A Conversation with Pia Johnson
By Sumarlinah Raden Winoto
Pia Johnson is a photographer and visual artist, whose practice seeks to investigate issues about cultural difference, diaspora and identity. These concerns have stemmed from her mixed cultural background of Chinese and Italian-Australian descent.
Pia's work engages with the social and personal aspects of understanding cultural identity, seeking to bring to the front ideas around belonging and otherness. Her work is collected in private and public collections including the National Gallery of Victoria. We have previously spoken to Pia here.
For the Boundless project, Pia spoke to us about family, raising multiracial children, and finding home in our loved ones.
As a child, nobody teaches you the meaning of difference. It is an instinctual understanding. Something you become acutely aware of, even before you know that it is happening.
“Who’s the Chinese lady that picks you up from school?”
From Who Is The Chinese Lady Who Picks You Up From School
In your practise you have spoken about your Por por, mother, and your daughter: four generations connected by blood but living in different (cultural) worlds. Do you have conversations with your elders about the way they raised you? What particularities have you learnt, or been made aware of, as a parent yourself?
I think that it is really important to acknowledge and share family cultural traditions, rituals and stories. I have learnt many different things from my Por por and mother. The things that interest me the most are about living in different places and different cultures. When it comes to teaching my daughter about her cultural heritage, I want it to be part of her life, much like it was part of mine, and that way it isn’t seen as different, but just part of her every day. Our main celebration is Chinese New Year, but she has been given a Chinese middle name, and also knows that she is Italian… In terms of family understandings and generations we have made sure my parent’s names for her are cultural—so it’s Nonno (Italian for grandfather) and Por por (Chinese maternal grandmother). I think these things matter and it’s my role as a parent to be welcoming of these cultures within our lives.
In a similar vein, what are your thoughts more generally on raising multiracial children, or being raised in a multiracial family?
I love the multiplicity of races, cultures and languages, and I believe it has given me a very strong outlook to forge alliances with people that are different (and similar) to me, as well as be more accepting and respectful of cultural differences. We are in very different times to when I was growing up in the 80s in Australia. Today multiracial families are much more prevalent, and cultural affiliations are acknowledged. I do love that about Australia.
Something I think a lot about in coming to terms with what I have inherited by my parents is how we choose which stories to pass on, are there aspects we have a responsibility to pass on? How do (can) you create a hierarchy of identity?
I think that it is very much about how you were brought up, and what the circumstances were. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my Chinese Malaysian grandparents, and I think this did influence some of the aspects that I inherited and my ‘leaning’ towards Chinese cultural customs and identification. Yet as I have gotten older I realise that so much of my life is a mixing of Chinese and Italian cultures (plus they have similar values–family, food etc.), within an Australian context. I don’t think you can create a hierarchy of identity, I think we will constantly shift and move and become what we want to become, and this will change with time and place too.
I love the multiplicity of races, cultures and languages…
Who Is The Chinese Lady Who Picks You Up From School is a passport-portrait series of Eurasian people. Can you speak on why you chose this style? What does it mean to you to be mixed race in moments where you need to navigate the world as a single nationality?
This series was a big step for me, both culturally and artistically. The passport or ethnographic style shot is a gesture to classifying, archiving and identifying. We all understand about being put into a box or being labelled. By using this framework, I decided to showcase the Eurasian identity. Here we are, on show–this is what we look like. It is turning the tables around I guess, a way to show the viewer a strong portrait of myself, my family and friends. In essence this series is a self-portrait.
Who’s the Chinese lady that picks you up from school? is also about the assumptions that were being made in the eighties growing up in the monocultural suburbs of Melbourne. This series combats them— my mother is not white, I don’t look like you, I have a Chinese middle name you can’t pronounce, I haven’t eaten meatloaf… and I am happy to share these things with you but please don’t make me feel ‘other’. Simultaneously when some people look at the series the first comment is: ‘Oh, they are all beautiful aren’t they….?’. These types of assumptions are also at play, but the work aims to shift the action back onto the viewer, hopefully making them aware of the stereotypes that may arise when they view the work, and how they can be more sensitive within their lives.
In terms of navigating the world as a mixed-race individual, it can be hard. There are moments that pull me up, that make me remember that I am different when I least expect it. Other times it doesn’t make any difference at all, and I feel like I belong. I could talk about this for a long time.
What does it mean to you, to balance many different worlds in your self?
Great question! I think balance is not really something that we can fully achieve (maybe in any aspect of our lives!) Right now I feel very balanced about my different worlds. Not only is it about finding how I want to negotiate being Eurasian, or Chinese–Italian–Australian, but also what it feels like to be a woman, a mother, a wife, an artist and so many other things. I have been making art about my cultural identity for the last decade, it is a wonderful feeling to be at that point when you feel acknowledged and that you have helped forge the space so these conversations can happen. At the same time, I am also thinking about other stories, other identities that we all embody, and it is really important for me to give space to these too.
What does home mean to you?
Home is my loves—my husband Paul, my daughter Eleanor and the house and life we have made for ourselves. We live in a small town outside of Melbourne in the Macedon Ranges and I love our life there. It is full and haphazard sometimes, but it feels true to who we are and how we want to be. Home is also the feeling of being at ease and enjoying myself. I often feel ‘at home’ in certain places outside of my actual home.
There are moments that pull me up, that make me remember that I am different when I least expect it. Other times it doesn’t make any difference at all, and I feel like I belong.
Being mixed race is embodying fluidity as a mode of survival, as well as an organic result of growing up between cultures, how do you find your self in your fluidity?
Embodying fluidity is a complex idea to explain. I think it is about being able to feel comfortable and conscious of how you move in and out or between spaces, or roles, cultural or otherwise. I am also at the point where I am more at ease or at peace with my multiplicity of identities, and how they influence and make up who I am. Therefore, it can be about survival, but it’s also an assertion of who I am, and I’m proud of that.
Do you think being mixed race makes you hypersensitive to racial discrimination, or more ambivalent?
Hmmm… I believe I am both, hypersensitive and also ambivalent. The way we react to racial discrimination is personal, but it also needs to be confronted. I am not usually subject to much racial discrimination any longer, but when overheard or in conversation I usually like to make it clear when something is discriminative or negative towards someone or something from a different racial background. It’s important to be strong on the subject. I also realise that some people are just naïve or ignorant, that not all things people say are with malice. As long as there is room to have conversations, educate and inform, then I believe we can make people acknowledge prejudices and find a more respectful place to live in.
What do you find important for how you see yourself reflected in the world? what do you wish you would see more of?
I wish there were less spaces that were culturally divided. I think this is what is reflected in me that I want to see out there. Being from a mixed cultural background or cross-cultural background makes you want to see and celebrate it in the world. There needs to be a more productive way to engage with people from diverse backgrounds, across all modes of race, gender, sexuality, age and class. I want my daughter to grow up in an inclusive environment, one that is environmentally conscious and values kindness to everyone.