Mother as a Boy, 2001
I grew up making art and regularly doing creative activities ever since I could remember. But if you were to ask me when I really began my art practice, it was upon discovering a photograph while rummaging through the hallway closet in my childhood home. That photograph was a portrait of my mother's family. It was easy for me to make out her sisters and brothers. The woman in the center was too young to be my Grandma - she was a nanny, I believe. The curious thing about the photo was that I could not locate my mother.
Instead, I noticed that there was a third brother in the image, a strikingly handsome boy standing second from the right. When I asked my mother about this curiousity, she told me that for many years in her childhood, Grandpa demanded that the nanny cut my mother's hair and dressed her in boy's clothing so that she could pose as a boy in the family portrait. Since portraits of this kind are often passed around or mailed to distant relatives, Grandpa felt embarassed that he'd had so many daughters. A family's source of pride is its sons, he believed.
Starting with that image, I created a collage incorporating flora and fauna from my grandmother's garden and placed flowers at my male mother's feet in memoriam to her gender, which was erased, obliterated from sight. Since that initial discovery, I've been visiting and revisiting the feminine space of erasure and silence, as well as the context from which female worth is measured, or worse, destroyed.
I have an obsession with the fallacy of "perfect" family, the "perfect" baby, which in Asian culture, begins with having a boy. In my recent apothecary series, I explore these desires in the space where medical and cultural choices play out.
I came across another image in my parents' closet of a baby boy with its pants off. It stumped me at first why on earth he would be undressed that way for a photo. But my parents later explained to me that many people in those days photographed their newborns that way to prove without dispute that they indeed had a son. And seeing how my Grandpa was more than willing to deceive his friends by hiding my mother's real identity, it all made sense. The photo was a form of evidence, a masculine space of exposure and declaration.
Wouldn't it be interesting, I wondered, to create a baby formula that allowed the mother to transform her fetus into this symbol of familial pride? What if the formula could change the child's gender, endow it with exceptional potential, and even eliminate homosexuality? You could say I was exploring the border between cultural fantasies and one's responsibility to ethical choices when dealing with biological reality.
When I make work with these images in mind, I am conscious of the fact that these small, everyday casualties of choice set the stage for the irreversible societal damage that is all too often lamented in hindsight. While my mother's gender was hidden, many baby girls are often "disposed" of once and for all.
This past March, the Economist reported: "Women are missing in their millions—aborted, killed, neglected to death. In 1990 an Indian economist, Amartya Sen, put the number at 100m; the toll is higher now." The sex-ration imbalance in China has not only resulted in more single males, or bare branches, but now contributes to higher rates of "crime rates, bride trafficking, sexual violence, even female suicide rates."
In an interview with my Grandmother, I asked her to tell me about the early years of her marriage. She struggled to conceived but knew that she wanted to have a boy. "There are no fireworks when girls are born," she told me. It wasn't that she didn't like my mother and her 4 sisters - it was just a fact of the times she lived in. When you're poor, girls are perceived as a financial drain, while boys are considered breadwinners. At the same time, when you have traditions and social hierarchies stacked against you, it is going to take a toll somewhere. When society as a whole places less value on your gender, and it's a position your own parents take, it is going to affect you, consciously or unconsciously. As one physician and colleague writes: "Once a narrative of worthlessness embeds itself in one’s mind, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to disbelieve it, especially when one can find evidence that it represents a true account."
My apothecary series draws from the aesthetics of vintage 19th century remedies, in a time when quack remedies were often peddled to desperate but willing buyers. Today, there are parallels as medical technology advances, whereby pharmaceutical marketing is looked upon with mistrust, and the smuggling of ultrasound technologies continues to feed unchanging cultural demands.