Mixed Race Female

by Makeda Duong

Photo: Morgan Sette

About the exhibition

Informed by the history of gender relations in the western world, my practice attempts to unpick the dominant cultural narratives surrounding representations of race, mental health, and the experience of contemporary womanhood. Through presenting and interpreting my lived experience, my works tend to develop as a result of personal crisis or difficulty.

Previously my practice developed by exploring the western history of domestic textiles processes, and how these have continued to influence our understanding of gender. I began to utilise the grid like structures in knitting and counted thread embroidery–such as cross stitch–to display text, which ‘speaks’ to the viewer. Recently my practice has evolved to include a focus on examining my racial identity, and exploring how mixed race and Asian women are sometimes viewed through a lens of orientalism and exoticism.

After receiving a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, I have attempted to represent my experience of living with this condition, and to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions that are harmful to those of us with mental illnesses. I have also become interested in exploring the historical connection attributed to mental illness and creativity, and the problems associated with this idea – for example, the stereotype of the ‘tortured genius’.


Catalogue essay

by Lizzy Emery

A number of years ago I attended a textiles workshop with my friend Makeda Duong where we took part in some casual craftiness with a group of other women. During the evening two women in the workshop group enquired about Makeda’s name and ethnicity. I remember feeling angered at this intrusion upon my friend, the demand for explanations by the white on-looker whose enquiries into a woman’s ‘exotic’ appearance, dressed as friendly interest, revealed the persistent othering that is subjected upon anyone that doesn’t code as white. I was incensed. And for the rest of the evening I couldn’t look at those women without feeling enraged. But later, in conversation about this incident, Makeda found it more interesting that I was the one that had been so angered by the event. For Makeda this intrusive white gaze was a normal, everyday, even tedious, experience. For myself, a white woman, it was a shock to sit and bear witness to this gaze upon my friend. My own white privilege made this event seem shocking; “Who does that to a person?!” Well, as Makeda informed me, people do, and they do it often. White people are shocked to their core by the visibility of what the non-white person experiences as the everyday normal existence of being othered. They are shocked by what so many people experience as a normal part of living in a white-privileged world; be it through micro-aggressions of the intrusive white gaze, or the violence of police brutality.

In her exhibition Mixed Race Female Makeda Duong presents a visual narrative of the complex, and at times downright mundane, experience of living as the other in a dominant landscape of Australian whiteness. Drawing upon her Vietnamese and white Australian heritage Makeda playfully explores the everyday racism that has become a familiar part of her own lived experience coming of age in Australia. Using her humour, critique and subversive tactics of play Makeda puts on display the authoritative voice of the white gaze who must know: “Where are you from?”

Makeda articulates of her lived experience, “Being racially ambiguous inspires curiosity in people.” The artwork Mixed Race Sweater reveals this curiosity in the form of a hand-knitted sweater, into which the artist has woven common questions she has received about her ethnicity. The sweater, knitted in blue, red, white and yellow, represents the colours of both the Australian and South Vietnamese flags; a synthesis of her two heritages. For the viewer this knitted object is telling of the inquiry of the penetrating white gaze, but for Makeda the sweater represents a second skin. “I was born wearing one, and I can never take it off,” she remarks. The normality of the experience of being routinely asked about her ethnicity is further reinforced by Makeda’s use of knitting. Knitting, as a slow and repetitive craft, elicits a sensation of tedium and everyday domesticity. The materiality of the hand-knitted Mixed Race Sweater conjures feelings of the monotonous exchange of intrusive questioning subjected upon the artist;

 “A very common question is ‘Where are you from?’ I think, having to answer it routinely is kind of tedious, but there’s also an assumption there: that I’m from somewhere else, when I was born here. There is also a feeling that I’m being asked to explain why I look the way I do.”

Makeda’s artwork is not only grounded in her experience of inhabiting the identity of a mixed-race woman. A recent mental health diagnosis has further informed Makeda’s art-making with a sensitivity toward the complex inner workings of the psyche. While the topic of depression and anxiety are openly discussed in our contemporary climate, serious mental health conditions such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia and Dissociative Disorders remain dangerously stigmatised. Sensationalised media representations of celebrities like Kanye West, Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes stand as proof that the sensitive treatment of those suffering from serious bouts of mental fragility remains largely absent in our society.

Makita, a dazzlingly sequined enlarged clitoris alien like form, represents an alter-ego of the artist whose name also humorously pokes fun at the frequent mis-pronunciation of Makeda. Makita is an abject vision whose character materialises the hypo-manic Bipolar experience into a grotesque, glorious, disco-sequin facsimile of the artist. In this artwork Makeda, through Makita, translates the complexity of Bipolar Disorder as both terrifying and terrifyingly seductive. While Bipolar Disorder can inflict devastating depths of depression upon the mind its converse, mania, can embody the individual with sensations of grandeur, magic and powerfulness. Makita, with her abject-disco sequined charm, speaks to us the complexity of mental illness as both a source of suffering and a source of subjective power.

In a more subdued work, a blue embroidery on a simple white background, Makeda renders into stitch the experience of being pulled into the thrall of one’s disorder. The repetition of blue stitches, with text and scribble seemingly scrawled over a cotton canvas, evokes the sensation of being lost in thought. However, while this melancholy embroidery radiates sadness there is a playfulness within its stitches which speaks of the resilience of the artist;

“It’s based on some drawings and scribblings I did while I was quite unwell. Translating these hastily drawn, frenetic designs and words into the slower process of embroidery has enabled me to reflect on my altered state of mind at the time.”

In this artwork Makeda not only taps into her own psyche as a source of inspiration; she simultaneously accesses the spirit of women before her, who used the power of the stitch to tell their stories behind closed doors. In 1916 Adelaide Hall meticulously produced an intricate lace artwork which represented her life story and the various events that had led to her detainment within a Washington psychiatric facility in the United States. While Hall’s lacework was read as proof of her ‘insanity’ by hospital staff at the time, her autobiography in lace truly reveals the complexities of one woman’s mental illness and the lack of sensitivity given to those who suffer while at their mind’s most fragile state. Through her eloquent stitches Makeda articulates the complexity of the psyche amid a disordered state, while connecting threads with women who have come before her.

The experience of difference is here the unifying theme in Makeda’s exhibition; be it difference in the form of othering the mixed-race individual, or the stigmatisation of person’s living with a mental illness. However, in Makeda’s artwork difference is not merely represented as a celebration of one’s diverse experience. Rather, the artist turns the gaze that is subjected upon the racialised other and the ‘mentally ill’ back upon the privileged, in a subversive critique of social processes of stigma and othering. Makeda’s gaze as an artist is one full of intelligence, humour, wit and sensitivity to the manifold experiences of one’s complex existence. Her artwork asks of us to critique the gaze that we too subject upon others, and to reflect upon our own positions of embodied privilege.

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Meet the artists & curators

Makeda Duong graduated from the South Australian School of Art in 2013 with a Bachelor of Visual Arts Specialising in textiles. Following on from her degree, in 2014 she took part in a Helpmann Academy emerging artist’s mentorship with Adelaide artist Sera Waters. Since 2013 she has participated in several group exhibitions, locally and interstate. In her first solo exhibition The Cursed Boyfriend Sweater in 2015, she explored the parallels between craft labour and emotional labour as feminine burdens in contemporary domestic relationships.

She is currently undertaking a Studio Residency at Nexus Arts as part of the SALA Festival 2020, which includes an artist mentorship, this time with local artist Cheryl Hutchens. Her current practice attempts to unravel and represent aspects of her lived experience in relation to themes such as race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Recent themes in her work explore her identity as a Vietnamese Australian woman and the experiences of a mixed race person living in Australia.

Lizzy Emery is a published writer, educator and artist whose work focuses on histories of women’s crafts. She is in her final year of undertaking a PhD at Flinders University, where she has been a scholarship holder since 2017. Her doctoral research project is focused on histories of feminist craft from the mid-1970s to the present day. Lizzy is an avid crafter who teaches a range of textile crafts from her home studio in Adelaide’s inner-west. She has also taught as a sessional lecturer at both The University of South Australia and Flinders University, teaching subjects including Textiles Studio, Art History and Women’s Studies. In her work as a crafter Lizzy facilitates a range of community based workshops and projects. Her pedagogical approach is based on creating non-hierarchical encounters between artist and participant to facilitate meaningful experiences of creativity where both parties learn from each other. Along with her craft practice Lizzy is interested in anarchist philosophy, Witchcraft, foraging, ecological sustainability and gardening. She is the proud mama of five lively chickens, who she raises in collaboration with her partner.