Current Issue #487

Makeda Duong's
Mixed Race Sweater:
'I was born wearing one, and I can never take it off'

Sia Duff

With her new SALA exhibition Mixed Race Female, Makeda Duong is wearing her art on her sleeve as she explores questions of femineity, sexuality and race in Australia.

“Some people are under the impression that textile and embroidery art is lesser, and I think that’s due to its link with women’s history,” Duong tells The Adelaide Review. “For me textiles are a metaphor for life. I think it’s also an incredibly broad and versatile art form.

“The first work I ever made that got me off to a start on my conceptual focus was about how embroidery has been connected to a stereotype of femininity that’s submissive, meek and obedient.”

Since 2013 Duong has used her embroidery practice to explore a series of fittingly intricate, interwoven cultural and political themes. Her work, spanning representation of race, mental and reproductive health, has in turn helped her understand and reconcile with her own personal identity and struggles.

“My work has always stemmed from my personal experiences – anything that I’m struggling with in my life, I tend to make artwork about,” Duong says. “I tend to make work in order to raise awareness about issues that are shrouded in ignorance or stigma.

“I think art plays an extremely important role in questioning the status quo, and right now the historical narrative we’ve been fed is definitely being challenged and redefined.”

Duong is currently undertaking a residency at NEXUS Arts for SALA 2020 under the mentorship of South Australian textile artist, Cheryl Hutchens. As recent Black Lives Matter protests bring complex and nuanced conversations around race and belonging in White-dominated social structures to the surface, the work that has come out of Duong’s residency reflects on these ideas through a personal lens.

Sia Duff
Duong wearing her Mixed Race Sweater

“Some people are shocked and find it jarring, whereas for me it’s a pretty everyday thing, and I know that people don’t mean to be hostile towards me when they ask.”

“One of my latest pieces is the Mixed Race Sweater – I was born wearing one, and I can never take it off,” she explains. “This work is basically a collection of questions and comments I’ve received about my racial appearance throughout my life, knitted into a sweater. The front is in the colours of the Australian flag, and the back is the South Vietnamese flag colours.

“I found the reaction to this work – particularly from people who aren’t used to being asked such things – interesting. Some people are shocked and find it jarring, whereas for me it’s a pretty everyday thing, and I know that people don’t mean to be hostile towards me when they ask. Other people ask me whether I find it offensive, and why.

“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.

“Art can be a way of conveying something that is very difficult to put into words. I’ve also seen some dialogue online about how the art world is predominantly White at an administrative and management level,” she says.

Sia Duff

“It’s important to showcase the work of artists who are POC [people of colour] and particularly First Nations, but this also cannot be ignored. It makes me wonder what kind of challenges artists who are POC can encounter that White artists may not. I think art plays an extremely important role in questioning the status quo, and right now the historical narrative we’ve been fed is definitely being challenged and redefined.”

On a local level, Duong is one artist using her work to unpick such narratives – stitch by stitch.

Makeda Duong: Mixed Race Female
6 August – 17 September
Nexus Arts Gallery

Olivia De Zilva

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Olivia De Zilva is a writer, curator and poet living in Adelaide.

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