What makes a place a home?
Is it the objects and furnishings we acquire; the woolen rugs, wallpaper and curtains? Is it the familiar song of birds sounding at our window each morning, or the breeze gently blowing our clothes dry in the afternoon sun? It is those that make our house a home - our family and friends - that make us feel we belong?
Can home be anywhere in the world? And can we cultivate a sense of belonging not sprung or bound by notions of race, language or geography? One that seeks and forges connection between diverse people, cultures, things, rhythms and contours? One with the idea of Earth as a home, the commonality of humankind in our shared space, regardless of ethnicity, religion, nationality, and ideology?
One that is kinder.
Drawing from her multi-generational family history of migration and displacement, Rozana’s practice investigates how cultural dynamism can be felt as togetherness and belonging, without being grounded in homogeneity. Working across textiles and moving images, Home is Anywhere in the World explores the idea of home and it’s ability to exist both within and beyond national and geographic boundaries.
Rozana Lee is an artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau, of Indonesian-Chinese heritage. She holds an MFA from Elam School of Fine Arts. Recent exhibitions include New work, Melanie Roger Gallery (2020), Te Wheke: Pathways Across Oceania, Christchurch Art Gallery (2020-2022), Project 2020: Space as Substance, Auckland Art Fair (2020), Future Flowering, Play_Station (2020), Reconfigure(d), Guangzhou, China (2019), and Two Oceans at Once, St Paul St Gallery (2019). Lee attended two artist residencies in Asia: Instinc Singapore (March, 2016) and Making Space, Guangzhou, China (May, 2019). She is part of the current curatorial team of Window Gallery, Auckland.
Home is Anywhere in the World was curated by MEANWHILE's Managing Director Melina Payne
MEANWHILE Public Programme Coordinator Anna Persson in conversation with artist Rozana Lee - August 2020
2020 has been a year where, as a humanity, we have been faced with more time in our homes than ever, and with the veils of belonging, borders, and ideologies being further lifted, the question we’re pondering is just what makes a place a home?
As a dual-national of both Australia and Sweden but with stints of living in New Zealand and Scotland, and a significant amount of traveling under my belt, the notion of home is one that I’ve always found somewhat complicated, fluid, and rooted in a feeling more than anything else. The nuances of personal identity and societal notions of home are complex, and the way that art and life intersect with these concepts is unique and idiosyncratic.
Due to Covid-19 and Level 3 in Auckland, Rozana was unable to join us in Wellington. I had a truly inspiring and fascinating phone chat to discuss her exhibition, the process behind her pieces, and the multi-faceted question of home and belonging. I loved our conversation and I’m very grateful for Rozana’s time and her sharing her insights into the history of fabrics and her beautiful relationship to them.
Anna: What is home?
Home is a widely explored and discussed concept and I think that first off, home is where you feel that you belong and where you are most comfortable. And directly, you’ll point to a certain place that might be where you’ve been born, where you grew up or where you currently reside. For me and for a lot of people who’ve moved around a lot, whether due to economic reasons or in my case, because where I was born was not safe, the concept of home becomes very complicated. It’s not equal to a place of safety or comfort. My exploration comes from a place of exploring the idea that home could be anywhere in the world if you feel you could be comfortable and I explore material objects, memories, reminders of home. There’s a lot of cultural references in my explorations, from a few different cultures that I’m related to and that I’ve mixed around. In ‘Fly Away Garuda’, my screenprints on wallpaper backing, the birds and that pattern is very much Indonesian Javanese imagery of Garuda, a mythical hawk-eagle adopted from Hinduism and Buddhism. It symbolises fighting injustice, the greatness of a country, and the King. My piece, ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ uses a very traditional pattern which used to be reserved for royalty too. I use a very traditional style of Indonesian batik. As much as being claimed as part of Indonesia’s identity, batik exists in a lot of countries like Egpyt where they used wax to wrap mummies or in India, China, or Japan. I’m so interested in the history of patterns and the way they relate, country to country whether through introductions of religion, early migration, imperialism, trading, globalisation or movement. My interest has always been trying to find the connection today. We’re not here today because we’re here today, we’re here today because of nomads, gypsies, and travelers and it’s my key interest.
A: How long have you been working with batik and fabrics?
Batik has been 2-3 years but fabrics have always existed in my explorations. I was born into it as my father and grandfather owned a fabrics shop in my hometown. When I was painting in my undergrad, I would always use fabrics to collage it into my paintings. There’s always been an interest there and when I did my post-grad, I decided to go right back to the source which is the fabric itself.
I’m very keen to do batik the traditional way and as much as I love that, I have made very small changes to the end process. In that sense, I’m conveying that I was never considered as being originally from my home country in Indonesia. I’m less interested in repeating the past and more into making it mine by injecting my own identity and bringing the traditional into the contemporary. Not just honouring the past but giving presence to it and carrying it forward to the future. That’s how I see culture. I can’t claim ownership into any culture being Chinese culture because I’m fourth-generation Chinese in Indonesia. I can speak a bit of the language, but can’t write it and during my time there, learning Chinese was banned. It became a violation that you could be put to jail for. Indonesia
has over 300 ethnicities and in order to unite, a lot of languages were banished. My exploration comes from a place of trying to turn something negative into something positive. How sad it is if you can’t celebrate different ethnicities, different languages and still claim to be part of an all-encompassing belonging? How can we be together like this, everything homogenised? I left Indonesia during the racial violence in 1998 where houses were burned and people were killed. I am lucky that amidst the chaos I left and went to Singapore where I lived for 12 years. It’s a very personal, four-generational experience of political and ethnic unrest that I experienced. In Indonesia, they wanted us to choose. My father and grandfather had to change their name. I couldn’t claim my family name until the last few years because Chinese family names were forbidden, even if used in the English alphabet. My birth certificate is just Rozana. I had to carry papers around my whole life at school just to prove that I am an Indonesian citizen and if I lost them, I practically didn’t belong. I mean, do you feel safe there? I call it my home country, my home town, the home I was born but there’s this torn feeling of displacement.
A: Do you feel the work you’ve explored recently is a reclamation of home in some sense? Exploring these stories, motifs, and connections, forging a link with the past?
Yes and No. I want to hang onto the past in the sense that I want to honour the tradition and the culture. To me, it’s not the tradition and the culture that did wrong to people, it’s the people that did wrong to people. I love tradition and I love culture and I want to hang onto that sense of interconnectedness. I’ve done a lot of research into textile history during times of colonisation and imperialism.
You lived in Scotland. For example, that Paisley pattern was produced in a little town called Paisley but it originated from Persia, was brought there, and then transported to Kashmir, India. The British armies went there and then brought the pattern back to that little town in Scotland where they mass-produced it. There’s a lot of context and culture being moved around. If you look at a pattern, you might look further. What is that pattern of? Where did it come from? When you start tracing, you realise it exists in many
different countries. Like the method of making batik as well. Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch and there’s a lot of links of fabrics and trades. The Dutch brought batik to Africa, to Nigeria. Indonesia claims it as their way of making it for centuries but it never originated there, just became big there and has since been claimed as the national fabric. I acknowledge the past and pain but I want to show how interconnected we all are. Why can’t we acknowledge and stop pointing fingers of who is the original owners and who is entitled, who owns this and who owns that, who owns the lands, who owns this country, and so on? We’ve crossed borders since the beginning of time being people, cultures, religions, and so on and so forth.
A: How long do your larger pieces like, ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ and ‘Blossoms and Ferns’ take to create? And do you have a specific concept or idea going in, or do you find the piece often starts and ends in different ways than you’d initially anticipated?
When I started, 2-3 years ago I started with very traditional Chinese motifs like the dragon and the phoenix. As much as it’s widely used, that pattern is particularly taken and inspired from baby slings that my late Mother left me that were originally made in Indonesia but with Chinese motifs. It’s interesting because it’s crossed borders. It was particularly sentimental because my late Mum used that pattern on a baby sling to carry me when I was a baby and when I had my baby, she handed it over to me. It was a long piece of fabric, 2 and a half metres like mine on display and you just wrap it over your shoulder and carry your baby. I sadly experienced the loss of the fabric shop where I grew up in the 2004 tsunami so this is one of the most sentimental pieces of fabric I have. I have such a sentimental attachment to fabrics because it relates back to my childhood and family. I use very traditional tools to create the batik that were created in the 12th century. There’s a whole process of boiling the wax to the heat where it melts and is liquidy but not too liquidy and then I’ll frantically draw on the fabrics. At first, there was a lot of trial and error and a lot of frustration. It all comes down to luck as it can take a few hours whilst I find the right temperature. The batik wax I use is a mix between bees wax and paraffin and there’s lots of impurities and sandy bits which can get stuck in the tiny spout. It can be a difficult process at times. When I started exploring with it and creating blotches, I just thought, “oh my gosh, this is so imperfect” and my supervisor enthusiastically said, “no no no, this is perfect. It’s handmade and human made. I love all the blobs, I love all the spills”. I learned to appreciate it and I think that’s life. I try to appreciate all these things, all these imperfections that bring a humanness and intimacy. That’s why I started painting. For that humanness and size of paintings. I want direct contact and that’s what I want with my work and fabrics give me that. I want people to walk around the pieces and have that subtle interaction where the fabric moves as you walk around it. I so appreciate it.
A: I love the way the exhibition has been hung to allow just that. It must be a surreal sensation to have hung an exhibition, albeit distanced as you’re in Auckland?
It’s frustrating, yes. I always want to be there and walk around my fabrics and feel it. When I was a kid, I’d run all around the fabric shop with my hands all over the fabrics. You can look through videos and online, but it’s definitely different and maybe I’m old school, but I love being there and to feel it. But given the situation I am still very grateful to be able to have my exhibition and for Meanwhile for helping me out!
A: Was this your vision, from a curatorial standpoint? A temporary construction of home?
If I have all these things that remind me of home, is it still home? Some people might say yes, some no. Everyone experiences it differently and finds things they can find of home. For people that haven’t been traveling much, they might totally reject the idea which is totally fine. But for people who have been traveling around, moving, in exile, migration, they are trying to make do with places and they might think, if I’m comfortable, I’m home. I could be in the desert, the mountains, and I could be home. I want to bring up these ideas and let people decide on their own. For me, I’m not so into the white cube idea of a gallery, like walking into a church. I love the idea of coming close, and that’s why I love my rugs on the floor and not on the walls. I want something real. People might say galleries are neutral spaces and that’s why we associate them with clean, pristine spaces but for me, it’s never exactly been neutral. It’s always infused with cultural and political values and each artist will bring their own subjectivity and ideas into the space. Whether cultural or ideological. For me, it’s rugs on the floors and fabrics hanging in the middle of the room. The way the fabrics hang are very traditionally Chinese and it just comes naturally. It’s always infused with cultural values even if we don’t really think about it.
A: In Dwelling: Being in Time and Place, you bring this beautiful moving image to the gallery, what was the process behind it?
It was filmed in Auckland on a property with native trees and birds as well as banana trees, an instant reminder of home. I explore Martin Heidegger’s dwelling concept of being in place and time. Just being in the world and that being home, it’s quite universal. That sense of belonging in the world. In a sense that it could either be a specific place, or it could be both. Everyone has their own take. Being present, being alive, that is being in the world. I’ve put the two together given my experiences. If I can’t claim a place of home, why can’t I be anywhere and just call it home? You look at people who’ve been in exile, or have been rejected and experienced displacement and feelings of not feeling safe. If no one claims or accepts us, can we just be at home anyway? It’s this never-ending question that’s been explored by a lot of people that feel like they don’t belong. My identity is confusing and I’m trying to embrace that idea of in-betweenness, fluidity and flux. I recently read, “my roots are shallow and I celebrate, my energy derives from movement and fluidity and freeness” and I was like, “Yes, why can’t I celebrate those things that I have, that not many people have?” You’ve moved around too and I really enjoy that, that celebration of what we have rather than lamenting in what we don’t. Accepting things aren’t fixed and that what’s there today might not be there tomorrow, moving along with it and accepting the change.
A: I feel that! It’s like making peace with transience, accepting impermanence. For me, home has always come down to a feeling at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s in the people, sometimes in something as simple as where my toothbrush is or where I’m sleeping that night. Sometimes it’s deeper like language, ancestry and a resonance to the land, but ultimately feelings.
I think it comes down to a mood. Like, am I in a deep philosophical state? [laughs] Sometimes it’s “this is my bed, this is my toothbrush, these are my things, this is home”