Lately, artist William Yang is everywhere! Recently announced as one of the 45 Rainbow Warriors for Sydney WorldPride, and awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sydney Theatre Critics. Yang’s photographic work was just shown in Pride Amplified, a group exhibition at Maunsell Wickes gallery, and his performance – Gay Sydney: A Memoir was held at Seymour Centre during Sydney WorldPride 2023. But who is William Yang? And why do I think William Yang matters?
I first met William at an art opening about seven years ago. Before we met in person we already crossed paths via mutual friends who are mostly artists. Every time I saw William, either in his art shows or other artists’ exhibitions, he was always very kind and warm to me. However, I never really had a chance to get to know him as a person; and as an artist… That is until the Diasporic Dialogues Claiming Heritage exhibition, floor talk at Simon Chan’s Art Atrium gallery, the puzzle that is William Yang came together for me.
The Diasporic Dialogues Claiming Heritage exhibition was a joint show between artists Mai Nguyen-Long and William Yang. The Artists in Conversations was the closing program of the exhibition, seeing Mai Nguyen-Long and Melanie Eastburn in the first conversation; William Yang and Benjamin Law took part in the second conversation. This post is about what I learned from the second talk. William chose his dear friend, author Benjamin Law, also an Australian with Chinese background to join him for this occasion.
Simon Chan who hosted the event said that Yang and Law need no introduction. Law, The Family Law, the TV series based on Benjamin’s best-selling memoir… well Kent and I watched the entire three seasons! And yes, Simon was right. Benjamin introduced the exhibition as ‘a story being condensed’, and that ‘all the key moments are here’, to describe the selection of William’s photographs on the wall. So, here are some things I learned about Mr. Yang and his work through their hour-long conversation…
Discover William Yang’s Background
Before this event, I knew William Yang was an Australian-born Chinese, and he was born in Queensland. Through this talk, I found out that William grew up in north Queensland, a place called Dimbulah on the Atherton Tableland as a third-generation Australian of Chinese descent. ‘My parents were both born here in Australia. My family story is very much a Queensland story.’ said William. The first two images from the far left were William’s young parents. A picture of his father holding a saxophone, looking dashing in a suit. And a portrait of his mother in a floral blouse. They looked very sophisticated and seemed completely westernised to me.
The discussion moved onto a photo of a crime scene sketch. The title of it being: ‘My Uncle’s Murder 5 – Police Sketch of the Murder’. ‘That’s the crime scene drawing from the police of my uncle’s murder,’ explained William. His uncle was William Fang Yuen. In 1922 Fang Yuen had been shot dead by the white manager on one of his cane farms. ‘My uncle had ten farms, he was quite well off. Back then, killing a Chinese was not considered a serious crime, so they let his murder go.’ As a Chinese myself, this harrowing anti-Chinese sentiment made me very upset and angry. However, William’s voice was calm, and he talked about this past event like he was just sharing a fact. All I could think was that I’m glad we could all see how far Australia has come regarding racism. The murder of William’s uncle would be a very different story today.
A Complex Relationship With His Chinese Heritage
‘For most of my life, I’ve been in denial of my Chineseness.’ said William. This information was news to me, and this subject I found most fascinating. ‘Until I learned Taoism in my mid-30s…’ William points to ‘Self Portrait #2’ – a portrait of himself when he was a little boy. to tell this story. Then, reading aloud he continues…
‘When I was about six years old one of the kids at school called me “Ching Chong China man, Born in a jar, Christened in a teapot, Ha Ha Ha.” I had no idea what he was talking about but I knew from his expression that he was being horrible to me, so I went home to my mother and I said to her, “Mum I’m not Chinese, am I?” My mother said to me very sternly, “yes you are.” Her tone was hard and it shocked me. I knew in this moment being Chinese was like a terrible curse and I could not rely on my mother for help. Or my brother who was four years older than me, very much more experienced in the world. He chimed in, “And you’d better get used to it.”‘
(At the time this event was held, this photo was also on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of ‘Who Are You?’ – an exhibition of Australian Portraiture in Canberra.)
Clearly, racism, and the Fang Yuen incident, play parts in making William’s mother feel that identifying as Chinese was not going to be an empowering move for her children. ‘…we were brought up in the Western way. None of us learned to speak Chinese, partly because my father spoke Hukka and Mandarin, and my mother spoke Cantonese, so English was their common language.’ ‘My mother could have taught us Cantonese but she never did, she thought being Chinese was a complete liability.’
‘Through learning Taoism, Chinese philosophy, I reconnected with the Chinese side of myself, that part which had previously been suppressed and unacknowledged.’ The person who taught William Taoism was Yensoon Tsai from Taiwan. ‘I’ve had to work hard to reclaim my heritage.’ And his hard work includes learning Mandarin; and multiple trips to China and Taiwan. William even climbed Huang Shan, the Yellow Mountain. There’s a Chinese saying that every Chinese should climb huang shan before they die. ‘Chinese is very difficult! Once I thought I was saying something in Mandarin to people in China, but no one understood a word I said!’ We all laughed, everyone knew how that felt!
Alter Ego And Ben Law Hair Envy
I remember attending William’s private opening of his solo exhibition The Beach & Mardi, part of the Head On Photo Festival 2018. It was a well-attended event and William had great support from the gay community, friends, and network on that evening. This show of Aussie beach lifeguards, party scenes, and pictures of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras were the types of work by William Yang I was most familiar with. Fast forward to Artists in Conversations, I did see a few pictures from Sydney’s gay scene on the wall, the difference being, this time they were pictures of the Asian gay community.
‘I knew I was gay from a very early age, and I came out as a gay man in the early seventies.’ said William candidly. In the show there’s an image of William, wearing a suit facing a topless Asian man who is young, fit, and good-looking. Called, Alter Ego. Its message is very clear, and tied in strongly with the title. To me, this self-portrait shows William’s ability to construct and tell stories through his images.
‘Ben Law Hair Envy’, is a shirtless Benjamin photographed by William. Benjamin’s bare top was covered by black ink painted as black body hair. Apparently, a hirsute Italian man they both knew was the subject of Benjamin’s envy. ‘And you know, like most Asian men, I have smooth, hairless skin.’ We laughed and agreed with Benjamin. Benjamin also told us that ‘William’s great superpower is his capacity to disarm.’ ‘His quietly cheeky charm ensures people are comfortable in front of his camera. In William’s presence, you just forget there’s a camera pointing at you. One minute you are talking about work and friends, the next you are shirtless and down to your underwear as he snaps away.’ Haha, one thing I picked up from this talk was that Benjamin had a great impromptu sense of humour!
‘Do You Know What I Do? I’m A Performer.’
Back in 2017, at the art opening of CLICK group photography show in Badger & Fox gallery (now Filter gallery). A show that Kent and our friend Brett Hilder both had work in. William was there and we chatted as you do at an opening party. I remember he asked me: ‘Vivienne, do you know what I do?’ I was going to say ‘you are a photographer William’, but before I answered, William told me: ‘I’m a performer.’ That conversation was soon interrupted before I could know more. Much later on, I found out that in 1989, William began to perform monologues with slide projections in the theatre. They tell personal stories and explore issues of identity. William has done twelve full-length performances so far, many of which have been toured around the world. His latest performance – Gay Sydney: A Memoir was held at Seymour Centre, part of the Sydney WorldPride 2023 program.
Seeing And Being Seen By Queensland’s Favourite Son
In 2021, William had a major retrospective of his work, Seeing and Being Seen, at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane. It comprised 250 printed works, videos, and four of his documentary films were shown in a cinema. A commissioned piece, In Search of Home was performed during the season. ‘Queensland has claimed that YOU are their favourite son!’ said Benjamin. ‘Well, they only called me that because I left Queensland for Sydney!’ A reply that made everyone laugh!
Talking about Seeing and Being Seen, when the talk finished, Kent bought a copy of Seeing and Being Seen hardcover catalogue, and asked William for his autograph. I piped up and said: ‘William, I have learned more about you in the last hour, than all these years I have known you added together.’ William being William, he was giving us a generous amount of time, exchanging thoughts regarding the talk; and kindly helped us get the photos with him and Benjamin that we desired.
Since William is one of the Rainbow Warriors for Sydney WorldPride, I’d like to share this experience during Sydney WorldPride 2023 (17 February to 5 March). If you haven’t already heard of William Yang, I hope my humble post would provide you with some information.