with Nargis Dhirani
What is your heritage/ancestry/background/hapa?
I am half Japanese, a quarter Trinidadian, a quarter German.
When someone asks you about your background, what’s the worst way to be asked?
Probably the worst way is not asking but just telling me what I am, saying “oh you’re Chinese” and getting it completely wrong. I don’t really get offended that much by these questions because I’d rather people ask than assume. There’s a lot of assumptions made and the only way to get things clear, get things right and to learn is by asking, so if people just ask me I think it’s better that way. One thing I really don’t like… I hate the word Oriental, I’m not a rug! You know what I mean?
There’s certain choice words that people use Ethnic, Oriental, they’re all very broad terms that people just stick on people when there are lots of different ethnicities, I just hate broad labels.
How do you feel and what do you say when asked, “Where are you from?”
I know that can be touchy for some people but when people ask me where I’m from I always tend to say, “I’m Canadian.” I just say I’m Canadian because it stems from a deep insecurity of mine of not being able to identify with any one culture. I don’t feel like I’m Japanese enough, I’m not Black enough, I’m not White enough, so saying I’m Canadian is the only thing I feel comfortable actually saying. I almost feel like I’m an imposter Japanese or an imposter German and I don’t even speak Japanese.
I grew up in my Grandma’s house who is full and fluent Japanese, like came from Japan-Japanese. I’m totally immersed in the culture, I’ve even lived in Japan for a while and I still can’t fully connect. I feel like people are looking at me like “You’re not Japanese, you’re not Japanese enough to identify as one”, which sucks, especially when you’re young.
Do you remember when you first understood that you are mixed race? What was it like growing up?
Ever since we were young, my mom always spun it in our heads that being mixed is cool, different and awesome. She would tell us “You’re unlike anyone else, ask anyone in your class, there’s nobody who has what you have and that’s special.” So, my brother and I were always proud that we were different, we’re half this, a quarter that and we wore it with pride.
Then I had a couple happenings that started to feel not like that anymore, once you start getting a older and realizing okay I’m not like anyone else and that’s not a good thing. My hair for example, I can’t tame it the way others can, and there are all kinds of different things. My lunch, everyone would have lunchables and I would have miso soup and rice or sushi or something like that. I remember kids saying “Eww, that smells!” when I had boiled eggs, but I loved boiled eggs. I wanted the cheese and crackers though, I didn’t like them but I just wanted to be like everyone else, that’s all you want when you’re a kid.
There are so many little random memories I have, when me and my brother used to act for commercials we would always get cast as the “Ethnic” kid. What does that even mean? In my little 5 year old brain it meant Me, that’s what I am, I’m Ethnic. I show up to the auditions and there’s Black kids and there’s Middle Eastern kids, and Asian kids, and everything except for the blonde hair blue eyed White kids who get cast for the main role and we were the background color. It just confused me and I didn’t understand until way later what that was, what that meant and why we were all being grouped together.
Growing up, I started to embrace my Japanese side and I moved to Japan and lived there for a year. After pretty much being raised by my Grandma who is Japanese, I wanted to know so much more and I always wanted to get to know that culture. Now that I’ve gotten to that, my desire is to delve into my other backgrounds. Trinidad is next, I really wanna go to see my family there.
What was your experience like living in Japan? Do you feel that you got to get closer to your roots?
It was the opposite, I’ve never felt so “White”. I really thought it would bring me closer and I would identify, but it made me realize that my Grandma also identifies as Canadian. As much as she is Japanese, she moved to Canada for a reason and she liked it, so she stayed here. Over time she became more Canadian, so the Japanese experiences I got were actually Canadian. After being in the heart of Japan, it’s not even close to what I experienced, it’s so different and also really alienating. Japan can be a very cold place.
What were your interactions like there?
They thought I was Japanese, even when I’d be walking on the street people would speak to me in Japanese and I couldn’t reply, I was still learning. They would just have a shocked look on their face and walk away, it was scary like I was some alien or something.
I look back at the experience as a fond memory, but living there I felt alienated, I felt so far away from my own culture and so far away from a culture that I was supposed to be a part of. But at the same time, I’m still so glad I did it, I love love love Japan so much but it was tough.
How does your identity affect your work as an artist?
There wasn’t that many mixed people in mass media or anyone to identify with when I was growing up. There were some mixed people but it wasn’t as big or as many as there are now. I couldn’t turn on the TV or open a magazine and say “Oh that’s what I am!”. I think that’s why with my art I’m creating that for myself because I couldn’t really find that anywhere. I’m still struggling with who I am and where to fit in so it’s almost cathartic to be able to create portraits. I’ve had extreme self image issues throughout my whole life and the fact that I can manipulate everything and it’s all in my control in painting it’s extremely rewarding in a really weird way. My work is literally about identity, it’s one in the same.
When did you first realize you were meant to be an artist?
After I got back from Japan in 2012, I had my gap year and wondered what to get into. I got into Special Effects Makeup Artistry and a part of it is knowing how to sculpt for prosthetics. I bought clay and started to play around with it and felt like a child again, I used to love crafting. I was just playing around then it lead it me picking up a sketchbook and pencil, then paint and then it just never stopped.
You portray strong and sensual women in your work, Who are you painting? Where is this surreal space they live in?
When I’m painting or drawing these pictures, I’m not trying to create an image. It’s more of a portrait I create that I then experiment different materials on. It starts with me just drawing right on the canvas, it’s very organic, very loose and kind of nonconceptual but I sit down, start working and let it happen. They don’t exist in any its in a kind of physical environment it’s more of a dreamscape and my ideal personification of beauty in my opinion. I’ll see a pair of eyes I think are beautiful or nose or tilt of a chin and that’s where it starts.
How do you feel now that you’ve created your own representations of beauty?
It’s weird because I’m struggling again in my work, it’s now coming to a point in my work where I think my beauty ideals are messed up and I need to change that. The beauty industry is so horribly wrong and I grew up in an environment looking at these perfect photoshopped models in magazines. Now I’m starting to question, why do I see this as beautiful? There’s a whole plethora of what I find beautiful but I feel like I’m still painting this same woman. I think that's the result of growing up in North America and what our beauty standards are, its ongoing progress I think I'm trying to break it down.
When I began my recent series of work I kind of like the idea of art being beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. The art scene is has a huge amount of conceptual work out there. I know we’re not in the times of the old masters where a beautiful picture is a beautiful picture. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a beautiful picture, but the older I get that seems to be changing, I didn’t get to go to Art school and learn about how to conceptually think of which I really wish I had the opportunity to, I feel I will probably take some classes to learn about theory but for now, I like to paint.
What's a favorite family dish you enjoyed growing up with?
Tuna Sashimi, if we went to grandmas house that was the special, she would get a giant piece of tuna from Steveston for us all to share. Also, Tako Sashimi, octopus. All the Japanese food really but then again if we’re going with my Trini side, my grandpa’s Goat Curry is the bomb. The bomb diggity.