As we launch Female in Focus 2021, the Chinese-American photographer – who won the award in 2020 – discusses Lunar Geisha, a surrealistic portrait series inspired by the roles imposed on East Asian girls and women
Michelle Watt was four years old when her family left China for the US. Growing up in San Francisco, it would be some years before she began to understand what her mother – a single East Asian woman, who knew no one in her new country – had to endure to carve a space for them there. But, as Watt entered the throes of womanhood herself, it hit home. For the US, the latest mass shooting in Atlanta – not to mention the skyrocketing of attacks on East Asian people since the outbreak of Covid-19 – is a culmination of anti-East Asian sentiment that has been simmering since the Second World War. If it’s not manifesting in outright violence, it is micro-aggressions and stereotypes that permeate daily life – and crucially, it is inextricable from misogyny.
After moving to New York as a young adult, Watt bar-tendered for several years, and consistently found herself subjected to racialised sexual harassment. “It happens still to this day,” she says, “but you know how you’re treated as a young woman behind a bar. You’re like a baby sheep in a pack of wolves. And my Asianness kept coming up as a way in for them.” Drawing on Western patriarchy’s long history of the fetishisation of Asian women, Watt conceived of Lunar Geisha: asurrealistic portrait series that takes the symbol of a Geisha – a female Japanese performance artist, often woefully misunderstood and deeply eroticised in the West – as the focal point for a metaphorical coming-of-age story.
Stylistically inspired by editorial fashion photography coming out of China, Korea and Taiwan, Lunar Geisha’s protagonist symbolically transitions from an innocent girl through the rebellious phases of adolescence, and finally into a grown woman. Along the way, Watt – who won Female in Focus 2020 with an image from the series – subtly nods to the ways in which East Asian women are conditioned and perceived in both traditional Asian and contemporary Western societies.
In representing oppressive cultural tropes, from the “good daughter” to the submissive object of desire, Watt probes the resulting struggles that arise when Asian American women attempt to locate some form of intrinsic selfhood. “I wanted to show how, even within Asian society, women are forced to play roles in ways that they may not necessarily want to; roles that may often be silencing them,” Watt explains. “And how – in order to fit in, in order to find a sense of belonging – we betray ourselves, and we play along.”
Lunar Geisha is one project in a wider oeuvre that draws on Watt’s past racial and sexual trauma as a way of confronting her own implication in the structures that have oppressed her. But she never does so directly. Instead, her practice is rooted in play, imagination, and often fashion: strange, fantastical worlds unfurl across vibrant and meticulously staged compositions, only ever alluding to Watt’s experiences of the real world. She calls them “tableau”: French for ‘living picture’, and a genre of theatrical visual art in which still models or actors represent a scene from a story or history.
From bright whites and deep reds to blooming flowers and ripe oranges, Lunar Geisha employs a specific progression of colours and props to evoke development and metamorphosis. Meanwhile the styling and set design – combining elements of traditional East Asian culture and contemporary fashion – traverse themes of innocence and sexuality; menstruation and maturation; vulnerability and power.
“I crave things like belonging and love,” says Watt. “I want to feel like I’m attractive and to have that validated by men — or by anyone. And so I’ve been complicit in fulfilling these stereotypes in order to gain the favour of others. But the first step of breaking any sort of bad behaviour or habit is to recognise it. So making stories like this helps me address that.”
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.