hido, Andrei Tarkovsky, Annie Leibovitz.

What are you currently reading right now?

I’m reading ‘Others’ Is Not A Race by Melissa De Silva, I recently received it from a colleague in Singapore. It looks at being Eurasian in Singapore and is a beautifully written collection of family story, memoir, nonfiction and narrative fiction.

What are you currently listening to?

I have a very eclectic music interest, from classical to country, pop to rock, and I make daggy playlists that I rotate all the time… writing this, I’m listening to Elena Kats-Chernin.

What do you do for self-care?

I’m not very good at the self-care routine. I love working too much perhaps! But I guess if I had to pinpoint a few simple things—coffee to start the day, a chance to potter in my garden, head down to the beach or local outdoor pool with my family, or watch some period drama—then life is good!

Do you have any advice for emerging photographers?

I teach a lot of upcoming photographers, and my main advice is to find the things you want to photograph – things you care about, and then go and take lots of photographs of it. I also strongly advocate learning your craft: know the foundations; understand how your camera works, know how to compose photographs, find inspiration in others; and that will make creating images so much better.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?

More recently it has given me a community that I like I belong with. It has given me a space where I can enjoy the diversity of cultural backgrounds and experiences together (and we usually talk about art over a meal at the same time too!).


Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.

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