Young Asian creatives face opportunities, struggles breaking into Australia's artistic scene

Young Asian creatives face opportunities, struggles breaking into Australia's artistic scene

Young Asian creatives face opportunities, struggles breaking into Australia's artistic scene

Updated 10 December 2017, 6:20 AEDT

Young Asian artists discuss the unique struggles and opportunities they face trying to breaking into various creative fields in Australia.

Two years ago, disabled Indonesian painter Faisal Rusdi was readying to apply for a spouse-visa to accompany his wife while she studied in Australia, but to do so, he was required to submit a proposal on what exactly he would be doing to support himself while in the country.

"I am disabled person, and I was not allowed to bring my personal assistant with me because he was underage at the time," Rusdi, who has cerebral palsy and whose wife is also disabled, said.

"So I had to find a way to prove that I was going to be independent and would not be a burden on the Australian Government."

Rusdi's proposal was a pledge that he would use his artistic talents to contribute to the local culture and society — his application was accepted, and Rusdi lived up to that pledge.

Last November, Rusdi held his first-ever solo exhibition titled The Colour of Journey at the West Torrens Auditorium Gallery in Adelaide.

The exhibit featured over 20 paintings of Rusdi's original work, the majority of which portrayed his life experiences and struggles as a person living with a disability in Australia — the accomplishment marked a dream come true for the Indonesian painter.

"I have been dreaming of having my own solo exhibition ever since I was a young artist in Indonesia," Rusdi said.

"At first, I found it's very difficult to feature my work in Australia, let alone a hold my own solo exhibition, because it just seemed that [local curators and galleries] prioritised Australian disabled artists."

However, Rusdi believes he had a fateful change of luck when he met the owner of the property that he was renting — coincidentally, the owner was also an artist who happened to be running solo exhibitions.

"Straight away, I directly asked him how to run my own solo exhibition, and he said he knew a guy at the West Torrens Auditorium Gallery in Adelaide," Rusdi happily recalls.

"Not long after, the gallery contacted me, received my proposal, approved it, provided a space at the gallery, and prepared and published catalogues of my exhibit, all free of charge."

But with time now running out, Rusdi said he had less than four months to prepare his grand debut. To meet the challenge, he had to paint nearly every single day from sunrise to sunset with only a short break for a meal.

"It was winter in Adelaide, so I had to wrap my body with a blanket while lying on the floor supported by my elbows, which were getting more sore by the day", he said.

Rusdi mostly uses the dot technique — similar to Aboriginal paintings — with oil paint on canvas to painstakingly completely his works.

"Do not be amazed that I paint with my mouth, but instead enjoy and appreciate my work."

The exhibit was a huge success with over half of the paintings sold, and as a result, Rusdi said he felt validated beyond belief and learned that persistence and hard work is everything, and that if he continued to work hard and push, it would open up many doors and opportunities for him.

Rusdi and his wife are set to return to Indonesia by next year, and following his experiences in Australia, he said he was determined to increase his advocating for the rights of disabled people and create programs to help others realise their dreams.

Mindy Meng Wang - Guzheng musician

Mindy Meng Wang was born into an intellectual family in Lanzhou, a city in north-western China, where at the age of six, she began to take lessons to play the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument.

At the age of 24 — after studying music for years in the United Kingdom — Mindy moved to Melbourne to work as a musician, however there was not exactly a high demand for guzheng players.

Throughout China, the guzheng is well-known and famous as an instrument that dates back thousands of years, but it remains extremely foreign to Australians and rare in Western music.

"Oriental music emphasizes the beauty of rhythm, whereas Western music advocates individuality," Mindy said.

"Additionally, there are only five tones at each octave in classical Chinese music, whereas in modern Western music, there are 12 tones.

"So the limitations of the guzheng made collaborating with local musicians really difficult at first."

So in accordance with Western music theory, Mindy retuned her guzheng's strings to fit into the 12-degree western tone scale in order to overcome the limitations of her instrument, which she says has led to incredibly unique collaborations with modern music ensembles.

Since then, Mindy has partnered with renowned Australian rock band Regurgitator, where she replaced the guitar with her guzheng for a series of performances throughout the country — back home in China, traditional musicians were not happy with the tonal changes.

"As part a new generation of multicultural musicians, my aim is to blend Eastern and Western music theory in order to give way to increased understanding amongst audiences and collaboration among artists," she said.

As part of her next project, Mindy partnered up with the Australian Arts Orchestra to prepare a performance piece of her original composition titled Cocoon.

Mindy explained that the composition of Cocoon was based entirely on modern music theory and features the guzheng, traditional Chinese percussion, oriental Buddhist music, jazz music, backed up by a prestigious chamber orchestra.

"Cocoon is my first composition for my Silk Road Trilogy, which represents initiate and confluence," she said.

"After years of living in Australia, I now feel both Oriental and Western music throbbing throughout my veins."

Mindy believes that it is understandable that Australians remain unfamiliar with Oriental culture, adding that it likely just boils down to an instinctive rejection of something different or foreign.

Cocoon will be performed on December 16 at Hammer Hall as part of Mapping Melbourne 2017.

Rani Pramesti - actor and performance maker

When the Indonesian anti-government protests broke out May 1998, many Chinese-Indonesians were caught up in the violent demonstrations and fled the country for Australia.

"My parents sent my brother and I to Perth in 1999 after the racial violence started to get worse," recalls Rani Pramesti, a Chinese-Indonesian actor and performance maker who was born and raised in Jakarta.

But despite the move, Pramesti said she found that the discrimination and insecurities regarding her racial background continued in Australia, especially when she began taking part in drama classes at her girls-only school in Perth.

"It was always the white girls who were being cast for the lead roles, while my Asian friends and I would always be designated supporting or background roles, such as that of a maid," she said.

Having had her own hard life experiences regarding migration, being different to one's society often feeling discriminated, Pramesti began to create stories of her and other Chinese-Indonesian women's experiences, which culminated in a 2014 theatrical experience piece titled Chinese Whispers.

The debut performance was a hit, and led to Pramesti winning several awards and being offered to work with various community art centres and artists in Melbourne, where she has continued to work since.

In 2015, Pramesti produced another successful performance art piece titled Sedih // Sunno — which translates into Listen // Sadness; in Indonesian and Fijian Hindi respectively — which was exhibited in major art festivals throughout Australia's capital cities.

"I think there is a growing appreciation for artists like myself, who weave and bridge cultural identity complexes through their work," she said.

Pramesti added that although there has been increased awareness over the last two decades about white dominance in the arts — particularly in managerial leadership and director roles — she believes that it took the hard work of various communities of artists of various ethnicities and backgrounds to help pave her way to success.

"I am profoundly grateful to the individuals and organisations that prioritise creating unique opportunities for people like me who do not fit into roles traditionally dominated by white people," she said.

And it seems like Pramesti is on the rise, as 2018 is already shaping up to be a big year for the young artist.

Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary since the violent 1998 riots that forced her to flee her home country, and now she is preparing to reinvasion her Chinese Whispers performance art piece into a digital graphic novel.

"The ongoing struggle now is actually sourcing the funds to continue my practice as an independent theatre maker," Pramesti said.

"However, I think it is important to acknowledge that this is a struggle experienced by all independent artists, regardless of cultural backgrounds or perceived race.

Another big project on the horizon for Pramesti in 2018 is a performance titled Surat-surat [Letters], which is a story inspired by hundreds of love letters written by her and the performance will involve Australian, Indonesian and Singaporean artists.

"We are currently running a crowdfunding campaign so people can support us."

Kim Ho - screenwriter and playwright

Writer Kim Ho was born and raised in a cross-cultural family in Wahroonga, Sydney — his mum is Australian of British origin while his dad is a New Zealander of Chinese-Malaysian descent.

In 2013 at the age of 17, Ho's name went global for a short film he wrote call The Language of Love which was directed by Laura Scrivano and commented on by everyone from Stephen Fry to Danni Minogue — it was his first screenplay.

While Ho's fast exposure on the international stage went viral during his teenage years, he personally underwent a period self-doubt due to his mixed-race identity.

"The scarcity of great Asian characters in Western stories, combined with the scarcity of Asian stories on Australian screens, all contributed to making me doubt [my identity] that I was not a "real" Aussie boy," he said.

Ho studied writing and performing at the University of Melbourne, however he said it has been difficult to develop his professional career as an artist rather than "an Asian-Australian artist".

"I've found that the biggest struggle is an internalised cultural one," he said.

"I was once told by a prominent author of colour that, based on their own experiences, I would never be considered an Australian writer, but an Asian-Australian one."

Ho said he feels that there remains an unspoken pressure for writers of colour to conform to expectations of their ethnicity.

Not long ago, he said he heard a radio program talking about how Chinese tourists — drawn to Lake Tyrrell's reflective water and the clear night sky — were helping revive the economy of the regional Victorian town.

The concept caught his attention, Ho has since dedicated himself to writing a play inspired by the phenomenon titled Mirror's Edge.

In the play, Ho said he hoped to capture a wide variety of sentiments: the conflicting feelings of regional Australia towards Chinese tourists, the uncanny beauty of Australia's natural sites, as well as and how poorly Australians understand their own history of race-based discrimination.

Ho said that he was fascinated by how culturally rich Australia's history was, especially after he examined the lives and stories of many migrants and peoples whose tales are not often heard.

"Our history has always been bright and multi-coloured," Ho said.

"And I became struck by the realisation that when you start bringing these stories to light, when you marvel at other people's cultural differences — rather than fear them — you can begin to see how extraordinary our nation's future can be."

Amid his concerns about the state of cultural diversity and representation in Australian theatre, Ho said he had benefited greatly in recent years as mainstage companies continued to broaden their horizons and focus on diversifying themselves as well as the stories they tell.

"Australia will be all eyes on Asia in the coming century, and I believe artists descendant of the Asian diaspora are uniquely placed to facilitate the cross-cultural connection between our nation's future and our own neighbours."