J VALENZUELA DIDI: The Middle Ground
J Valenzuela Didi is a Queensland based artist, exploring his dual heritages on canvas.
Didi’s contemporary style often focuses on urban landscapes, and are solitary in feeling. In a recent piece, ‘Half of the time we’re gone’ Didi deconstructs his own identity in a self-portrait that includes both subtle and obvious signs of the artist's own cultural background.
While the piece is different to many that have come before it, this deconstruction and rebuilding of the subject is an approach often taken by Didi, to better unpack a subject. In this case, his own identity.
THE PIN. Can you tell me a bit about your own childhood and where you grew up?
J VALENZUELA DIDI. I moved to Australia with my parents when I was four. My mum was from the Maldives and my dad from Malaysia. I was brought up in Australian culture, with that background of both cultures from my family.
You mentioned that you were brought up on both your parents cultures and Australian culture growing up, did one culture dominate your household?
J. There was maybe more of an influence from the Malaysian side, as my parents moved here because other family members from my dad’s side had moved before them. In saying that, my mum was quite a strong influence in our lives and we did have a Maldivian influence also.
How did it express itself in your family?
J. Food was a big thing. A lot of the food we ate was always different.
I guess also it was that idea of acceptance; of different ways of living and being. I think that was quite good for us as kids. My dad came from a catholic background, and my mum from a Muslim background, so there was always an acceptance of other cultures in the way that we were brought up.
What drew you to painting and the particular style you’ve taken on?
J. It’s been evolving over the years. I’ve always done drawing since I was a kid. Until about ten years ago, I never really thought about painting, it was just a thing I started and once I got into it I became addicted. I was really finding my way through what I liked and what sort of things I wanted to paint. Especially recently, in terms of coming from mixed, cultural or ethnic backgrounds, I’m trying to create my own reference point for that culture.
I did notice going through your back catalogue that this particular piece titled Half of the time we’re gone, is quite different to your other pieces...
J. I think it’s only the second self portrait I’ve done in many years of painting. I like painting patterns and I think that comes from being brought up with both of my parents cultures. I try to incorporate that into my work, while trying to not directly reference it. That particular painting had an emphasis on the pattern of the wallpaper on the wall and in the reflection. That use of pattern is something that I think is consistent in my work.
Was there a particular trigger for creating the piece?
J. I like to paint what’s around me and what I know. But at the same time I don’t want to box myself into any particular style or subject. Doing this painting was really about pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
In creating these different pieces, have you explored and discovered more art from the cultural backgrounds you come from?
J. I didn’t really do any intensive investigation into the art from my cultural backgrounds. It’s more the art that I had around me as I’ve grown up. The things that were more common to me, that only as I’ve grown older I’ve realised to be things that aren’t common to everyone. Then trying to incorporate those ideas that are in the Maldivian, Malaysian or Chinese art around the house,but not actually directly using them as the art.
I think it’s that hard thing when you’re from a mixed background, even though there is acceptance from a lot of people there is also that thing of you being not quite Chinese, or Maldivian. So to take something directly sometimes doesn’t feel right.
...I guess interpreting it in your own way, without completely adopting it?
J. That’s exactly right, that puts it a lot better than I could! [laughs]
I’ve had a lot of conversations about cultural appropriation, from the perspective of biracial people who are part of a culture by birth but not necessarily by experience. How do you feel about cultural appropriation in reference to the cultural background?
J. Yeah, it’s that exact thing. I have been here since I was four and I was brought up with Australian culture because my parents weren’t of the same language background, so we spoke English at home. So it does feel like I’m appropriating a culture, which is actually my own, it’s why I was quite interested to see The Pin. It’s that middle ground. I think there are more and more people like that. It is that appropriation that you feel, and also an isolation. It’s like you’re isolated from a community that is actually your own. I guess I’m trying to take that, and work that culture into what I am doing, but not appropriate it; while still saying ‘this is part of me’.
In terms of diversity on the Australian art scene, do you think it’s an issues like it is in other areas such as music, advertising and things like that?
J. Not that I’ve found yet. I’ve found the art community quite accepting. I haven’t noticed non-acceptance. I think there is interest in the place I am coming from, it’s probably quite a different perspective to what people are used to. I think it has a lot to do with that idea of being part of the crowd, but feeling isolated and not actually fitting in. I hopefully express all of that in my art work.
What do you think it means to be mixed race in Australia today?
J. I think it’s important for people of mixed race to share their experiences. There will be more and more mixed race people; my children are mixed even more than I am. I think being mixed race, perhaps gives you that added insight, where you can see at least two cultures, and the point of view of at least two cultures. Perhaps,more, depending on your position!
I’d like to think people from mixed backgrounds have more understanding of different points of view. That’s probably quite a good position to be in, especially in this day and age, and in this political climate.
Do you have any hopes for your own children, in what they retain of your cultural background and that of your partners?
J. Yeah, my partner is of an Austrian background - so quite mixed experiences! I’ve taken even more interest in focusing on my cultural background, because I think that as my kids grow up they’ll be even more disconnected from their cultural backgrounds. I’m trying to give them a culture.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
J VALENZUELA DIDI. That it’s okay. It’s okay to be myself. All of the questions and concerns I had about trying to fit in, aren’t that big a deal. It’s more about accepting who you are, remaining true to yourself and living life to the fullest.