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March 25, 2020

VAMFF: Identity, Heritage, and Creativity in Fashioning the Body

In an industry often criticised for frivolity, last night’s VAMFF event at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum, Fashioning the Body, came as a refreshing insight into the deeper ties between fashion and identity.

In a loosely structured panel discussion, Akira Isogawa, Stanislava Pinchuk, and Zaiba Khan explored the connections fashion and adornment have with identity and heritage, invoking personal stories and creative processes to illustrate these intrinsic links.

Moderated by meditation teacher Manoj Dias, the panel began with the speakers’ varied migration stories, beginning with fashion designer Akira Isogawa. Having moved from Kyoto to Sydney in 1986, Isogawa expressed almost an inevitability surrounding his migration, citing cultural traditions in his home nation that had pressured him to leave throughout his teens. This contrasted with the experiences of Stanislava Pinchuk, who moved from Ukraine at age ten and has subsequently lived in many places around the world. For Pinchuk, even her home country feels like a liminal space, the tattooist referring to Ukraine as ‘the edge’ of Europe, a country of ‘border people.’ Her experience as a ‘permanent migrant’ resonates with Zaiba Khan’s colonial heritage: as a descendent of Indian indentured labourers who were transported to Fiji over a century ago, Khan’s family can then be traced from Fiji to New Zealand, and finally to Australia when Khan was eight years old. Each of these migration narratives reflect different influences and legacies, and yet all can be found in the works of the artists they affect.

The integration of Japanese culture into Akira Isogawa’s designs is clear: the shapes and textiles of the kimono are core influences on his collections, which began with him unpicking his mother’s kimonos at the beginning of his career. Isogawa spoke on how symbolism and ritual all play a role in his designs, particularly in embroidery, and how he carries a uniquely Japanese work ethic into his business in Australia. For Pinchuk, whose tattoo work in a recent collaboration with Khan saw the mapping of migrant stories permanently onto her subjects’ skin, solidarity is the key. She sees her tattoos as commemorating her subjects’ stories, working closely with them to develop a design that, once tattooed, is more akin to becoming the self than transforming it. Khan’s jewellery is commemorative in a similar sense, embodying memories that are literally carried on the person. Her family’s legacy is ‘always in [her] work because [she] can’t be separated from it,’ tied to her creativity and identity in an inextricable way.

The conversation perhaps inevitably turned to the experiences that migrants face in Australia, a country with a very recent colonial past. In response to the question of whether the artists identify as Australian, common themes arose around racism, estrangement, and multiculturalism. While Isogawa realised, upon a visit to Japan, that he does feel Australian, Pinchuk had a longer journey to this identity, finding more comfort in her dual citizenship only quite recently. Liminality returned to the forefront of discussions as Pinchuk recalled feeling too Australian for Ukraine and too Ukrainian for Australia, a problem of external perception shared by Khan: the goldsmith referred to identity as a ‘multiplicity,’ describing the body as the point of convergence between the many paths to the self.

For the panel, one of the biggest issues with an Australian identity, raised implicitly by Isogawa, is the fact that there is no single type of person that is uniquely Australian. What does it look like to be Australian? In such a multicultural society, this is difficult to answer, and is complicated further by the fact that sovereignty has never been ceded by Indigenous Australians. These questions are all incredibly important for any Australian, and particularly so for migrants who have found their homes here – but as Pinchuk suggested, as creative people, the panellists ‘don’t need to have answers, just to ask questions.’ Prompting critical reflection is paramount for genuine discussions on the subject, and in this respect, we at Casper & Casper find last night’s panel a definite success.

Fashioning the Bodies was an exceptionally interesting and personal panel discussion that took the self-expression inherent in fashion and used it to explore broader questions of identity and heritage. The Casper & Casper team is very thankful to have had the opportunity to hear these incredible panellists speak on their experiences, and we hope to see more events like it in future fashion festivals.

To learn more about VAMFF, visit their website here. Visit these links to learn more about Akira Isogawa, Stanislava Pinchuk, and Zaiba Khan.

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