Artist: Siying Zhou
Curator: Kate Davis
Ararat Gallery TAMA (Textile Art Museum Australia)
14 March - 12 July 2020 (Only open for 3 days due to COVID-19 closures)
Ararat is the only colonial town in Australia to have been founded by Chinese immigrants; Chinese miners established Ararat in the 1850s. Today, this is one of the first things you read when googling the town, although this history wasn’t always so visible. Through a month-long residency in Ararat, Siying Zhou formed personal connections to place and sought to understand contemporary relationships to the past. This research informed her solo exhibition Drawing Dashes Between Dots; a mixed-media installation that maps the entanglements between past and present and the way such snares can influence personal identity.
Zhou utilised public archives including those from Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre and Ararat Regional Library, as well as the personal archives, memories and stories held by community members, such as passionate community group, The Friends of Gum San.The artist has extracted multiple narratives and perspectives from a fragmented and discontinuous representation of history. Humanising facts and figures, these take us from the 1800s through to today. Throughout this process, Zhou realised she could not separate her family history or personal identity from Ararat’s. History is undoubtedly framed by the personal memories, stories and identities of those writing and interpreting it.
Newspaper articles from Ararat’s founding read like a novel, recounting tales of bushrangers, armed guards and horse carts piled high with gold. While most of these tales have been relegated to the past, the sentiment of some still lingers. In 1867 the Chinese community held a stall portraying “Chinese vertu”1. at the Easter Monday Festival, which featured a Chinese woman in traditional costume. The corresponding newspaper article describes her as the “Celestial fair one”2.. Extensive research has led Zhou to believe that Mow Fung’s wife was the only Chinese woman in town at the time, so she is likely to be said “fair one”. However, we’re unable to use her name as it was never clearly recorded. History shapes society and culture, and this systemic objectification can still inform the way women are treated in Australia today. Especially Chinese women, who are often seen as exotic objects for entertainment and pleasure.
The same article reveals the Chinese community’s contribution to the wider community. Untitled (a flag) (2020) represents this meeting point, with Chinese designs resembling the Australian flag. On the flag’s reverse side, flowing operatic sleeves honour both Mrs Mow Fung and the Chinese performers from Ararat’s Joss House Theatre, while horsehair fashioned into a pigtail - a hairstyle worn by Chinese men for hundreds of years - evokes the brutal reality of life as an immigrant. “Pigtail” is a word that continually appears in early newspaper articles. This salacious mode of reporting the identifiable features of a minority group is something that still happens in contemporary Australia. Zhou doesn’t know whether the men assimilated voluntarily or were forced to do so. The disembodied pigtail recalls the modifications of self that many new Australians make in order to survive and the trauma that can ensue. As does Untitled (a cross-cultural conversation) (2020) which uses repurposed LED shop signs, and playful language to recall the hair-raising “affray at Mrs Mow Fung’s Hotel”3. The bold formatting and positioning of the words themselves - “ME HOLLOA YOU KEWT” - elevate the voices of female Chinese immigrants, asserting authority over anyone who has ever tried to pigeonhole or overpower them. For Zhou, the cultural dislocation experienced by Ararat’s early Chinese residents is not dissimilar to her own.
When the artist’s parents moved to Australia, the family visited Sovereign Hill; an open-air museum depicting Ballarat’s gold rush era. The Zhou family learned about this history through the light-hearted displays; adorning themselves in Western Colonial garments, as seen in Untitled (a portrait & Langi Ghiran state park) (2020). Their smiling faces show a family having fun and enjoying their time together. On reflection, the artist has feelings of unease. Dressing-up in the clothing of other cultures is common practice, but how does this image of a Chinese family in European apparel read? Whose history were they engaging with, and what did this tableau conceal? Untitled (the 2nd casting of a rabbit burrow) (2020) is a resin cast of a concrete cast rabbit warren. Inverted and displaced, the warren has an unsettling anthropomorphic quality; as if one of the Earth’s bodily secrets has been revealed. The artist thinks of history as a time-bound sequence of marks; the land holds them all. It quietly records what happens upon it.
Likewise, the mysteries of the Australian landscape are explored in Untitled (a portrait & Langi Ghiran State Park) (2020). The fading female figure conjures reported stories of a “malignant spirit”4 which in 1868 lured “Chinaman” Ah Sin into the bush for 24 hours, after which he arrived home in a “very wild and excited state”. This account reminded Zhou of European colonial fears, as explored in Joan Lindsay’s fictional novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967). The same figure, being an Asian protagonist, also subverts romantic colonial painting genres.
While most histories will remain hidden, there are ways to bring those that have been obscured to the fore. Untitled (Henry Gunstone & Heather Ahpee) (2020) features lapping interviews with Henry Gunstone and Heather Ahpee; both of whom were involved in repositioning and honouring Ararat’s Chinese origins through the establishment of Gum San Chinese Heritage Centre in 2001. They’re also founding members of The Friends of Gum San and through this community group, continue to work towards bringing hidden cultural elements back to life. Such as the restoration of Chinese headstones in Ararat Public Cemetery, a project that is currently underway. Their back to back voices intermingle, representing multiple perspectives and the tension between things we can and can’t see, all the while posing the question; what can be seen when we change our angle?
1. Ararat Advertiser, 15 March 1867 (Accessed via Ararat Genealogical Society’s archive at Ararat Regional Library) 2. Ararat Advertiser, 15 March 1867 (Accessed via Ararat Genealogical Society’s archive at Ararat Regional Library) 3. Ararat Court of Petty Sessions,Ararat Advertiser, 29 October 1880 (Accessed via Ararat Genealogical Society’s archive at Ararat Regional Library) 4. Ararat Advertiser, 18 August 1868 (Accessed via Ararat Genealogical Society’s archive at Ararat Regional Library)
Photos: Jon Paley