How 2 artists embrace their identities as Asian immigrants while finding their own path

For these first- and second-generation Asian immigrants, being an artist is as much a privilege as it is an internal struggle.

Honing their creative voices, they find being an artist is both a privilege and an internal struggle

Ann Sze used to focus on realistic drawings, but she's found using a cartoon style is a better fit with who she is as an artist. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

For Ann Sze, art is a way to connect with who she is.

Many of her recent drawings feature a character who "somewhat looks Chinese, but isn't really either," she says.

It's a reflection of how she's working on understanding her own identity.

Sze is a 24-year-old artist from Brossard, Que., on Montreal's South Shore. She draws, illustrates and paints.

One of Sze's illustrations, featuring a character based on her likeness. (Submitted by Ann Sze)

She's also a second-generation immigrant. Her parents are from China, while she was born in Quebec.

But like many second-generation immigrants, her cultural heritage is not how she solely wishes to be identified.

"I personally wouldn't want people to like my work only because I'm Asian," says Sze.

She says labelling someone as an "Asian artist" puts limitations around them — "as if their work won't be valid if it's not about their culture."

Ann also makes drawings of her partner and brother. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Over the past year, Sze decided to move away from realistic drawings and start her more cartoonish illustrations. She says they feel more like her own work, allowing her to be more creative and intimate in her art.

Along with drawings in her likeness, she also creates characters inspired by the people who are close to her, including her brother and her partner.

'Appropriating my own culture'

In 2017, Sze took part in an international exchange in China, inspiring her to be more connected with her roots. She took some Chinese classes and ventured into more traditional Chinese-style drawings.

However, she said that it never really felt like the right fit.

"It was like appropriating my own culture," she says.

As Sze's parents are from Fujian, a southeastern province of China, they only spoke the Southern Fujian dialect at home, also known as Hokkien.

"Even in Chinese school, I wouldn't even feel like I belonged there. Everyone was speaking either Mandarin or Cantonese and me and my brother were like … we don't understand you!" she says.

Sze explained that her struggles with her identity may surface in her art, but this isn't an explicit artistic decision.

''Perhaps I'm subconsciously expressing my identity crisis," she says, but adds she doesn't think about it too deeply.

She'd rather draw what she enjoys, such as her cartoon likeness sleeping — surrounded by cats or pizza.

Familial pressure

Sze said that it's a stereotype to think all Asian parents are very strict, and will disapprove of an artistic career. Her parents let her study art, and follow what makes her happy.

For some first- and second-generation immigrant artists, that pressure might be more internal. Sze says this might be why she used to be more interested in realism and portraiture.

"It was sort of to show my parents that I could do that, to make them proud," she says. "Because it's the art that they think is art."

Ann's portrait of her grandmother. (Submitted by Ann Sze)

Supporting family

Joliz Dela Peña, an interdisciplinary artist based in Montreal, says that internal pressure can lead some to feel like they must do everything they can to make their parents' sacrifices worth it.

Dela Peña fears that, one day, she will need to drop her art career to do something with a more stable income.

"I wish I could financially support my family and have a career that makes me happy," she says.

Dela Peña immigrated to Canada six years ago from the Philippines, when she was 16 years old. Her work seeks to bring awareness to the hardships of immigration, and to question the comforts cultivated by our society.

Joliz Dela Peña says that artists of colour are often still 'tokenized' when they are included, leaving little room for nuance and a variety of experiences. (Jessica Wu/CBC)

Art is her way of healing. She finds a purpose in bringing visibility to her traumas as an immigrant and a visible minority — including feelings of alienation, homesickness and nostalgia.

One of her recent performance pieces was called Kain Na, or "let's eat" in Tagalog. In front of an audience, Dela Peña sat in silence, wearing a traditional white Filipino dress and eating a bowl of rice with her hands. Footage of her family members, also eating, were played on screens around her.

Dela Peña wanted to mirror her way of life — from living in poverty in the Philippines to her present life as an immigrant, drowned in feelings of loneliness. She ate with her family, but in silence and separated by screens.

A photo of Dela Peña's performance art piece Kain Na, where she ate rice in silence, surrounded by video footage of her family. (Submitted by Jailli)

As much as she values her cultural identity, like Sze, Dela Peña does not want to be recognized just because of where she's from.

"Some part of me doesn't want to be labelled as that Filipino artist," she says.

The problem, Dela Peña explains, is that a lot of visible minority artists are "tokenized" within the art industry. This means that often, art exhibitions will hire her only in the name of diversity. This, however, gives the appearance of cultural inclusion with no real effort to understand the deeper struggles of immigrants and people of colour.

But no matter the kind of art they make, Dela Peña says immigrant artists should be proud of who they are.

"Their voice, their existence and their narratives are much more valuable than we'd think," she says.