Interview #64 — Aida Azin
Interview by Cher Tan
Her work is focused on her Filipino-Iranian ethnic background, which stems from a desire to strengthen the connection with her cultural roots. Currently, she's interested in how systemic racism is overlooked and excused within the arts.
Aida spoke to Cher about finding satire in life's misfortunes, navigating whiteness in the arts, and the lifelong journey towards decolonisation.
Aida Azin is a visual artist and painter from Adelaide.
How did your painting practice come to be?
Besides the painting fundamentals class that most students take at the beginning of their Visual Arts degree, I’ve never actually taken a full semester of painting lessons; I did my major in Drawing.
I was getting frustrated in other classes at the lack of dialogue around the ways we were being taught and what we were being taught. It was a completely Eurocentric, British imperialist view of art history—it lacked a global outlook on the various input from artists and cultures outside of Europe and white America. It was fucking killing me. There was no cultural competency whatsoever. I thought the arts was meant to challenge the status quo! I started asking myself Why do I care so much? Why do I care about the stories that are left unacknowledged? I still ask myself these questions. I realised I needed to start understanding myself better. And then I was like, I don’t know who I am. Mum and Baba have confused me. The whites tell me I’m not Asian but that I look like “I could be something” and the Asians weren’t claiming me either.
So in 2014, I started experimenting with paint and colour a bit more, starting with pinning up artworks and artist statements that inspired me. It was the artists who embodied some sort of activism that made me want to develop my practice. I have always held strong beliefs on justice and—since I’ve had such a hard time committing to anything else... you know, I never thought I was good at anything really—figured I'd combine my opinions and art and see what would happen from there.
Your work is often playful yet intense, satirical yet can at times have underpinnings of grief. How do you see these evocations come together?
My emotions are very strong; in daily life and in the studio it’s the same. I have all these thoughts and theories which I play with from different angles and perspectives. When I think too much you can see that those conversations in my head end up on the canvas—they’re the busy paintings. But when I accept my anxiety, peacefully, I see abstract shapes and colours—those paintings turn out nice.
I’m not someone with a set perspective on life; it’s always changing. There are times where I look at the misfortune and giggle. Why can’t tragedy be hilarious? There's a spectrum that can be perceived under a completely satirical lens. I think the world is fucking crazy. It’s actually mad. I imagine it’s like Alice in Wonderland and I’m all of the characters: Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, the Cheshire Cat, the anxious rabbit, lost Alice having to face a completely disordered justice system... I love satire. It’s universal. But then tomorrow I might feel completely different towards the same topic. I feel loss and grief so intensely. I can’t describe how much intense sadness I feel… and anger. I feel so angry towards the complacency that our society displays toward situations that can actually be improved with a bit of further thought. I just think, wake up you cunts and I want to shove all that in their face so I use my canvas.
How do your cultural heritages inform one another, especially in a society where being 'mixed' often means being part-White?
Both my parents have never shown anything but respect for each other’s cultural backgrounds. I think it’s something so beautiful and maybe even unique or rare. It took me a long time to recognise how lucky I am to have my Filipina-Iranian heritage and now I feel it’s such a privilege. It helps me understand better how cultural heritage is defined. I can see the value in immaterial elements of tradition.
My parents are both very politically opinionated people. The same goes for my step-dad. I don’t look very ‘Persian’ or ‘Filo’ so I had to learn what it is to be both those things on a deeper level apart from physical appearance. And I found it in my personality. I don’t want to sit here and give you a breakdown of different cultural attributes and what ‘side’ of my family they come from—that would be reductive. Of course, I’m not saying that I don’t do it—for example I'd say things like “that’s my father’s temper coming through”—but I don’t want others to label me like that. And I want to get out of the habit of doing it. That stuff just leads to stereotypes and stereotypes are all good until someone gets their feelings hurt.
I went to a Catholic primary school that used to get us to sing church hymns about how “we are all the same”, which was racist in its colourblindess. It made me very confused when I was a kid. Once I realised that that was bullshit I moved on and recognised my background for its various complexities, which then helped to guide and inform me to understand myself better.
We all know that the arts in Australia have always been flooded by a sea of whiteness. In Andy Butler's Runway piece 'Safe White Spaces', he writes 'Staying sane as a person of colour in the arts in Australia means being able to hold two oppositional ideas as simultaneously true. One is that there is a community of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in the arts who are doing important and incredible work. The other is that the sector is aggressively and institutionally White.' We've spoken about this in private before, but how do you personally navigate this world as a WOC?
There’s so much bobbing and weaving that goes on; as a PoC I will be expected to play different roles to appease different people. I am expected to be grateful for every opportunity I am given even when it is tokenism and exoticism which are of little benefit to myself and my practice. There are so many talented people who are recognised for their contributions to the arts who are not white and yet, at the top of the hierarchy, we still have a very white community. Why is that?
The Melburnian artist Zac Segbedzi has it written in one of his really long artwork titles that “they wanna collect you like Pokemon”, which feels like he's talking about the paranoia and anxiety that I always feel in these white spaces: you know that you’re in their spaces and if you're invited into a particular space, you have play by their rules. So I have to remind myself that I have a choice of whether or not I'm feeding into that. It’s also incredibly frustrating to show work to an audience that ends up interpreting your work in a way that you’re uncomfortable with; I want to make more brown work for brown people.
I also like that bit in the piece about diversity being “on-trend” right now, which makes me want to say to the people out there—both white and non-white—who assume that being a person of colour immediately gives you some sort of free pass into the arts because of it: don’t be so naïve.
You've said, 'If you're Filipino and you were brought up in Australia you might be like me and not feel connected with the Philippines. I didn't even realise that I was missing out on so much until I started digging for it.' What did you find, or are in the process of finding?
I will always value realness as an essential trait in people and places. I want things to feel authentic and this is something I think that the Philippines and Filipino people embody. They’re not down for bullshit. I met people there whom I felt so comfortable just being around; there are certain things that I understand about my family and myself better after been there. And there’s nothing like discussing history through face-to-face conversations over a beer. There’s no better way of getting it unless you go back to the motherland.
On the subject of place, how are you settling into Melbourne since the move from Adelaide? What differences have you noticed?
Melbourne is a lot more spread out, which is such a good thing! There's more breathing space for a variety of cultures to do their own thing. I like the idea of places that are allowed to claim that they specifically focus on one thing.
I love Adelaide but I came to Melbourne to meet more passionate, opinionated people from a variety of different scenes and backgrounds. So far it’s been really good for that. When I share some of my experiences from Adelaide to people here it becomes clear to me that there is a toxic culture of gaslighting [in Adelaide]. I’ve been able to be more selective of the people I share spaces with here, because it's bigger and less incestuous. What I like about Melbourne is that there's more people and places to choose from, and that helps in self-preservation.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a few ideas but first I want to show the work that I made for the University of South Australia grad show last year, in Melbourne. The piece had a focus on installation: it uses bamboo and rope to draw attention to everyday materials used in Filipino structures that feel foreign in a typical western gallery. It's a comment on modernism and the ignorance towards Asian innovation; much more of my future work will focus on how cultural heritage and creative spaces intersect while being critical towards white ideologies that are prevalent in the arts. I want to push my comfort zone with the political stuff, and get super well-informed on the topics I care about this year. I want to decolonise my practice.
Do you have any advice for emerging painters?
I’ve probably given a different answer to this type of question in every interview I’ve had. Networks are really important: support, loyalty, sharing of expertise and friendship.
I want to push my comfort zone... I want to decolonise my practice.
Who are you inspired by?
A few off the top of my head: Catalina Africa, Gail Vicente, Marija Vicente, Jamian Juiano Villani, Cheyenne Julien, Fred Wilson, Richard Bell, Michaela Cole, Kool Keith.
Erykah Badu is a good example of someone who inspires me as well—she knows she’s not perfect and she doesn’t try to project this image of flawlessness. She states what she’s about and she tries to stay true to herself.
What are you currently listening to?
Hip hop. Currently and always. I think it celebrates blackness in a language that was never meant for whites and yet it’s still so inclusive and listened to globally. It’s been appropriated and condemned but it still lives on.
Also NTS Radio on Soundcloud, and Spotify playlists for when I’m driving: Mary J. Blige, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Sonny Digital. Random songs from skate bands like Butthole Surfers, also other older stuff like Dorothy Ashby, and talks by Alan Watts.
What are you currently reading?
Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I'm also reading Imaginary Accord, a book that was published in conjunction with an exhibition (of the same name) at the Institution of Modern Art in Brisbane. and this art book Modern Art in Africa, Asia and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms.
How do you practice self-care?
I try to remember to accept myself for who I am, but I also rely heavily on my friends and family to support me with this. I preserve my mental energy as much as possible. I talk to my family regularly. Communication is a big part of my health. Also, this is the best one: I get lazy with exercise so if I can be strict with just one thing it’s towards the chemicals I put in my body—this means no fucking around with taking my anti-depressants! I know my body well enough now to know that I can’t smoke weed and I can only have a bit of alcohol every now and then.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
I'm not entirely sure, but it feels something like this:
Wanting to somehow protect my parents from racism but simultaneously finding them embarrassing and then feeling immediate remorse because I realise that I, too, have been conditioned to see through a racialised lens. Putting up with so much that is fundamentally racist in society and systems. Feeling conflicted between being assertive, in fear that I might be accused of disturbing the peace, and being passive, uncomfortable with biting my tongue all the time. As a mixed race kid, getting fed so bloody well. And—somehow having the most drongo fucking gutter mouth.