Combining archival material with photography, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee turns her camera on Britain to demystify nostalgic visions of colonial Malaya.
Published as part of the featured project
Jade Barget traces the evolution of XING – an artist collective established by photographer Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee as a platform for East and South East Asian artists.
The Orientalist gaze exoticises what the West sees as culturally other, finding its source in a sentiment of white superiority. Through this lens, East and Southeast Asian womxn are often portrayed as a mute, inoffensive, subservient fantasy. Singaporean-born, London-based artist Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee experienced this stereotyping first hand when she moved to the UK in 2014. In an effort to understand and challenge this objectification, Lee initiated various exploratory conversations with womxn of East and Southeast Asian heritage.
I befriended Lee in London in 2017, establishing common ground via a range of similar interests and experiences. Here, as two “others”, we would often witness and discuss the violence of the imposed scrutiny. At that time, Lee had amassed an archive of stories shared in confidence over the three previous years. These tight bonds and testimonies laid the foundation for XING, the artist’s proposal to illustrate and dismantle these fetishising portrayals. Drawing on postcolonial studies, XING was launched as a platform for collaborations between artists and writers informed by East and Southeast Asia, and as a space for the womxn to return the gaze that first settled – to hold it forever, to sabotage it, to reclaim power.
Lee named the project after the Mandarin word 兴 spelt in pinyin – the romanization system of Chinese characters – and devoid of its accents. When written as such, XING is ambiguous. It translates in many ways including celestial body, nature, satellite, sexuality, makeshift, to wake up, to appear, and to inspect. This fluidity of meaning, and therefore the varied potential it holds, resonates with the landscape to which it is tied. Welcoming this slipperiness, Lee’s endeavour is manifold and mutable. XING operates as an open Instagram archive under the hashtag #xingarchives and handle @xi_ng; a platform named XING Presents for the presentation of projects by East and Southeast Asian female artists; and an editorial arm under which Lee published a first photo book in 2017.
The photobook featured the work of twelve artists and writers questioning the representation of East Asian femininity and its fetishisation. Lee invited photographers and writers to contribute remotely. The publication formed a constellation of naked bodies and faces alternatively brought to the fore and receding from view; fugitive figures slipping away from the eyes that eroticise. During the launch at London’s Enterprise Projects, an audience formed with a common drive to exist on their own terms, independent of the Western watch. The fluidity of XING – its potential for transformation – enabled the platform to evolve slowly into an intimate, connective web, and into a space for community gathering.
In September 2018, XING presented Sayang, an exhibition of collaborations between fashion designer Azura Lovisa, jewellery designer Tanaporn Wongsa, artist Birgit Toke Tauka Frietman, set designer Sheridan Tijung and Lee herself. The five makers took Lovisa’s 1950s Malaysian-inspired collection as a point of departure, working together to create new pieces that reflect on tradition within our societies. Practices entangled: Wongsa and Toke Tauka Frietman worked on hairpieces; Wongsa and Lee produced a still-life photography series as part of Culinary Jewels, a project by Wongsa inspired by her Thai chef parents; Toke Tauka Frietman designed wearable pieces for Lovisa’s collection in woven rattan, a material found in Southeast Asian jungles; and all together, they collaborated on the creation of a moving image work. While the photobook was Lee’s initiative, Sayang saw collaborations interweaved to the point that the makers’ practices merged, forming a new whole. It was a turning point for XING, which has increasingly taken on a life of its own.
Identity politics can be restrictive for artists. While the aim is to emancipate Western categorisations, the danger of new labels emerges in the process. To rupture the Orientalist gaze, XING starts by denouncing it. But where identity politics started as a catalyst for the project, the endeavour soon departed from its initial exploration of gender and race. It formed an expanding nurturing web; a fertile land where ties may form. From these welcoming lands, XING battles simplified narratives by promoting collaborative practices that defy categorisation. The platform itself remains hard to define, and forever in motion. Manifold, untamable, mercurial, adrift. A celestial body, a satellite, a makeshift.