Photo: Supplied

Have you ever been with an Asian woman?

First Thursdays art installation "Have You Ever Been With An Asian Woman?" explores the experience of being an Asian woman in New Zealand.

Gemishka Chetty, Aiwa Pooamorn and Julia Zhu answer this question through a female lens in their interactive walk-in art installation of the same title, set up in a shop lot in St Kevin’s Arcade as part of Elemental AKL’s K Road festival First Thursdays. When I visit two days prior to speak to Chetty and Pooamorn, bags of silks and saris are gathered on the ground, a tunnel of them being created from the wall to the ceiling.

“I remember doing a show, Go Home Curry Muncha, in Wellington, and we were in this big shipping container,” Chetty says. “These two Dutch ladies kept staring at us for a really long time, and I was getting pissed off. I’m tired of people staring at us like we’re zoo animals… we’re human!”

This time around, they’re doing that on their own terms. Playing on the idea of feeling like zoo animals, they will dress up in their traditional cultural garb whilst acting out mundane activities behind the glass. The point is to prove that even when carrying out everyday, ordinary actions, Asian women are still objectified by outside gazes. Other elements of the installation include poetry, as well as visual cues which add to the discussion of the Othering experience. “This is our truthful, unapologetic voice,” Chetty explains. “This is what it’s like for us.”

We swap stories about our experiences of festishisation of Asian women, the most common of which is the statement, usually dispensed by a white man, “I’ve never been with an [insert Asian ethnicity here] girl before.” More general stories of harassment follow, including one where Chetty and Pooamorn ducked into a Peaches and Cream store to escape a group of Evangelical preachers on K Road. Performing race-related material to a primarily Pakeha audience has also brought its share of difficulties. “We’ve had so many awkward, bad experiences while performing,” Chetty says.

Small things you dismiss from the back of your mind – someone yelling at you in Mandarin from the side of the road, for example – add up frustratingly fast, and Pooamorn and Chetty have learned that talking about it won’t go over well with everyone. “We’re always getting angry,” Chetty says wryly. The aim of the installation is to challenge stereotypes of Asian women, but it’s also for themselves, the community of Asians; to realise we’re not alone. Already, as we’re talking between three Asian women, flashes of understanding pass between us. Recognising your experiences in others is often a valuable and validating exercise. I mean, I spend hours on Netflix chasing that. The installation’s primary aim is not necessarily to educate. They’re sick of that. “It’s not our responsibility to educate you,” Pooamorn says. “That’s on you.”

Artists Julia Zhu and Aiwa Pooamorn

Chetty and Pooamorn are Indian and Thai-Chinese respectively, but have issued a call out to Asian women of all backgrounds in order to include as many voices as possible. Asian is a broad term – not everyone’s experiences will be the same. These submissions – in the form of Tinder screenshots, prose, and more – will be bundled up in a zine put together by Helen Yeung of Migrant Zine Collective and put at the end of the tunnel, ready for people to take home and thumb through. “There must be some wild things in there,” I say. “Oh yeah,” Chetty replies.

Although they shopped this idea around at other places, First Thursdays allowed them to say their piece no holds barred, without any censorship. They haven’t always had the same luxury in other projects in the past, constrained by pandering or other people’s discomfort. “We had a community paper refuse to publish something about Go Home Curry Muncha,” Pooamorn says. “They didn’t like the word decolonise, and didn’t, quote, 'want to sow division in the community',” Chetty adds.

Navigating Auckland as an Asian artist who primarily makes art addressing cultural themes is tricky, too. Pooamorn and Chetty want to reflect their personal stories and wear their own cultural dress, but they can’t control how audiences might interpret this, sometimes in orientalist ways. Often times, the world can see you as the “one who’s fixated on being Asian”. And if you don’t use your platform to talk about your Asian experiences, people ask you, why not? “You just can’t win,” Chetty laughs.

Chetty and Pooamorn are part of an art collective, Creative Creatures.

Visit this art installation during First Thursdays on 4 July between 6-9pm. First Thursdays will also feature other music, poetry and cultural happenings on K Road, including gigs at Beresford Square and a Matariki market at George Court Foyer.

For more events on the Elemental AKL calendar, click here.