Photographer Kat Liu Explores Racial and Gender-Based Violence as an Asian American Woman
AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH PHOTOGRAPHER, KAT LIU.
Through the mediums of photography and video, Kat Liu -she/her pronouns- explores her identity as a plus-sized Taiwanese-Chinese American woman. Performing in front of the camera, Kat navigates racial and gender-based violence and stereotypes inflicted upon her. The consistent themes in her work discuss her experience and relationship with food, body image, and fetishization. Kat confronts these topics in an extreme and sometimes bizarre manner.
When not emulating her artistic persona, Kat is a photography teacher to teens, undergraduates, and adults in the greater Chicagoland area. She is also the Manager and Photographer of Pixelcharge Photos, a commercial photography business in collaboration with her partner.
Kat received an MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2018. Her prior Bachelor’s experience comes from the University of La Crosse - Wisconsin and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & KL: KAT LIU
AB: Kat, can you talk a bit about your process? How do you come up with your photographic concepts, and what about photography allows you to communicate the themes that are present in much of your work?
KL: Growing up, I rarely saw any Asian representation in the media or on-screen and when I did, they were made a mockery of and exoticized. In film, East Asian women fall into the Dragon Lady or China Doll tropes. The first is deceitful and domineering, while the second is submissive and passive. The camera has so often misrepresented Asian women. In response to these misrepresentations, I use the camera to take back ownership of these tropes in order to subvert the narrative of the trope itself. A lot of my process comes from purchasing mass-produced oriental objects. Sometimes these objects are more traditional like the infamous Lucky Cat, and other times these objects are more modern like clothing purchased from Dolls Kill. It all starts with an object to inspire me. Most times I don’t initially know what it’s purpose will be in my work, but eventually I will know what to create with it.
AB: Your work encompasses not just photography, but a performative exploration of video and moving image. How do you decide what work should be still imagery and what works better in moving image?
KL: That decision starts in my head. I either visualize it as a photograph or see it as a set of video clips. At the same time, I feel that some works can stand on their own and are powerful enough as an image. Whereas, other works may need more support, more context, and more seconds to feel the full effect and create a stronger statement. I think all of my works could take on the form of video and moving image. Although, I still really enjoy the idea of one photograph without any other context beyond what you see.
AB: There are a lot of quieter themes in your work that resonate with those outside of the Asian American community, specifically on the topic of cultural assimilation. Can you talk a bit about your personal history with cultural assimilation and what you mean by "Heal what you hid for so long."? (I’m thinking about your piece "Process De-Assimilation") Did you encounter instances where you felt the need to suppress your identity and culture? Did you encounter this in school, from your own family, etc. What was that process like for you?
KL: Raise your hand if you ever wanted to be white? Wished-hoped-prayed to one day be a white person because then you would fit in and life would be good? You would actually like what you saw when you looked in the mirror and not this slanty-eyed girl staring back at you. I did. But what would you expect? I grew up in a primarily white, conservative town in Wisconsin. I went to Catholic school even though my parents were Buddhist — begged to be baptized in third grade so I could fit in. In this town, my parents owned a Chinese-American restaurant. My parents catered to white people everyday on-the-hour. Chinese-American cuisine is full of assimilation on its own - accommodating to the taste of the West. And don’t get me started on how many times I answered the restaurant phone and was met with “NO MSG!”. (Seeking more info on the MSG MYTH? Check out David Chang’s Ugly Delicious Season 1, Episode 7 on Netflix). Speaking of food, what about my elementary school lunch where I brought in a bento box full of homemade Taiwanese-Chinese cuisine, but it looked and smelled weird to my white friends so I begged my Mom for Lunchables instead? So on one side, I pleaded to God to wake me up the next day with white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair and on the other, I was an ABC Ripe Banana (American Born Chinese -- white on the inside, yellow on the outside) to my family in Taiwan. I felt I wasn’t good enough for either. Fast forward to today, I am healing my Asianness that I suppressed for most of my life. That’s what I meant when I wrote “Heal what you hid for so long” in "Process De-Assimilation" (2019). I moved to Chicago, Illinois four years ago and that has been the best decision I have made for me so far. Living in a larger, more diverse city has helped me to heal, to find my voice, to surround myself with people like me. It has helped me to become who I really am, someone who isn’t afraid to be unapologetically Asian. I will wear my Cheongsam, eat my “stinky Chinese food”, and speak in Mandarin with pride!
AB: How do you feel about the representation of Asian Americans in America? Do you feel the representation is accurate, or is there still a fight to see more representation in general? How does your work challenge the perceptions of what it means to be an Asian American woman?
KL: As an East Asian, I know all too well of the colorism and classism that we uphold to South and Southeast Asians, particularly those who are darker-skinned and Brown. That’s why films like "Crazy Rich Asians", just wasn’t enough for me. It was a very narrow idea of “Asians”, specifically Chinese. The part that really made me sick was the limited screen time for Brown Asians in the film and that when they were represented, they were in roles of service. What I do love to see is Hasan Minhaj, Tan France, and Lilly Singh getting the exposure they deserve. I am so happy for their success and their representation in the Asian community! As for my work, I think who I am challenges perceptions of what it means to be an Asian American woman. I don’t mean that in an egoistic way. I’ve always been a curvy girl and not the typical petite body type you see in most Asian women. I also have tattoos and piercings, which is pretty taboo for those in Asia. That’s why I use myself in my work, to represent someone different than the mold. Though I use my body in my work, my aim is to show it beyond a sexualized object. In mainstream media, Asian women are hyper-sexualized, objectified, and dehumanized. I want to show that though we are depicted in this way, that will not stop us from reacting, showing our emotions, or taking back control.
AB: We noticed that you have some collaborative work with your mother. Can you talk a bit about that process and what it means to have your mother engaging with your work in such an intimate way? Something we hear often is how difficult it can be as an artist to get your parents to understand what it is that you actually do! Do you/have you had those issues with your mother?
KL: It means the world to me that my Mom is always willing to be a part of my work. She’s always been very open to my creative process. She doesn’t completely understand what I am doing—I’m sure she finds my ideas pretty out there—but she tries. She did such an amazing job performing in my video, "Mom and I" (2018)! I was super proud of her and very happy that we were able to interact with each other in that way.
AB: What is a dream project of yours that you would want to create, regardless of time constrains and funding?
KL: A dream project would consist of a whole warehouse as a studio, endless props, a whole production team, and all hands on deck. Have you seen Eugene Lee Yang’s coming out video "I’m Gay" on YouTube? I’ll talk more about it in the next question but the production of that video is something I would really love. I’ve also always wanted to go back to Taiwan to create something there as well!
AB: Who are some artists that inspire your work? Any early influences when you first began shooting?
KL: Tyler Shields was one of my favorite photographers back when. I really enjoyed how he talked about consumerism, particularly obsessions with brand names and twisted it. His series "Indulgence" has had a major impact on my photographic style and concepts. Patty Chang has been a more recent inspiration for me. We work in very similar ways and explore similar topics. Eugene Lee Yang has also had a huge influence on me. "I’m Gay" just released for Pride month and has gained 11 Million views since its release. "I’m Gay" is about Eugene’s experience as a Korean-American growing up and navigating his sexuality, gender, and race. I loved the way he represented his family and I thought it was really spot on and similar to my experience, and I would think a lot of Asian family experiences. I also really appreciate how he discussed the complexities of religion and violence against the LGBTQIA+ community. In a matter of 5 minutes he covered a plethora of issues and executed it in such a vulnerable and pristine way.
AB: What can we expect from you next? Any upcoming projects?
KL: I will be exhibiting my most recent photo "Thank You, Have a Nice Day" (2019) and "Yellow Fantasy" (2018) at my alma mater, the University of La Crosse -Wisconsin, in October for the Alumni Invitational Exhibition. I’m excited to have my work exhibited where it all started!