IN CONVERSATION ABOUT IDENTITY

Interview with Tang Shuo, Studio Lenca and Alya Hatta
March 24, 2022
IN CONVERSATION ABOUT IDENTITY
The whole conversation was brought into being by asking the artists what identity meant for them, whether it is something shaped over time and experiences or something rooted deep within their inner self. 
 
Alya Hatta believes identity is shaped over time, and the things that we find along the way which are important to us we keep close, both consciously and unconsciously. As a result of moving between all the countries the sense of shifting constantly has shaped my identity. My willingness to change, adapt, and never sit still is something I feel rooted within myself and something I will carry with me probably forever. 
 
Whereas Jose/Studio Lenca preaches that there are major influences out of his control crafting his identity. These include fleeing El Salvador's violent civil war, growing up undocumented in the US, and being queer. My identity can be seen as a result of the colonization of El Salvador by the Spanish and the erasure of the indigenous Lenca people, a sort of intergenerational trauma. However, my identity is also entangled with my art practice which confronts the injustices of my community. I suppose my identity is in flux, being rooted and constantly shifting.  
 
Lastly, Tang thinks this to be determined by both. The things deep-rooted in my heart determine my embryonic identity in this society. This is the cornerstone. Just like my national identity and my Asian face determine which ethnic group I belong to. Then time and experience serve as nourishment. The real power is to turn my identity into something valuable for society, making this identity three-dimensional and deeper.
 
 
The three are connected by a sense of constant movement, an ever-changing flow defining who they are at present: identities in motion. Everything is backed up by a core feeling of belonging to their truest selves that emerges when making art and letting their energies materialize on canvas. Art is their very own path to the identification.
Jose: my paintings make me visibly Latinx and allow me to connect to other people. This helps me cope. I also find solace in West African fabric shops in Peckham, cafes in Elephant and Castle, and eating Peshwari naan instead of handmade tortillas.
 
And Tang adds artistic creation has always been a continuous thing in my life. It connects my past and present.
 
Yet the way to identification is not one and only, and Alya hands off our conversation with one very last question that prompts us to reflect on our identities too.
 
 
I've struggled over the years to define my national identity, asking things like what does it mean to be Malaysian? How do I make it known in my work? How important is it that I represent my nationality within my work? And I've never been able to answer these things. I think that defining my identity is so complex that I've been able to spend upwards of 6 years making work trying to define it. I don't think that being in a country that isn't Malaysia has made it easier or harder, and rather than trying to define it I embrace the experiences of what it is like being an Asian woman living in London. I could say that I define my identity through my experiences living in London in the body that I do - things I relate to, the interactions I have with people and institutions - both good and bad.
 
 
Are we ever going to be able to define our identity or will it keep on shifting and adapting?
 
_____
 
 
 
1. Do you believe identity is something you shape over time and through experiences or something you feel rooted within you?
 
Alya: I believe identity is something that is shaped over time, and the things that we find along the way that are important to us we keep close to us, both consciously and unconsciously. Having such a fragmented sense of identity, I feel like it would be difficult and almost too complicated or confusing to keep all the information, cultural influences and experiences with me. As a result of moving between all the countries I did as I came into adulthood, rather than having to sift through all these experiences, what I keep with me instead and what has formulated my identity is the sense of constantly shifting - my willingness to change, adapt and never sit still is something I feel rooted within myself and something I will carry with me for probably forever.
 

Jose: There are major influences out of my control that have shaped my identity. These include fleeing El Salvador's violent civil war, growing up undocumented in the US and being queer. My identity can be seen as a result of the colonization of El Salvador by the Spanish and the erasure of the indigenous Lenca people, a sort of intergenerational trauma. However, my identity is also entangled with my art practice which confronts the injustices of my community. I suppose my identity is in flux, being rooted and constantly shifting. 

 

Tang: I think this is determined by both, because the deep-rooted things in my heart determine my embryonic identity in this society. This is the cornerstone. Just like my national identity and my Asian face determine which ethnic group I belong to. Then time and experience serve as the nourishment behind this identity. Its significance is to make the identity more valuable in this society and enrich this identity, Make this identity more three-dimensional and deeper. 

2 Where do you go or what do you do to keep a connection in between your life before the UK and your actual life now?

 

Alya: I always go to my family and friends to keep grounded in a sense of home. I don't think that I would separate my life before the UK and my life in the UK now. The thing about diaspora, for me, is that I am home wherever I am because of the comfort I feel with shifting places and people around me. Of course, there are things that I miss, like driving to my cousins' or Nenek's (grandma) house, that I can physically do or be in, but I feel that our connection is strong enough to exist despite us living halfway around the world. I think that with the way that I work, thinking constantly about memories I've shared with my loved ones or listening to old stories, or just taking from images we share online, there's always that connection that exists in my head.

 

Jose: Latinx people living in the UK have dubbed themselves los invisibles, the invisibles. As a member of the Latinx diaspora I feel quite isolated in the UK.  My paintings make me visibly Latinx and allow me to connect to other people. This helps me cope. I also find solace in West African fabric shops in Peckham, cafes in Elephant and Castle and eating peshwarri naan instead of handmade tortillas.

 

Tang: Before I came to the UK, I lived in Beijing, China, where I did installation art. After I came to the UK, my creative space was very limited and the materials I encountered were very scarce. The most important thing was that the creative context changed, which made me unable to continue my previous creation, but artistic creation has become an indispensable part of my life, So I chose painting to satisfy my desire to express. Therefore, artistic creation has always been a continuous thing in my life. It connects my past and present.

3. To what extent do you believe possible to form a personal national identity in a nation different from the one where you were born and why.


Alya: I've struggled over the years to define my personal national identity, asking things like what does it mean to be Malaysian? How do I make it known in my work? How important is it that I represent my nationality within my work? And I've never been able to answer these things. I think that defining my identity is so complex that I've been able to spend upwards of 6 years making work trying to define it. I don't think that being in a country that isn't Malaysia has made it easier or harder, and rather than trying to define it I embrace the experiences of what it is like being an Asian woman living in London. I could say that I define my identity through my experiences living in London in the body that I do - things I relate to, the interactions I have with people and institutions - both good and bad.

 

Jose: When I was in the US I was put into a box. Undocumented illegal alien. Here people don't know where I'm from and that allows me to be myself. I can create an identity within the UK that allows for the complexities and intersectionality that make me who I am.

Tang: It should be difficult for me because my childhood experience determines that I am a person who has no sense of belonging. When I see the word national identity, the first thing that comes to my mind is the word hometown, but I lived in different places as a child, so my concept of hometown is very weak. I now expand it to national identity. Except that I was educated in traditional Chinese culture and art. I don't think the collective consciousness of China has ever had a particularly profound effect on me. And the artist should be an independent individual and should have an independent consciousness, so whether to establish a personal national identity is not my concern, and I hope I can break this layer of boundaries.


                                                                                                                  Written by Bianca Spaggiari

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