Fourth-year School of the Art Institute (SAIC) photography student Kanthy Peng’s exhibition at Student Union Galleries (SUGs), “Portrait Tutorial,” traces the artist’s efforts to craft a personal identity apart from familial and cultural expectations while maintaining a connection to the traditions that are still very much a part of who she is.
Peng is Chinese, but faces a challenge not unfamiliar to many across the globe — a desire to be open with her family about her sexuality and identity. The show is a clear articulation of that struggle, as Peng’s work walks through her efforts to come out to her family. SUGS Marketing Director Zara Wee, who worked with Peng on developing the show, says that when it comes to difficult subjects in Chinese culture, “We don’t talk about it; we go around it.”
Peng decided to come out to her family with a more delicate, indirect route: using herself and her partner as models, the artist made a series of tutorials with the premise of demonstrating the passion for the person you’re in love with through photography. Her parents agreed to participate, and they exchanged photos back and forth over email. Her family’s photographs showed a great deal of intimacy and playfulness: Often set in nature, they photographed each other meditating, spending time together by the ocean, and experimenting with bright flashes of color.
As they received photos of their daughter and her partner, it slowly became clear to Peng’s parents that she was not returning to China on the arm of a boyfriend any time soon. Peng said that if her parents were upset or shocked to see the photographs, they didn’t voice it outright.
“Portrait Tutorial” includes a video of a Skype session in which Peng attempts to broach the subject of her relationship with her parents, and the tension becomes quietly evident. One imagines there are many things intentionally being left unsaid. Even though her parents enjoyed the collaboration, they still did not talk about or recognize the relationship between her daughter and her partner.
The exhibit affirms Peng’s own identity, but it also demonstrates that the categories we are sometimes presented with in the West are not always sufficient to encompass our human experience. Wee explained, “There are many other things that we consider as our identity, like our traditions and our roots in Chinese culture.”
Peng said of first arriving in the United States, “I felt excited, because now I could put myself into a group and I could find many people that shared my experience, and I could honestly come out here without being worried.” However, she stills sees complexities in the United States as well. She continued, “These categories in the Western world also need to develop. It’s not like a complete and perfect system. I hope to contribute to the discussion. My main concentration now is trying to figure out my real-life experience vs. the categorization of the Western world’s gender roles and identities.”
“Portrait Tutorial” runs through March 10, 2016, at Gallery X, 208 S. Columbus Drive, room 113.