How does an Asian artist escape Eurocentrism?

Jeppe Ugelvig is pictured in conversation with artist Nicole Coson at Asia House

Freelance journalist Jeppe Ugelvig, left, is pictured in conversation with London-based Filipino artist Nicole Coson, right, at Asia House. Coson's exhibition is on display in the Asia House Library Annexe until 17 December

How does an Asian artist escape Eurocentrism?

03 December 2015

By Naomi Canton

A Filipino artist’s exhibition which is currently on at Asia House questions the importance of geographical and cultural identities and explores how Asian artists can avoid being categorised according to their heritage, homeland or cultural identity.

Nicole Coson’s exhibition How to Appear Without A Trace: Surviving Eurocentrism is on display in the Asia House Library Annexe until 17 December.

In conversation with freelance fashion, art and culture journalist Jeppe Ugelvig , the 23-year-old said art had traditionally been judged from a Eurocentric perspective where non-Western, especially Asian artists, were expected to create ‘Oriental’ art that depicted non-Western, especially Asian, myths and folklore.

She said this Eurocentric view of art expected non-Western artists to be steeped in a specific non-Western culture that conveyed some kind of picture of their homeland.

According to the Eurocentric world viewpoint, Europe is seen as the central point with the central values, she said.

Coson graduated with a first class honours degree in Fine Art from Central Saint Martins in July 2014 and now works from a studio in Bethnal Green. Her dissertation explored postcolonial art.

She was born into a third generation of Chinese migrants in the Philippines.  Speaking at Asia House to open her exhibition, she said her family did their best to assimilate into Filipino culture whilst maintaining many aspects of Chinese culture. “I spoke Chinese, Filipino and English as I grew up but I did not speak any of them particularly well – but my family understood me easily,” she said, adding she spoke a dialect of Chinese mostly spoken by people who have migrated from the Fujian province in China, so though it is one of the most common dialects spoken overseas, it is barely spoken in mainland China.

Coson said in the Philippines she was constantly told that she did not look Filipino. “Even in Asian nations there is no such thing as a fixed identity,” she said. One third of the Philippine population is of Chinese descent.

Then just as she was about to start her first year at Saint Central Martins, one of the most successful artists in the Philippines told her to “make her artwork about the Philippines “as they love that stuff there [in the West]”.

She said she “reluctantly” took it as “words of wisdom” from a man who seemed to crack the code of success in the West.

“For a non-western artist to be a success it seems as though you have to be ‘othered’ in the West,” she said.

During her first few months at Central Saint Martins she began making art that was heavily influenced by Filipino folklore and paganistic beliefs. She faced difficulties doing the research in London as much of it had come from oral traditions. She soon felt under pressure representing the sensibilities of her own culture authentically and worried about whether she was entitled to speak for a collective experience, she said.

Before long she discovered she disliked being expected to have information on the Philippines or somehow possess special knowledge about Filipino mythology.  Non-Western art was expected to be about religion, mythology, national history and a collective experience. The non-Western artist was “not expected to innovate or invent rather perfect him or herself in the knowledge and rendition of norms,” she said. In contrast Western art was more about an artist individual’s relationship with the world and the autonomous representation of ego, uniqueness, personality and character.

“Orientalism is a product of Eurocentrism and that is problematic. It’s about viewing Asia or the Orient as ‘orientalised’ and seen from a perspective that Europe is the centre with central values,” she said.

Knowing where an artist is from helps understand their work but should not precede the art and prevent the art speaking for itself, she said.

She said there was always pressure on non-Western artists like herself to “or display one’s cultural otherness” and do something politically or culturally enlightening.

So how did she get away from Orientalism and Eurocentrism?

“I began to work with abstraction when I felt dissatisfied with my work based on Filipino mythology. I like using abstraction as a tool for me to allow my subjects to remain open ended and limitless.”

Her exhibition of monotype prints on paper at Asia House, organised in collaboration with the Display Gallery in London, revolves around the analogy of the ghost – loose and phantom forms, captured for a brief moment in time but whose physical make-up and origin are impenetrable.

Nicole Coson's artwork is seen in the Asia House Library Annexe

Nicole Coson’s artwork inspired by the phantom form of ghosts is on display in the Asia House Library Annexe until 17 December

“I don’t want to give away too much,” she said.

“With my work I always want to withhold something and create a tension that there is something there and people think there is something they should know about,” she added.

“I wish to portray these ever-changing forms, this mysterious feeling of not completely knowing what is in front of you.”

Ugelvig commented: “The result of withholding information is a cultural and figurative limbo. We are not sure where to put these faces and suggestions of form and we are not offered a solution.”

Colson said the limbo state was something she and other artists who were escaping being categorised wanted. They wanted to create a space within what they already existed in, where they could rebel by withholding information rather than feeling that they have to give it out. “That’s us being able to gain control again,” she said.

She said her work was also influenced by psychoanalysis, especially the branch of Freud’s The Uncanny and it was “cool” that her talk was taking place in Asia House, formerly the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Coson is also inspired by Pakistani sculptor Huma Bhabha, who lives in New York.

“Huma Bhabha’s sculptures seem to suggest the universality of forms and acknowledge the plurality of references. She departs from an immediate recognisable identity and that’s what I try to do.”

Since the lines between cultures have been blurred by globalisation, Coson wants to move to new futures “and not have cultures imposed on us but have the right to be heard as unique individual.”

She wants to reject Western demands for authenticity and ‘conveying otherness’ and create a new form that does not exist in historical definitions, she aid.

When Ugelvig pointed out that the printing techniques and psychoanalysis were both Western, she said “my work is definitely a product of moving here and of two different cultures but printmaking has existed in Asia forever. I have definitely been shaped by London. We all exist in multiple faceted ways.”

However, Coson said that the more recent “internationalisation of art” had allowed voices from previously marginalised countries to be heard. She pointed out that the Venice Biennale and other international art events and many galleries and museums were now exhibiting more non-European art.

“De-Eurocentrism in art is not about returning to purity, but about adopting postcolonial ‘impurity’ through which we might free ourselves and express our own thought,” she concluded, quoting Cuban curator, critic and writer Gerardo Mosquera.

The exhibition How to Appear Without A Trace: Surviving Eurocentrism is in the Asia House Library Annexe until 17 December. For more information click here.

Don’t miss the chance to hear renowned Japanese artist Kumi Machida, who creates traditional Japanese Nihonga painting in a comic-book style, talk about her work at the opening reception of her preview show at Asia House on 14 December. For more information click here. Asia House will be showing the first solo presentation in the UK of two of the works of Machida.

To find out about more arts and learning events taking place at Asia House click here.