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Photographer, Mengwen Cao on Constructing Queerness Across Continents

For a week Mengwen’s photos adorn my instagram feed, their soft colours depicting intimate glimpses of individuals basking in the mundane, shared by World Press Photo. Mengwen has been chosen as one of their ‘Asia Talents’. With each day comes a new image and each day, I stop scrolling, riveted. By the end of the week, I have emailed Mengwen practically begging for an interview.

Portrait of Sueann Leung in Brooklyn, New York in May, 2019. Sueann is a non-binary costume designer and stylist with a keen interest in using design to explore identity and expression. They are currently designing a Queer Asian American Gender Nonbinary swimwear/resort fashion line.
Portrait of Amarie Baker in her bedroom in Brooklyn, New York in November, 2018. Amarie is a queer artist and social media strategiest.

I do some research prior to our meeting. Mengwen Cao is a freelance photographer and multimedia storyteller, born and raised in China. They moved to the US in 2012 to pursue a graduate degree and never left. Their work is described as an exploration of intersectional identities: what it’s like to be queer, Chinese, a person of colour…

On the call, Mengwen is thoughtful and laughs easily. I try very hard to look like I know what I’m doing. They explain: ‘I felt quite lonely for some time, living in New York. But that vulnerability became a strength, it drove me to look for a community.’ The collection of images I was originally so captivated by, titled Liminal Space, reflects this community: a series of portraits of queer people of colour living in New York. ‘This was my way of documenting my chosen family… I started just intentionally visiting my friends’ places and collaborating with them to construct images that felt relatable… real.’ Authenticity is a continual concern for Mengwen, as they try to navigate the space between labels and individuality. ‘I noticed that mainstream media uses these extreme narratives to capture us, we are either the glamorous party-goer or the victim of violence and discrimination. I’m not trying to be very blunt, to be like “look at these queer people,” I want to invite people to ask questions about who these people are first.’ This desire to document the everyday normalcy of a queer existence does not reject labels outright, rather Mengwen seems to be trying to challenge our understanding of what these labels - ‘queer’ or ‘person of colour’ - really mean. ‘How can we use these labels to our advantage rather than to put us back in a closet again?’ They ponder. Their answer: to take these labels, to stretch, to redefine, and to contradict and confound expectations constantly.

Yet, Mengwen’s work is not loud with the understandably justified rage that has come to define calls for visibility. It is tender and intimate. I ask how their friends responded to the images. ‘Most of them are surprised - in a good way - to see such a loving image of themselves. As queer people of colour, we don’t really see a lot of that.’ When I look at their images, I see what Mengwen means - each portrait depicts a friendship, partially illuminated through the camera’s lens. This desire to topple the well-established monopoly of a white heterosexual gaze, to democratise love and beauty, is central to Mengwen’s art. Humanism meets identity politics, in an approach to visibility that roots itself in universal emotions: ‘I want to use tenderness as a form of resistance… I capture these quiet moments because I want people to slow down, to really see us as humans.’ But this balancing act between a label and a substantive existence beyond it has repercussions for Mengwen also. ‘Does it bother you that you’re always attached to ‘queer’ and ‘Chinese', that you are never just an ‘artist’?’ I ask. Mengwen is thoughtful, ‘I went through a stage where I was really trying to shed these labels, to be anonymous. I was choosing work where I could hide behind the camera as a quiet observer. More and more, though, I feel I want to embrace them. They are ultimately a part of me - being queer and being Chinese - they heavily influence the way I see the world.’ For Mengwen, this seems like a reclamation: ‘It’s about asking what power are you giving these labels. I know in my heart that I am much more than them, but I also know they are helping people to find my work.’

Portrait of Luke Luokun Cheng in Catskill, New York in July, 2017. Luke is a Chinese American queer artist and digital designer working in diverse media including installation, imagery, and performance.

The significance of visibility is a responsibility that Mengwen does not bear lightly. ‘The more I work, the more I think about the power of the image. Whenever we photograph something, we are intentionally framing parts of history.’ This idea of the image as a ‘container of time’ underlines the importance of authentic and nuanced visibility for queer and intersectional communities, and it is of great personal significance to Mengwen also. ‘One question I always ask myself is what stories do I want my younger self to see?’ As a child growing up in Hangzhou, a city of 10 million which Mengwen describes as ‘pretty artsy and open-minded,’ queer representation was hard to find. ‘I didn’t know any adults who were out and in high school, most people did not talk about queerness at all.’ This silence signalled queerness as a taboo, a notion which permeated Mengwen’s subconscious. ‘I’m still dealing with a lot of shame even now. It’s strange. I knew deep down that there was nothing wrong with being queer, but somehow I also knew I couldn’t talk to my parents or teachers about it.’ Mengwen was forced to look elsewhere to find representation. The internet provided where reality had failed, and Mengwen describes how anime featuring queer relationships became a source of comfort.

The internet has played a crucial role not only in Mengwen’s childhood, but also in their career. Mengwen recalls a conversation they had with their teacher, right before they published Here We Are, a piece that has since been featured in The New York Times. ‘My teacher told me, “You know if you do this, you are going to take on the role of an activist, are you ready for that?” At the time, to be honest, I didn’t understand what that meant, but then after the project blew up, I really got it.’ Here We Are began with a letter, addressed to Mengwen’s parents. Inspired by a ‘burning desire’ to share the queer facet of themself, to build authentic mutual intimacy with their parents, who were still 7,000 miles away in China. This letter detailed that Mengwen ‘likes girls.’ Mengwen recorded themselves reading it, intending to send it to their parents immediately and then promptly ‘chickened out’. Half a year (and several more videos featuring letters by other members of the Chinese queer community) later, Mengwen pressed send. I ask Mengwen what they were scared of. ‘You can tell, from the very beginning I was afraid. I didn’t even reveal my face [in the video] because of the stigma in China. I know it’s not only me coming out, it’s also my parents…’

With this in mind, Mengwen’s decision to then film and share their parents’ live response over Facetime is even more extraordinary, and details a deeply personal exchange. It also explains why Mengwen was especially upset when this video, featuring their parents’ response, was circulated on Chinese online platforms by a number of Chinese media sites, without permission. This was so unsettling because it disrupted Mengwen’s long-practised strategy in China of sharing this part of themself only with those whom they feel safe enough around. The separation Mengwen had constructed between their life as an ‘out and proud’ queer individual in the US, and a life of relative secrecy in China was rudely interrupted. This anger, however, quickly became empowerment when Mengwen began to receive hundreds of messages from Chinese people both abroad and in China saying they ‘haven't seen anything like this.’ ‘This project really taught me that the personal is political and that the more specific and personal I can get, the more I can touch other people,’ Mengwen explains. Certainly, this experience seems to have bled into all aspects of Mengwen’s art as raw intimacy becomes a powerful means to confront ingrained assumptions and suggest the reimagination of a different future.

I ask Mengwen what this future looks like for Chinese queer people. Mengwen is hopeful, speaking of their friends who have stayed and are trying to change cultural attitudes towards queerness. ‘At the same time, they are fighting extreme censorship. It’s like a guerilla fight. You have to constantly produce new things and use creative ways to navigate that grid which the government imposes on us.’ But, this generates a creative kind of resistance, one that is clearly present in the Arti5+ project in Shanghai. I ask where Mengwen sees themself living in the future. They're unsure: the USA, though a place where Mengwen can express their queerness freely, also entails the continual and simultaneous ‘flattening’ and ‘intensification’ of their racial and cultural identity. And despite the stares Mengwen receives as they enter any bathroom in China, and the confusion and resistance to non-binary identities that they grapple with, in some ways ‘in China it is much easier to be androgenous,’ gender being less policed and linguistically emphasised than in the USA. Mengwen shrugs. ‘Even though I have a lot of hopes for how the narratives will change in China, we can’t say for sure.’ These varied experiences - parts of the self spread across two countries, emphasised in one location, unnoticed or hidden in another - is the consequence of sitting at the nexus of two deeply varied and intricate cultures. Yet it is precisely this that makes Mengwen’s voice so valuable. Mengwen explains that they are grateful ‘to the internet for cross-cultural communication’ which ‘broadens understandings of queerness’ in both China and the USA. I would counter that this integration would not be possible without people like Mengwen.

In Mengwen’s art, I see a series of acts of bravery. Both their own and their friends’ willingness to be documented throughout their ‘process of becoming’, a deeply personal journey which the majority of us do behind closed doors, is a quiet, yet effective, form of revolution. ‘Are you ever afraid to have all of your past selves online… forever...?’ ‘Yes,’ Mengwen responds with a smile, ‘but that’s the fun part of image making.’ And there’s a reason for it all: ‘My hope is that one day society can just see all of us [queer folk] as whole instead of only that one layer of our identity that is our queerness.’

With that, we end the call.

You can see more of Mengwen’s work here.


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