By MICHELLE TIO, Rafu Digital Team
Elena Øhlander is a mixed-media illustrator of Chinese-Norwegian heritage based in Jacksonville, Florida. Her art aims to break down stereotypes, speak out against injustice, and increase understanding amongst diverse audiences.
Her most recent collection, “Hyphen/Xenophobia,” responds to the racism she’s been seeing against Asian/Pacific Islander communities across the world.
You identify as Eurasian-American. What is your heritage, and how do your identities inform your work?
My father is of Chinese descent but was born in the Philippines. He immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. My mother is Norwegian and was born in Norway. She moved back and forth between the United States and Norway until the 1970s.
I was born in Minnesota but grew up in Florida. My daughter is half Japanese and half all of me!
When I started creating art, I wanted to focus on Asian female identity that is a bit ambiguous. When people look at me, I don’t think that they necessarily see Chinese. They see Asian.
There wasn’t a lot of contemporary artwork that I could look to and feel a sense of reflection in the work. I could see myself reflected sometimes in antiquated work like old Chinese scrolls but nothing contemporary. And even if I did see contemporary art that somewhat reflected my identity, it felt like there was a Western, male gaze of the female — something to be fetishized. I wanted to talk about that in the work.
The main premise behind my work is to connect heritage, culture, and identity. Understanding mine and helping my daughter formulate hers.
Your “Hyphen/Xenophobia” collection clearly tackles discrimination against Asian/Pacific Islander individuals. How has anti-API coronavirus discrimination affected you on a personal level?
My first experience with anti-API coronavirus discrimination happened when I was working on a mural in March. It was pretty public, and there were a lot of passersby. Somebody was riding a bicycle. I was out there on a big lift, and they called me down from up high on the wall. So I lowered the lift. I wanted to talk to them because people are curious about public art, and I’m always happy to talk to people about public art.
This guy called out to me and said, “Hey, you’re wearing the wrong mask!” And I replied, “What do you mean?” (I was wearing a respirator mask for spray paint.) He was like, “You know, you should be wearing a N-95 mask because you’re Asian, and you probably have COVID.” I was shocked. I thought, “What do I say to this person?”
Sometimes I internalize situations like that in the moment because I don’t want to explode on them and escalate a situation. So I said, “Oh, yeah, N-95 masks are great for containing viruses. I will keep that in mind.” I didn’t know what to say. I just had to be diplomatic and go about my day. He kind of lingered for a while and made me feel uncomfortable.
Another time, probably a few weeks after that, the pandemic was getting more real, and we were about to shut down. I had to go to the grocery store. Somebody I know works in the media and told me, “We got the news that we’re probably going to shut down in two weeks and do quarantine. So maybe you want to stock up on stuff.”
I’m walking through the grocery store and there’s a kiosk to rent DVDs. Somebody was getting a DVD. A person stopped and was watching me with this gaze. This person brushed past me and muttered under their breath, “Go back to China.” I was like, “What? What is even happening right now?”
I’ve also been seeing a lot of images of vandalism. Vandalism of immigrant-owned businesses. I’ve seen papers posted up or spray paint on the exterior of buildings that say things like “Go back to China” or “You can take the coronavirus back.”
It makes me feel really sad. And think — what is the American dream? Is it to come here and have more opportunities and then be subject to never being seen the same? America does feel like a white privileged world.
I will never be white. I will always be brown. It creates a different experience.
My value is not the color of my skin.
Why did you decide to start your “Hyphen/Xenophobia” collection?
I know there are several websites where Asians around the world can express what happened. I started reading these experiences of someone being spit on while they were walking on the street. How they didn’t say anything and just went home and cried.
There are all these silent victims who internalize. Maybe they told their immediate family or close friends, but it’s not out there for everyone to see. I think that people deal with that kind of trauma differently.
So I want my art to be a voice for some of these silent victims. I want my work to bring awareness and to promote the positive change of anti-racism.
On Instagram, I saw a picture of a poster for the movie “Mulan” with the words “Toxic: Made in Wuhan” spray-painted over it. I teared up and thought to myself, I have to make a piece about this. This is really happening. I can’t imagine walking past this on the street and how this would make me feel.
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This is how the body of work began. And of course, that is still happening. Anti-Asian racism was always there. I think it was just amplified by this excuse that it came from this place, so now it’s permission to share my racism more locally.
At the end of the day, I know that I’m standing on the right side of history. I’m using my craft and my voice with my platform on kind of a public level to say – yeah, this is the reality. This is a reflection of what’s going on. Let’s have a conversation about it, and together we can create change.
Why did you choose the words “Hyphen” and “Xenophobia” when naming this collection?
When I first made the art for this collection, I was trying to figure out what to call the body of work. I realized over the time of making multiple pieces that I’m really talking about the hyphenated American experience. We are not always considered “American.” We are always considered Asian-American, African-American, Native-American, or Latino/Hispanic-American. Therefore perception is always “other” or somehow marginalized simply by these references around the social construct of “race.” I think xenophobia is a part of this, but I’m still working on how I want to frame that. I think hyphenated — or hyphen — is the best approach.
When I looked at your collection for the first time, the piece that immediately stood out to me was “Thanks Chinks.” Can you tell me more about the symbolism within this mixed media illustration and why you chose to include the words “Thanks Chinks”?
I saw a picture of a potentially retired Marine in an American convenience store wearing a medical mask that has “Thanks Chink” handwritten on it. He’s smiling and posing for the picture.
When I saw that, I thought, “Wow, that’s super impactful. This says a lot about society. I’m sure it’s not everyone, but there are individuals who are very racist and are unafraid to voice that. That’s hard to look at.”
I thought, okay, what if an Asian is wearing this mask and kind of counteracting that? Saying “I’m going to confront you about this. Glare at you, show you that whatever you say is not going to affect me. I’m going to promote peace, love, and equality.”
The hearts and the hands holding two fingers up are symbols of peace. Dragons are a symbol of harmony, good luck, so many positive things. I felt like to adorn the illustration with a Chinese symbol of harmony would embody that sentiment to help bring positivity into the world.
What you see in the background is a collage — Japanese clippings from magazines and newspapers.The collage shows that we have a story and narrative. That no matter what has happened, we can rearrange those parts, those narratives. And we can change them for the better.
What message would you like to convey to people within the United States?
I think it’s important to talk about compassion and human existence. To understand that the virus doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone. It’s important for us to come together, to be mindful, and to care about others genuinely — because you can’t put a price on a human life.
With everything going on with Black Lives Matter, I want to be a support for that conversation. To say — yeah, I’ve had discrimination, but my pain isn’t the same as yours. I don’t know what that feels like every day.
I want us Asian Americans to recognize that a lot of other immigrants have come to the United States and paved the way for us. I want us to ask ourselves: How do we take that hyphenated experience as an Asian and say, I still have privileges? How can I use that platform to connect with others and create more equality — more equity — in this world? Not just for us — but for the future generations.
To learn more about Elena and her work, visit www.elenaohlander.com/.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.