Activism and art: critiquing the post-colonial age.
Artist Areena Ang’s practice centralises around themes of narrative, so-called “post-colonialism” and emancipation for people of colour. Before coming to London to start her art education, the artist moved from Kuala Lumpur to be schooled in Dorset. Living in a rural area in which conservative actions and racism can often be the norm was difficult, but this has only sparked positive activist behaviours in both Areena’s works and daily life, from her helping install sanitary bins in the men’s toilets for transgender and non-binary individuals, to co-organising a QTIPOC+ seminar group. Now completing her first year BA at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, Areena finds herself and her peers “celebrating each other’s existences”, and it is strands of existence and narrative that underpin her works, with them often revealing an interaction between two individuals. The artist enjoys the challenge of encapsulating a story within a painting. Time standing still is referenced in other ways too, with Areena revealing her belief to us that post-colonialism does not exist, in fact, we continue to live frozen in a colonial age, in which Western culture dominates. Alongside these larger themes of that permeate the artist’s practice, we discover that The Powerpuff Girls and rapper Noname also play key roles. Areena’s practice is interdisciplinary, with her writing texts to complement her paintings, stemming from her childhood love of writing “crazy science fiction”. Childhood is another recurring theme in her artworks, with the artist exploring this period’s darkness, cynicism and fear through cartoon, which she believes is often a strong medium for communicating psychological themes. Ang, now approaching her second year at the Slade, intends to switch to sculpture, this being a good transition for her work with form and for developing her own personalised style. However, she suspects that her adventuring into sculpture will not affect her connection to painting, as she plans to keep painting throughout her career.
When did you move from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Dorset, UK? What was your life like there and what struck you about London when you relocated from Dorset?
I moved to Dorset for schooling when I was fifteen. I was flung into this very conservative, white space where rigid gender roles, classism and racism were heavily normalised. As a queer person of colour, you are immediately visible. Any person of a marginalised identity had to experience daily racial micro-aggressions or alienation. One thing I am grateful for was the art department who believed in me and encouraged me to continue making art, the way I wanted. I was extremely privileged to have the resources and the teachers that I did, I honestly believe that I wouldn’t be this confident about my work if it wasn’t for them and I am eternally grateful for that. Moving to London and meeting other QTIPOC+ people has been extremely reaffirming; here, we can celebrate each other’s existences. I’ve come to create a huge network and new communities full of amazing people who came from similar experiences, we’re owning our shit now and it feels really powerful.
When moving to London, you obtained a Foundation at Goldsmiths, however, swapped to the Slade for your BA. What can you tell me about the differences between these two institutions, and what have you enjoyed of each one?
First of all, let me say this: I think that the Slade is wrongly put on a pedestal, in the same way institutions like University of Cambridge and University of Oxford are due to the competitive admissions. It definitely has an aura about it, and it was really weird manifesting my dreams and actually getting offered a place there. But I think now that I’m here, I’ve come to see a lot of great things about the Goldsmiths course. They have amazing facilities, a rigorous contemporary art history course and helpful technicians. If you can independently work, it’s a great course for developing your practice over three years. I think the people at Slade can be less insular, more open to friendship and there’s definitely a higher attendance here. The highlight of my experience here has been my friends and my peers for sure. I can’t even count the amount of times they’ve come straight to me on the thousands of times I’ve been crying at school, feeling overlooked as a person of colour or from being treated poorly by the institution. I’ve made a family here.
What drew you initially to making art and to drawing in particular?
This sounds corny but it really was my biggest dream since I was a child to be able to make art for a living. I’m particularly drawn to image making and its relation to forming – and extending – narrative. When I was young, I was obsessed with writing crazy science fiction and writing my own full storybooks. I think that’s still why my writing practice, alongside my painting/drawing practice, work so strongly together. I love seeing what we can deconstruct in an image, how it touches in our own lives, how certain symbols can be interpreted so disparately from different cultures. The history of drawing and interpreting life, our instinct to do it, is so fascinating to me. It gives me a sense of freedom and emancipation to create neo-archives of our experiences as people of colour. It’s a form of surviving in this world, too.
What’s the relation between being an artist professionally and being an activist personally? Can you expand on how these two parts of your life collide and in which ways are you taking this further in your daily life?
I actually have a very strong opinion about political art and I think, if your work is so political, radical, where’s the IRL work? I’ve seen a lot of revolutionary conceptual work done in London (and some not-so-good-ones) and I’m really afraid of this concept of performativity. There’s definitely a prevalence of performative activism, especially in London, and I think it’s important to be conscious of what real work we’re doing, how we are using our skills and voices as artists to help our communities. I can’t make work about decoloniality in a buzz-word way or a purely ‘research’ based way, I don’t want to, I want to do that work in real life because it has been such a huge part of finding who I am. As much as I reject the institution, I also recognise that many people of colour deserve to benefit off of the resources they provide, which are often withheld from us. Education can be used as a tool for people to achieve social mobility where they may not been able to, and we must recognise its importance within our institutional critique. I only really started my activism this year, but it has shaped a necessary meaning and purpose in my life – to enact positive change in the lives of marginalised people. At the moment, it’s extremely interlinked because all my activism is involved heavily with institutional change. My university course has no permanent tutors of colour, admits mostly white upper-class cis students and its expectations of how much work we are able to produce often fails to coincide with working class students who need to take on full-time jobs while they’re here. I have worked this year on a petition to keep two amazing tutors of colour who are on temporary contracts, installed sanitary bins in the men’s toilet for trans/nb students and helped co-organise a QTIPOC+ seminar group with my friend. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has inspired me to start my activism small, but one thing she always has said is that she’s not fighting for her community so she could get elected in congress, but to get everyday people in the front lines. I genuinely want us to have a better experience, that doesn’t have to be draining or traumatic, while we are studying, because we deserve to, we demand to. Art school sucks. Navigating the toxicity it throws at us sucks. But I’m going to fight, with many of my allies, to carry on the legacy of those who have fought for change before us. My artistic practice and my activism are not separate entities, they’re striving for the same outcome: making sure we are heard.
One of your latest works, titled ‘Expiry Date’, revolves around the idea of creating a legacy within art history, mostly inspired from an episode of ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ where the character, Bunny, explodes and holes of light shines through her body. Is there a reflection of yourself in this grotesque figure, if so, what do these holes mean to you?
Childhood is one of those things that holds these moments of darkness, cynicism and fear that I really want to explore further in my work. I think that’s why I never was drawn to realistic figuration, there’s really a hidden power to the languages of cartoon that can communicate psychological themes in a similar, or arguably even better, way. Recently, I’ve really been grappling with my struggles of accepting death and the precarity of an artistic career. It’s actually crazy that we’re driving ourselves into futures of financial insecurity in a time where Brexit is probably going to happen and drive the whole economic machine down. I was worrying a lot about how me and my partner were going to survive, how everyone was, and general fears about what it means to create a legacy. I always remembered this episode from my childhood because it was so fucking dark, like this character that the main Powerpuff Girls made to fight their crimes for them explodes at the end right when she’s supposed to save them. And she’s like this ‘ugly’, deformed Powerpuff Girl that they got wrong in the experiment, she couldn’t do anything properly until she was supposed to save them from the bad guys at the final moment. While I was doing this painting, I was listening a lot to this song ‘Don’t Forget About Me’ by Noname. She raps about living in LA, where everybody wants to be beautiful, how even though her art has touched people, she’s still a mess and how she’s paranoid of an early death. The chorus has always really haunted me, “I hope my mama don’t forget about me”. Because I freely reference alternative cultural references, I was connecting this cartoon episode with this song, to how difficult I’ve found living in London. The young art scene here, I’ve found, is generally orientated around social capital, beauty, fashion, Instagram, stuff like that. I’ve always felt really out of place the less I care about those things, like I don’t belong here. My art has always been it for me, like the only real thing I have, and even though people have felt connected to it, I can still be a mess, I’m still scared, I don’t have everything figured out as much as you think I do. I wanted the painting to take on a different tone to the rest because what I was going through was different at the time. I was like, what is my legacy going to be? What is the point?
Your works are usually bright and colourful, but occasionally you have also worked more monochromatically in some recent pieces… Can you tell me more about the way you use colour within your work?
As I said, I’m really interested in these languages of cartoons and populist images. The biggest way to draw the eye is to use warm colours, over cold colours, and this particular colour palette was common in my earlier work. Playing with perception, I like making images reminiscent of these particular languages that people can play off as being whimsical, playful and harmless. But through further studying of the form, the story and how these two characters interact, fight, harm one another, protect itself from the other, tension rises and something more sinister emerges. I use these strange ‘cartoonish’ colourful characters as tools of disillusion. Jamian Juliano-Villani really inspired me to do that, I want to move to New York one day because the painting scene there seems so much more fun and open to different styles.
You define your practice as ‘a constellation of experiences and narratives’. Through your practice, you delve into topics such as racism, homophobia, colonialism and white supremacy. Have you experienced such issues personally? As an artist, do you portray or critique these issues through a particular lens?
Growing up in Kuala Lumpur, I realized from a young age that we were never living in the post-colonial era, it was still happening. Aspiring towards whiteness, or imitating a Western lifestyle was prominent with my middle-class schoolmates. That’s not to paint the picture that everybody in the Global South aspires for it, this is a deeply problematic generalisation. In fact there’s a whole decoloniality movement happening in the place I grew up and it’s really cool. But still, growing up witnessing these instances was very disorientating. Then, moving to the West for the first time for school, and seeing people actively appropriate Asian culture, perform blackface, say racial slurs (such as the N word), with no shame. It really lit a fire up my ass because I was like, okay, fuck these people. Forming paintings and images of greater resistance towards emblems of colonial ideals has not only been deeply empowering, but educational and transformative. Again, it has fed a fire towards the activism and vice versa. Decolonising is a lifelong, painful process. How do we remove ourselves from the white supremacist system that has been built around us? I think the solution is to build and think outside of it. In ‘Reclaiming an archive that was never theirs’, there’s a brown character kicking the coloniser in the face. Explicit symbolic rejection of being colonised, or rejecting neocolonialism, is central in my work. The reason why I stage these scenes, or critiques, using figures is because of the sheer information the body holds. Trans-generational trauma, any impacts to our body that we’ve experienced, psychological pain, these things are all held tightly within this capsule. I love using the body as a tool to interrogate the question of how we can overcome and heal from all this information and adversity we harbour in our bodies.
‘Reclaiming an archive that was never theirs’ is a strong example of your interest in portraying the experiences of women, and in particular, women of colour. Do you only depict females in your work? Can you tell us more about the frame painted in this work and how it relates to your ideas-at-large of framing devices?
The more I read, learn and study academia on gender, the more I want to make my work less gendered. The reason is not because I do not want to address themes of sexism, but that I increasingly see the gender binary as arbitrary in the wider conversation of speaking to these truths. I want to make my work more accessible, or perhaps relevant, to all wxmen and non-binary people of colour who suffer from patriarchal and racial discrimination. The literal positioning of the frame as a play on ‘framing devices’ was a direct critique on how we reclaim historicism. The title directly references the archive. People of colour have often had our cultural objects or our bodies used as impetus for what many European art historians and academics consider the greatest artistic triumphs of all time (e.g. Picasso, Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings). In the same breath, these sacred cultural objects that have been stolen from our histories continue to live in these intrinsically neo-colonial museums, our archives have been literally possessed by the West. Sutapas Biswas ‘Housewives with Steak Knives’ depicts the Indian goddess of Kali holding the severed head of the coloniser, an allegorical reclamation of a past of colonial violence. In my painting, there’s a person of colour in full motion of kicking the coloniser, inspired by Kung Fu moves. I call these fighting paintings. I am creating work in my own canon, reframing a history that was supposed to be written for us. Colonialism, particularly British colonialism, has always framed as ‘saving’ us. We never needed you. We came here to centre ourselves.
I know that you have organised an open seminar for queer and artists of colour where you share work, ideas and values. When did you start organising these meet-ups?
How important is it for you to extend this dialogue further, outside of your own work?
My friend Arthur Kibet and I began organising these seminars around November 2018 within the Slade specifically, for queer and/or artists of colour to present our work with peers from similar backgrounds as we felt this was necessary. Our course has a race, gender and class issue that, while it is being addressed slowly, it continues to debilitate us as students currently studying there. There are countless barriers to entry to the course, and to the art world in general, for marginalised people. Often, when we make work concerning our identity, people feel like they cannot critique the work with honesty due to either guilt or a lack of information. In this space, we can openly critique and better each other’s works as we understand those specific experiences. It comes from a place of improving care and wanting each other to improve, too. It has also acted like a safe space, a place where friendships can foster and a catalyst for greater solidarity between all of us.
It goes without saying that I look predominantly at American artists of colour because I think the practices there are so exciting right now. Sondra Perry and Wu Tsang in particular are film artists, who have this amazing way of extrapolating the personal into the investigative. I remember watching Sondra Perry’s, ‘It’s In The Game’ in my art history class, thinking, “Woah, someone actually made that, connected all these concepts and her personal life and all these modes of thinking”. I love how, in film, there’s a more direct, and perhaps traditional, mode of storytelling that can be more illustrative than in painting. I also love Wu Tsang’s practice because she isn’t afraid to collaborate. I feel like there’s a lot of fear on collaborating, because in the art world, there’s like this weird protection over ideas, a strange sense of ownership. I find practices where collaboration is not only welcome, but integral, to how the work progresses, really exciting and something everyone should try once in our lives. I love this idea of sharing and community, because when I first began navigating the art world, I actually got sucked into the whole neo-liberalist ideology of how the art world worked. I used to believe that everyone had to clamber over each other to get ahead and now, I’m like, “that’s so stupid and I can’t believe I ever thought that”. I also think that because I look at so many interdisciplinary artists, the painting isn’t the end of the story for me. But I do love the challenge of making a completely still painting hold a narrative, hold context, so I feel like I’ll be sticking with it for a while to figure that out. It’s fun because everyone thinks it’s impossible.
I understand that you might change subjects next year, and sculpture is going to be your wished course to study. Tell me more about this decision and how do you think is going to influence your practice?
If you have an opportunity to shift yourself within your course, why not do it? Put yourself with completely different peers who think differently, learn under new teachers, think about a whole new approach of making work and make work like you’ve never had before. I’ve really pushed myself in my painting practice this year, but I want to focus on two big projects next year where I need to learn completely different skills. I want to always be challenging myself, pushing myself to see what I can learn and how far I can go with something. I can always move back, move to painting another year, but it’s always beneficial to switch it up. I think making 3D works is a good transition in terms of working with form and my own personalised style of drawing. I want to see how it can translate. I’ll always be making paintings, but I want to learn more skills. It would broaden my practice and the skillset significantly. I learn skills really quickly, in a super DIY way (I’ve only been painting for a year and a half), so I want to teach myself ceramics, robotics, mechanics, and see what happens. I know I can.
Words by Martin Mayorga