Image: Jake Yang, Miffy Still Life (detail), 2024. Oil on frame, 82 x 60 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

As part of her residency as the 2023 Guildhouse ART WORKS Early Career Curator and Writer in Residence Chira Grasby presents Good Things Come In Threes: A Trio of Interviews With Chinese Diaspora Artists.

Reflecting upon the author’s own experience as an Australian born artist with Chinese heritage, Chira Grasby encourages emerging artists Vanessa Kwok, Jake Yang and Kevin Lee to consider how their practices are informed by their cultural backgrounds and how they maintain connection to their culture as part of the Chinese diaspora.

The Early Career Curator and Writer in Residence role facilitates broad cultural engagement and audience development through a program of artist in residence, exhibitions and public programs, supported through embedded professional mentoring.

Delivered by Guildhouse in partnership with the City of Adelaide, ART WORKS is a collaborative program of residencies, curatorial mentorship and creative engagements, designed to provide a city-based platform for artists, curators and writers to pursue new ways of working and engaging with audiences.

    Good Things Come In Threes: A Trio of Interviews With Chinese Diaspora Artists

    By Chira Grasby, ART WORKS Early Career Curator + Writer in Residence 2023

    Originally coined in the United States, the term Third Culture Kid describes a person who’s been raised in a culture different to that of their parents. It encompasses a vast range of children raised as first gen individuals, and involves a mass of nuanced experiences. But, despite the categorization existing since the 1950s, very little literature exists about the Australasian context. Interestingly, a UNICEF paper from 2009 noted that a third of all children in Australia had at least one migrant parent (a fraction that’s likely grown since then), and our 2021 census showed that per capita Australia has the most number of Chinese descendants outside of Asia.

    As an Australian born artist with Chinese heritage, my identity and practice are both inherently informed by my lineage. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life reecting on this, and have noticed how varied my experiences are in comparison to my peers. In an exercise to build community, share experiences, and reflect on differences, I spoke to three creatives with Chinese ancestry to see how they all connect culture and art in their lives.

    Image: Watercolour sticker by Ness (@nillapede). Image courtesy of the artist.

    Ness, aka Vanessa Kwok, is an emerging artist with a colorful multidisciplinary practice. We first met when she booked an appointment with me for a tattoo, and it turned out we had mutual friends – a very typical Adelaide phenomenon. She got a small custom bunny rabbit with bubblegum pink fairy wings, and gifted me some of her handmade stickers as a thank you. Dainty, soft coloured watercolor depictions of little critters slinking between pot plants and succulents. They nestled perfectly into the corners of my studio, complimenting my overflowing windowsill of indoor plants. I stuck a few on my storage cupboard, one on my tool trolley, and shared the remainder with my coworkers. She’d mentioned to me that she wanted to pursue tattooing, saying that she’d actively been working on a portfolio to apply for apprenticeships. I saw a lot of my younger self in her and was reminded about how hard the industry can be to navigate as a young Asian femme.

    After watching her updates on Instagram for months, I started teaching her the basics of handpoke tattooing – the ‘machine free’ format of tattooing that I first began my career with, and interestingly a method with strong ties to our shared cultural histories. Ness is bubbly, eager to learn, and incredibly attentive, but more importantly she’s a passionate artist with an instinctive understanding of how special it is to create art for another human being. Her visual language as an artist is quite established despite her age, aided by years of markets, events, and no doubt endless hours of drawing. Her practice is as vibrant as she is, yet organized and well curated. It’s eccentric and sometimes busy, but you can tell there’s careful consideration behind every choice.

    Image: Watercolour sticker by Ness (@nillapede). Image courtesy of the artist.

    Tell me about yourself and your arts practice?
    Hiya, I’m Ness! I make cute silly art mainly in the form of stickers, zines, and clay charms, and I am currently learning handpoke tattooing. I draw inspiration from cozy nostalgic cooking games, childhood cartoons like Sanrio and Adventure Time, and whimsical imagery from fables and fairy tales. My specialty is cutesy, unique stickers – all illustrated traditionally with watercolour paints – which I sell at local art markets.

    When did you decide you wanted to be an artist, and what were the reactions like from your family and peers?
    The funny thing is that I never consciously decided to become an artist- it was my parents who enrolled me in extra-curricular art classes before I’d even properly gained sentience. My family and peers were the ones seeing what my reaction was! I took art classes for 6 years, and at first I didn’t take them seriously (sorry Ms. Tina) but now I realise how valuable those years were in developing my skills as my art has become inseparable from my identity. I credit my teacher Ms. Tina for all I have achieved as an artist.

    What’s your cultural background, and how does it inform your practice?
    My dad is from China and my mum is from Vietnam, though I was born in Sydney, Australia. My first language was Hakka (a dialect of Chinese) I’d learned from my grandparents here in Adelaide, who looked after me as a baby. When my parents took me back, we spoke English in the household and I forgot most of my Chinese. Growing up in Australia, the language was not the only part of my Chinese culture that my sister and I somewhat struggled to hold onto.

    Image: Clay keychains depicting bento box meals, handmade by Ness (@nillapede). Image courtesy of the artist.

    How do you maintain cultural connection in your life as an adult living in Australia?
    Now as a young adult, I am far more conscious of keeping this part of my identity alive. Family events that are the most outwardly cultural include Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrations, and funerals.

    On new year’s day I make sure to wear my blue hand-me-down qipao, and on days of mourning I ask lots of questions about traditional funeral rituals and the offerings we leave at our deceased relatives’ gravesites. I find myself seeking out nostalgic Chinese snacks I used to have as a kid, and sharing these as well as little facts about my culture with my boyfriend (who is currently learning mandarin) helps me hold onto this part of myself. I’m also hoping to build up a community or friend group of fellow asian creatives in the near future.

    If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be? And if you could ask your future self anything, what would it be?

    The question I’d ask my future self would be “what do you wish we’d done differently?” The piece of advice I’d give my younger self is: grades aren’t everything, university isn’t for everybody, and you do not have to decide what your whole life will look like at the age of seventeen. Be gentle with yourself and trust yourself because, despite everything, it will all turn out okay.

    Image: Jake Yang, Silken Crane, 2022. Oil on board, crystals, 50 x 50 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

    An artist I really resonate with is Jake Yang, a stylish and skilled painter that also utilizes soft sculpture and installation. We initially crossed paths whilst studying at Adelaide Central School of Art, with Jake graduating two years after me. I only had a small glimpse into his practice whilst studying, but I did see his graduate work – a beautiful, tender exploration into contemporary cultural motifs and notions of boyhood and queerness. His works explored expanded field painting, occupying both floor and wall spaces with delicate consideration. Since then I’ve been continuously impressed with his practice, and have been lucky enough to welcome him into my own studio as a tattoo client as well.

    On the back of his incredibly well received 2023 solo exhibition ‘Garden of Peace’ at Floating Goose, where Jake is also a studio tenant, he recently opened another solo at Post Office Projects in Port Adelaide. Titled ‘Little Bits of Tenderness’, it features lovingly painted portraits and gentle still life scenes, with tenderness truly at their core. Influenced by his own lived experiences, queerness sits as a constant informant to Jake’s practice, traveling hand-in-hand with his discussions on culture. I see a counterpart to my own experiences as a queer Asian girl that’s grown up in Australia. There are nuances to our experiences when you consider the standardized upbringing of “boys versus girls” in Asian households, and that becomes even more complicated when Queer identity enters the equation… To be young, Asian, and gay in Australia can be treacherous, but Jake’s practice shows me the beauty within the heartache.

    Tell me about yourself and your arts practice?
    My name is Jake Yang (he/him), I’m an emerging artist born in Adelaide, Kaurna Land, and currently practicing at Floating Goose Studios Inc. located on Morphett Street.

    My practice explores various disciplines, predominantly oil painting, sculpture and installation.

    My practice is driven by the continual exploration of queer and youth culture in contemporary society, integrated with strong inuence from my conservative traditional Chinese culture. My work explores the cross-section of identity where the different cultures in my life interact. The key themes of my work are intimacy, privacy, freedom, and rebellion in my practice.

    When did you decide you wanted to be an artist, and what were the reactions like from your family and peers?
    I knew I wanted to be an artist in year 12 and I think that’s when my family and peers really saw how passionate I was about my work. I was inspired by the art students in the year above and saw myself studying art after I graduated. After year 12 was when the real work began for me, I felt as though I had to prove something to myself and my family. Their support was always there which I’m very fortunate to have and it is something that pushed me to become a well-rounded artist.

    Image: Jake Yang with his solo exhibition Garden of Peace (2023) at Floating Goose Studios. Image: Rosina Possingam.

    What’s your cultural background, and how does it inform your practice?
    My dad is from Taiwan and my mum was born and raised in Sydney but is Chinese. Growing up I felt a disconnect to my cultural background and found this became a neglect as I didn’t want to be outcast as a different individual from everyone else. But I think this was an important part of my journey and how I approach my artwork. I enjoy subverting traditional Chinese iconography and ideas to these corrupted but playful artworks as a means to embrace who I am. Traditional viewpoints and conservative belief systems found in Chinese culture within my family also became an opposing force where I wanted to rebel and showcase my true identity and self, being a multi-faceted individual. This struggle is tied to a double-life of façades and expectations that are rooted in my conservative cultural upbringings and shine a light on intimacy, privacy, freedom, and rebellion.

    How do you maintain cultural connection in your life as an adult living in Australia?
    The main cultural connection for me is through food, especially from my Dad and Grandpa. After traveling to Taiwan at the beginning of the year I was able to reconnect with my background and understand more about myself through this culture. After this trip I have been able to connect with my dad and his cooking, and have this new understanding to build deeper cultural celebrations with my family.

    Image: Jang Yang, Precious, 2024. Oil on board, 110 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

    If money and time weren’t a factor, what would be your dream project?
    I’ve always been inspired by the major shows put on at the Art Gallery of South Australia, so my dream project would be a major show downstairs with multiple rooms filled with my work.

    Tell me about your current exhibition, and what do you hope audiences take away from it?
    Little bits of tenderness celebrates the romantic relations between the masculine and feminine facets of identity and relationships. I wanted to explore the soft and vulnerable interactions between myself and the figures portrayed. It is in these small moments of tenderness where I explore a range of intertwined cultural expressions and can demonstrate the relationships that make me feel safe and loved.

    I hope audiences are able to embrace and romanticise the small moments in life, especially the moments and relationships that I channel in this exhibition. I also hope viewers can be exposed to the masculine and feminine intersections of self as something to express and celebrate.

    Image: Kevin Lee, Porcelain Vase, 2020. Pencil on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

    A big inspiration for this mini-interview-series was Kevin Lee, a humble artist that’s arguably one of Adelaide’s most technically skilled emerging oil painters. Also a graduate of Adelaide Central School of Art, he completed his final year in 2020 amidst the chaos of the pandemic. Rather than looking back at that unfortunate timing as a hindrance, he describes it like a pivotal learning experience that opened new doors for him as a creative. That’s an example of the kind of person Kevin is – optimistic, positive, eager to grasp an opportunity, and enthusiastic about his own potential. He was also the first person I’d heard use the term ‘Third Culture Kid’, and I was surprised that I hadn’t come across it before.

    After curating some of his work into a group exhibition at Adelaide Town Hall, Kevin invited me to visit his studio for a tour of his new paintings. Walking into his beautiful home was like stepping into a carefully curated gallery, and I was thrilled to see how supportive his family are of his career as an artist. Down a small hallway was Kevin’s studio (one of the most organised studio spaces I’ve seen to date) showing off his new body of work, ‘Rock of All Ages’. Stemming from the travel lockdowns that occurred while he graduated, Kevin traveled to picturesque rural sites across Australia and lovingly reproduced them with oil paints, noting that he was amazed by the landscapes that surround us. He spoke about his works with intense passion, and has plans to present the studies as his first solo exhibition. I was impressed with his technical skills as a painter, of course, but even more so with the dedication he has to his practice.

    Tell me about yourself and your arts practice?
    I was born in Sydney, but I grew up in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and Singapore. I returned to Adelaide when I was 17 to pursue my visual arts study at Adelaide Central School of Art. I graduated from Adelaide Central School of Art with a bachelor’s degree in 2020.

    Currently, I am an Adelaide-based painter and illustrator. My art practice focuses on my cross-cultural practices, family traditions, the natural and man-made world. In addition to that, I work from home in my own private art studio.

    When did you decide you wanted to be an artist, and what were the reactions like from your family and peers?
    From a very young age, I have developed an interest in various forms of art such as colour pencil drawings, pencil sketches, crayon drawings and so forth. Despite my inability to focus on my drawings, my mom still arranged a private tutor at home to encourage me to pursue my interest. I recalled that my real interest in art started in the first year of high school, when I spent hours in preparing my portfolio submission for my IGCSE (International General Certicate of Secondary Education) art subject requirements. At the end of the IGCSE programme, I decided to become an artist, hence I did not continue to finish the last two years of my high school.

    Initially, my parents were amazed, but not surprised by my decision to become an artist. However, they decided to support me after careful consideration of my passion and ability for art. I guess that was the formal starting point of my artist journey. On the other hand, my peers never understood my decision, they were expecting me to finish high school like them and pursue a Medical/Engineering degree like many Asian students do.

    Image: Kevin Lee, Dolphin Beach at Innes National Park, 2022. Oil on canvas, 61 x 46 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

    What’s your cultural background, and how does it inform your practice?
    Being a third culture kid, my family continues to celebrate our family traditions and Chinese culture, in order for me to have positive connections with them. This background no doubt has a big influence on me and my art practice. These values of family traditions and cultures have a positive impact on my identity, a sense of belonging and outlook on life. As a consequence, they naturally impacted my approach to my studio art practice. Another factor affecting my art practice is the experience of my time in Asia. As I mentioned earlier, I lived in four countries and have extensive travel experience due to my father’s multinational career. This has given me the opportunities to build connections with various surroundings including the natural and man-made landscapes, people, traditions and cultures. These experiences unconsciously compelled me to express the beauty I have witnessed and experienced through my art practice.

    How do you celebrate culture at home?
    My family continues to celebrate all the key Chinese traditions and cultural events. During Chinese New Year which is one of the main traditional celebrations for the Chinese, we normally plan for a family reunion dinner on the Chinese New Year Eve. We typically meet and prepare numerous traditional foods such as steamed fish, golden eggs, long-life noodles, dumplings, etc. This New Year Eve dinner normally lasts for hours for us to share and catch up with all the major things that have happened during the past years. During the first day of Chinese New Year, we still pay respect to our elders especially to our grandparents and parents by wishing them good health and prosperity for the coming new year by offering a cup of specially brewed Chinese tea, in return, we receive red packets (An Bao) as a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the new year. If we celebrate our new year in China, then we also visit our relatives during the New Year Day. We also celebrate other Chinese festivals such as Lantern Festival (Lunar Calendar: January 15th), Dragon Boat Festival (Lunar Calendar: May 5th) and Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Cake Festival, Lunar Calendar: August 15th).

    If money and time weren’t a factor, what would be your dream project as an artist?
    If money and time weren’t a factor, my dream project as an artist would be to invite two or three artists with a similar focus and interests to do several artist residency programmes in several selected countries such as Japan, China, France and Italy. I am eager to explore and learn how family traditions and cultures influence the practices of some selected artists in these countries. My dream is to have one of my artists focusing on sculpture, another on installation/digital media and I would continue to focus on oil painting. I believe this group would produce a very interesting and rewarding outcome through this project that we could share ultimately with our viewers.

    Image: Kevin Lee, Loch Ard Gorge at Great Ocean Road, 2022. Oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

    Social links for artists

    • Ness
      instagram: @nillapede and @inkchworm
    • Jake
      instagram: @jakeyang_artist
    • Kevin
      instagram: @kevinleedj99

    Written by Chiranjika Grasby as part of the 2023 Guildhouse ART WORKS Writer in Residence program delivered in partnership with the City of Adelaide

    Image: Chira Grasby, image courtesy the artist

    Chira Grasby

    Chiranjika (Chira) Grasby is an Adelaide based emerging artist, curator, and tattoo artist. She completed a Bachelor of Visual Art at Central School of Art in 2019 focusing on oil painting and miniature portraiture. During her studies she also completed an internship through Flinders University Art Museum exploring the archiving and storage of gallery collections, and was involved in Carclew’s 2019 Emerging Curator program.

    Her practice spans across painting, illustration, ceramics, textiles, and installation. She’s interested in topics of connection, particularly that of herself and her cultural heritage, but also the relationships between herself and others. Often this involves the incorporation of autobiographical iconography and symbolism, with nods to personal narrative as well as the outward influence of pop culture and her childhood.

    Chiranjika has exhibited at Sister, Nexus Arts, Brunswick Street Gallery, Urban Cow Studios, Newmarch Gallery, Good Bank Gallery, and curated across Adelaide Town Hall, Urban Cow Studios, Nexus Arts, Collective Haunt, and FELTspace ARI. She was recipient of a Deep Dive Residency at Post Office Projects in 2021, and Artist in Residence for Nexus Arts in 2022. She is also part of Index Adelaide, an initiative that focuses on the Zine community in South Australia, and co-owns Halfpace Studio, an inclusive tattoo space and residency site.