Lizy Dastin, founder of street art information hub Art and Seeking, teaches Art History at UCLA, Chapman University and Santa Monica College in the United States. In this piece, which was first presented at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Hawaii 2017, she explores two iconic examples of Los Angeles street art featuring the bodies of Eastern women created by Western artists.
In this article, I will examine the way in which Eastern culture and bodies – particularly the bodies of Eastern women – are used and potentially misused in contemporary urban art in Los Angeles. Using the case studies of two significant Western artists – Fin Dac and Christina Angelina – I will not only illustrate formidable examples of works whose subject matter examines the dialectic of East and West but also will argue the larger cultural implications of how the Eastern body is translated, sometimes deformingly, through a Western lens.
“Fin Dac asserts that women are simultaneously authoritative and delicate, aesthetic and intellectual, physically capable and also tapped into deep emotional reserves.”
Born in Ireland, based in England and actively working throughout the world, Fin Dac has a more international presence and practice than the majority of his contemporaries. Through his work, which is largely stencil-based, he explores female empowerment and illustrates female beauty from a multifarious and global perspective. For example, he is inspired by traditions, such as kabuki and ceremonial dressing, in which women in East Asia engage, and is furthermore interested in reframing cultural stereotypes that plague them. The women he stencils are massive, claiming ownership over their built, urban environment, but are equally feminine and classically beautiful. Through this duality, Fin Dac asserts that women are simultaneously authoritative and delicate, aesthetic and intellectual, physically capable and also tapped into deep emotional reserves.
Although his intention is to rewire stereotypes surrounding both women and East Asian cultures, that he is demographically a part of neither community supports considering his work through a discerning lens. Fin Dac’s imagery may be less straightforwardly destructive in its appropriation of non-Western bodies and symbols than that of historical artists attracted to similar iconography; however, these themes should still be investigated. His recent work entitled Resurrection of Angels, painted in the Venice Beach neighbourhood of Los Angeles, seems to me quite celebratory of Eastern culture and bodies. Fin Dac focuses the narrative of this mural entirely around one towering, female, East Asian figure – the resurrected angel. Her face stares confidently and fixedly past the viewer rather than at, as a result of the work’s massive scale. Her extreme ennobles her; however, the psychological intensity of her face and protective gesture of her hands strengthens this interpretation regardless of her soaring stature. Although the angel’s clothing is transparent, the effect is not overt since this woman covers her chest in earnest rather than in a half-hearted attempt that ultimately showcases her body. The angel is majestic and commanding – in fact, so much so that the building can’t contain her body and additional boards are required to accommodate her extended wings and head. Fin Dac further empowers her as a woman by encircling her eyes with actual gold leaf and celebrates her East Asian heritage by creating her modern halo out of gold markings that harkens back to the tradition of calligraphy. Finally, he tethers this theoretical celebration of culture and heritage to an actual contemporary muse – Chinese photographer Nicole Wu, on whom the angel is modeled.
In this collaborative work with muralist Christina Angelina, coincidentally also angel-themed, Fin Dac’s Asian woman is juxtaposed with Angelina’s Western woman – encouraging comparison between the two. Part of what makes Redemption significant is the multitude of techniques the artists employed to give the work such visual variety and intrigue. Fin Dac and Angelina both used both traditional brush applicators in addition to the faster, more street-associated spray cans to make the work majestic yet edgy, haunting yet sexy at the same time. The color palette is grisaille, meaning limited to grey-scale monochromes, which focuses our attention on the iconography and forms of the two female figures rather than on vibrant color distractions. The women’s bodies are back to back and the singular point of connection between them is through the backs of their heads. In position, their bodies are frozen and static; however, the slashing lines that define their forms pulse and vibrate with an uncontained energy. Like the juxtapositions between paintbrushes and spray-paint cans, the tension between monumental stillness and dynamic energy encourages viewers to pause and enjoy a lengthier viewing experience to discern the symbolism behind the subjects.
“The tension between monumental stillness and dynamic energy encourages viewers to pause and enjoy a lengthier viewing experience to discern the symbolism behind the subjects.”
From the title, we know the two women are angels and can see they are roughly the same height, but the similarities between them basically end there. With her pierced nose, heavily lined eyes, crane-inspired headpiece and patterned jewelry, Fin Dac’s woman appears to symbolize people steeped in cultural tradition from the South Asian region. And with her freely tousled hair, lack of clothing, minimal makeup and cow-skull headpiece, the angel on the right seems to represent the North American spirit of connectivity with nature and history on the plains. Looking at the angels together, we simultaneously become aware of their differences but also their points of literal and figurative connection – although we may naturally relate more to one we can still appreciate the beauty of the other and may even start to collapse the identities of both, recognizing that underneath superficial trappings, our essence looks the same. On the left and the right sides of the work on the lower portion are the hands of two unseen figures, open and outstretched toward the angels who do not appear aware of or interested in gesturing back toward the hands. Could the hands symbolize mortal needs and expectations that the angels are on too different a plane to acknowledge? The hands open in that universal gesture of asking and being able to receive but the angels remain impervious to the request and do not give or offer back. Could the title of the piece foreshadow the redemption these angels will have to seek for ignoring the needs of others? Or is the title a quotation of the biblical passage in Genesis in which the sins of Jacob are redeemed and the two angels here a modern translation of the spirits who will redeem us all?
When a visually typecast Western woman is shown alongside a visually typecast non-Western woman, the stereotypes surrounding both cultural heritages are exacerbated. Angelina, a Caucasian female artist, superficially might be better equipped to portray the type of women she paints than Fin Dac is when he depicts Asian women. However, an artist’s personal racial makeup should not limit their creative freedom, especially when illustrating figures who are different than the self is done through the approach of honoring their heritage and cultural offerings. In my opinion, when Fin Dac depicts Eastern bodies, he does so in a manner that disrupts the colonialist attitude rather than pandering to it through inappropriately sexual renderings. The world may still be made of two unequal halves; however, with artists like Fin Dac who aim to translate rather than misread, it is my hope that the divide between them will ever grow smaller.
Images | Lizy Dastin
Lizy Dastin first presented this research at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Hawaii 2017 in Honolulu, Hawaii.