What’s the weird compulsion to straighten our hair when it’s curly, or curl it when it’s straight?
A lot of the time we’re fighting against our genetic nature: striving to differentiate ourselves from our immediate peers. We put on a style to describe who we are and what we are, or at least what we want to be.
Life gets much easier when we just accept what grows out of our heads (or what doesn’t), and make the most of that.
By the way, I don’t really like other people’s hair better than mine.
Maybe I used to once… but I’ve grown out of it, and my hair’s grown out too.
Fearless John – the story behind a watercolour painting.
I was walking through a shopping centre in Ashford one day in the summer between terms at art school when something caught my eye.
There was something strange about the young man working at the mobile phone kiosk – I’d already walked by when my brain finally worked out that it was the handlebar moustache he sported.
A handlebar moustache painting was already on my mind…
I’d never seen anyone so young wearing a moustache like that, so carefully curled. It stood out to me because I’d been thinking about male facial hair a lot at the time, as part of a project on gender signifiers. (At the time, I was pretty oblivious to trends. I didn’t have a tv and I had no interest in fashion: both still true. I didn’t realise that soon, handlebar moustaches would be on everyone, even as jewellery and clothing prints on those who couldn’t grow them.)
After I got home, I started to regret not asking the stranger if I could paint his portrait.
It’s more than a bit strange, sure, but I decided to ask the next time I saw him, if there was ever a next time.
Of course, I did see him the very next time I went into town, but this time I was armed with my camera and business card to prove I wasn’t just a nutter. He was actually quite happy to be painted, which was a relief in that situation! I took my picture and scurried away as fast as I could.
Discovering my mystery model’s identity
After the term had started, one of my classmates saw my painting and recognised my subject as one of her friends and told me his name – John. I’d actually aged him up a bit. I now had a name (and a title) for my painting.
Still, he was very pleased with the result when I carried the painting down to the shopping centre to show him. That’s the last I saw of John.
Both are the same, of course, and I am both at once… but which word do you choose, and for whom? Your dominant affiliation will answer – how you see yourself and your authority in the world, and the authority of your country of origin vs the country you go to.
However, the history of the words and their applications carries much more than a personal choice.
Racism embedded in language
Many people think, with good reason, that the term “expat” has become synonymous with white migrant workers, whilst “immigrant” has been reserved for people of colour who go overseas to work. There’s more at work than just race. There’s nationalism and wealth to consider when we think of expat or immigrant.
Hierarchies of words
The words don’t need to carry these meanings, but they’re reinforced by the way we repeatedly address the hierarchical relationships between rich and poor, coloniser and colonised, expat and immigrant.
What feels even more strange is the way that we migrants – immigrants or emigrants – refer to ourselves. As a Bajan abroad, I’ve always thought of myself as an immigrant. I learned to frame my self in relation to my new country, not my old one, even though I carried my old culture around with me and only ever saw my travels as a temporary measure at the start.
It’s the weight of culture that tells us that we are immigrants when we go to a bigger, richer country. Perhaps it’s time to start defining ourselves as emigrants or expats in our choice of language and letting that seep into our identities.
Using art to talk about the expat vs immigrant relationship
Instead of using words to fight words, I’ve used another language to discuss this hierarchical relationship.
Fitting the medium to the message of immigration
Instead of treating these paintings with reverence, I’ve purposed them to be disseminated widely. They will only be available through print-on-demand platforms, and their imagery will be placed on somewhat incongruous surfaces for mass consumption.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay entitled “The Thought That Counts”, on hierarchical dualisms within academic and non-academic modes of thought.
In it, I tried to address all manner of subjects including conceptualism, craft, feminism and graphic novels, linking these through similarities within oppositional pairings.
The sprawling project did earn me my Master’s degree but also helped me to address my own practice, in the way in which I became interested in binding thought, language and writing with the image.
Mixing it all together
Personally, I’ve come to re-think my previous work on the gendered gaze, or the male as recipient of the gendered gaze, and try to combine visual and textual elements to be read as equal signifiers… or ignored, at the viewer’s pleasure.
I’ve chosen watercolour for this kind of work precisely for its unfashionable status and attachment to now-repugnant understandings of art and middle-class respectability. (Think twee cottages and greetings cards.) There’s also the matter of its legibility – it’s familiar and understandable, and downright gorgeous at times.
I don’t know.
As my work continues I hope for it to provoke some internal discussion over the remaining hierarchical structures surrounding concept, word and image – will it actually succeed? .