Caroline Wong’s paintings explore female Asian identity. Merging together art historical influences from across cultures, she uses paint to subvert the heavily orientalised Western stereotypes of Asian women. Gallery Girl met with Caroline to speak her practice, her subjects and fetishisation.
Currently pursuing an MA at London’s City and Guilds, Caroline did not take the most direct route to becoming an artist. Having originally studied languages, she developed an interest in French feminist history and women’s writing, something that has influenced her work heavily. “I love the conflicting feminisms of Simone de Beauvoir and and Hélène Cixous, and the autofictional works of Colette, Marguerite Duras, and Amélie Nothomb”, she explains, “Through their writings I began questioning how much of our behaviour as women is conditioned or innate, and how our experiences as women can influence our creative expression.” She was then led to reflect on her own upbringing and to question how much was shaped by Eastern expectations and representations of women, as well as by Western ones. “Some of these writers spoke of repressed creativity, I was being reminded that I was suppressing my own dream to be an artist in order to do something more academic and useful”, adds Caroline, “I was too timid at the time to act upon this so I kept my feelings and thoughts to myself for some time, and it was only after living in China for a few years and coming back to London four years ago that I finally decided to pursue art. All those questions about female identity, experience, and creativity together with those repressed feelings naturally fed into the themes and style of my work.”
As a Malaysian-Chinese woman who grew up in the UK, Caroline’s work is a subversion of the stereotypes about Asian women, i.e. the often fetishized image of Asian women being passive and compliant. In works like La Maja Desnuda, she depicts nude women, staring defiantly at the camera, covered in tattoos, with a Chinese calendar in the background. “I’ve realised that it is more to do with my frustrations with the more repressive and traditionalist aspects of East Asian culture, together with my own shyness”, she explains, “That’s why the women in my work are so uninhibited, non-conforming and defiant: they are at once portraits of real women who have resisted societal and familial expectations, and projections of a more confident, ideal self.” In another painting, Cabinet, a semi-nude Asian woman sits on top of a piece of furniture, exposing vividly colourful tattoos. “As an Asian woman, it’s liberating and empowering to be making these images, especially as there are so few female creative voices in Asia”, she says, “And in that sense it sometimes feels like the intended audience is an Asian one more than Western.”
“But more specifically”, adds Caroline, “I am aware that there are hardly any East/Southeast Asian artists here, and there are none that I know of, at least within figurative art, dealing specifically with the experience of being an Asian person in the UK. There aren’t really Asian equivalents of Barbara Walker, Claudette Johnson, or Sonia Boyce for example. Moreover, from a feminist perspective, I’m aware that within figurative art in both Asia and the West, it is still rare to see the male gaze questioned by an Asian female artist. There are plenty of Asian women depicted in painting as the stereotypical exotic beauty, but hardly any women visibly taking up the role of painter and subverting that image. There is progress being made of course and we see this in the photography of Luo Yang and Pixy Liao, the performance art of He Chengyao, and the sculptures of Xiang Jing, to name just a few (mainly Chinese) examples. Within figurative painting, I only know of Yu Hong and Shen Ling from China, and Sasha Gordon and Dominique Fung from the US and I really had to look for them. There are, I’m sure, more artists out there, and I imagine in the US there are plenty more than here, but overall I feel that the theme of female identity which is so rich and complex hasn’t yet been explored by enough Asian women artists, or it’s simply the case that these artists remain largely invisible.”
The subjects of Caroline’s paintings, like Caroline, are all of East or Southeast Asian descent, and they all also grew up in the West, choosing to take a path deemed rebellious, unconventional and creative. “The main difference is that they are more confident than I am and their rebelliousness is more evident in their image of appearance”, she says, “Most of them such as Fancy Chance, Victoria Sin, Lilly Snatchdrago and Evelyn Carnate, are all drag and burlesque performers whose own acts similarly challenge both Asian female stereotypes and the Confucian ideals of femininity.” Then there are paintings like Cindy Gallop, a portrait of an older woman dressed in leather, a 60-year-old entrepreneur and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn. “I wanted to paint her because older women are generally underrepresented in figurative art and when portrayed, they are depicted as frail and powerless”, she explains, “There’s nothing really wrong with that, but the idea of an older woman who’s confident in her attractiveness and not trying to hide her age is refreshing and inspiring.”
Painting real, un-idealised women, Caroline’s subjects are a response to romanticized, sentimental and sexualised images of East Asian women, depicted to satisfy a male gaze. The images also situate themselves within the context of East Asian art, which has traditionally had a fascination with feminine beauty. “While I am in no way opposed to the idea of representing beauty, I don’t believe in beauty being taught as a sole requisite for women nor do I believe in strictly defining female beauty in terms of youth, innocence, and weakness”, she explains, “There is a very old saying from Ban Zhao’s ‘Lessons for Women’ which states that ‘a man is honored for strength; a woman is beautiful on account of her gentleness’ and although this is obviously a very outdated way of thinking for most people, I do think this equation of female beauty with gentleness in terms of both character and appearance, has shaped ideas about and artistic representations of East Asian women over the centuries.” In this respect, Caroline’s women have character. Take for example the sitter in Little Boy’s Suit, an Asian woman dressed in a pinstripe tie, red shirt and tie. Her posture could easily be described as masculine, her legs apart and slouching slightly, but her face is full of personality, strength and charisma.
As well as the women in Caroline’s work, we must also talk about the patterns they are painted against. They are bright, vibrant and full of just as much character as her sitters. “I’ve always been drawn to vibrant colours, chaos, busy patterns, excessiveness, and clutter, all of which I strongly associate with Malaysia but also Asia in general”, explains Caroline, “The colours there seem more intense and saturated because of the sun and the heat, and because of its multicultural heritage, there’s a real mix of patterns, textures, and colours wherever you go.” The use of chaotic fabrics and colours also match the subjects in her paintings, where her sitters might be drunk, or the beholder of insuppressible creativity. “I think pattern is generally used to symbolize cultural heritage”, adds Caroline, “But also to disrupt the general preference for neat, organised, tastefully decorated spaces in portraiture.”
Right now, Caroline is working on a commission for The Wing’s first London outpost. As her Masters progresses, she hopes it will allow her to embark on a more in-depth and personal exploration of Eastern and Western aesthetics, as well as her own experiences as an Asian woman in the West. As for the future? “I hope to still be make art and exhibiting to a wider audience”, says Caroline, “Both here and in Asia, where I expect the reaction to my work to be quite different.”