Azura Lovisa

Azura Lovisa

How can we work to decolonize aesthetics? The voices of the ‘Other’ visualized - clearer, stronger and present?
‘Sayang’, Azura Lovisa’s latest exhibition counters the hackneyed clichés and the appropriation of cultures by occupying the imagined space of Orientalism and championing ethnographic portraiture through the eyes of the ‘Other’. An appreciation, the robing and adorning of traditional culture, is not an antithesis to modernity – it should be desired, not as a novelty but as if in the mainstream. The Occidental fantasy is not a distant memory, a Western discourse still breeding misconception and misrepresentation - this Western fantasy is now for the ‘Other’ to rescind. The conflicts between appreciation versus appropriation is a Mobius strip, as Lovisa understands, ‘Diversity, displacement, and globalization are recognized as simultaneously destructive and creative forces that shape our collective cultural production.’

25-year-old Lovisa is a Central Saint Martin’s baby - she undertook her Foundation degree in 2011, and graduated with a BA in Womenswear in 2016, during which she interned for Peter Pilotto and Balenciaga. Yet, these accolades could not compound Lovisa’s experience as an artist and the plurality of her identity. It was only after graduating that she started connecting with other Southeast Asian creatives, where despite feeling ‘unable to speak for’ either part of her mixed background, she learnt to be more vocal on the complexity of race dynamics.


‘Sayang’ meaning sweetheart, darling, to love in Bahasa Melayu, is an amalgamation of Lovisa’s works – a presentation of her most recent fashion collection : a film and photo campaign in collaboration with photographer and videographer Elizabeth G. Lee. Featuring work by a team of collaborators – accessories by Tanaporn Wongsa and Birgit Toke Tauka Frietman, set design by Sheridan Tjhung and lookbook photos by Ana Larruy – the exhibition, and its association with Lee’s platform XING is testament to a progressive vision of femininity, one where East and Southeast Asian women create in union, celebrating and inhabiting a sphere void of Eurocentric projections, their histories and memories no longer repressed. 

Your name in itself creates curiosity, an obvious marker of the plurality of your identity. How has your heritage affected your work? 
So my full name is Azura Lovisa Wännman, my mother is Malay and Chinese, and my father is Swedish - but I grew up between Sweden and Miami.

Being mixed, you are always confronted with your own plurality. It makes you realize that identity is not easily definable; instead it is fluctuating, blurred, molded by specific experiences and situations. I don't fully identify as Swedish, nor as Malaysian, which means I have to define what those elements of my identity mean for me, how I will signal those aspects of belonging/not belonging,

The Scandinavian design sense is inherent in the way I consider line and form, as well as the importance of material and a sense of naturalism. This in turn informs how I translate my research on Southeast Asian aesthetics. Because everything I know about Malaysia is knowledge gained from the perspective of a partial outsider, this translation of ideas via my Swedish mentality is a very honest reflection of my perspective.

Did you feel you could explore your identity politics at CSM, whilst based in London? And how has your practice differed both before and during your degree?
Before my degree I was making work that was only engaging with my experience of being Swedish. When I was younger I definitely felt more Swedish, and I rarely considered my Asian side. The realization that I had repressed the Malaysian part of myself in favor for a European ideal was eye opening. It dawned on me that part of why I hadn’t yet confronted being Malaysian in my work was actually because it was so complex. Visually, it was difficult to reduce it to a consistent, unified aesthetic, and that made it harder to digest. Suddenly the multifaceted nature of Malaysian identity which had made it difficult to relate to – this combination of Malay, Chinese, Indian, indigenous, and foreign imperial influences that are all interrelated and shifting – captivated and excited me.

My graduate collection and dissertation were a catalyst for a long labor of rethinking and relearning, and my commitment to a way of working that decenters whiteness in art, design, and academia.

In London you can definitely feel the presence of the Asian population, and even the Malaysian presence, which brought me into much greater proximity to the question of my Asian identity and how, being mixed-race and a third-culture kid, I fit into Malaysian culture.

see the archive at ‘SAYANG’ september 1st

A post shared by AZURA LOVISA WÄNNMAN (@azuralovisa) on

Can you pinpoint the moment that you began to focus your work on post-colonialism? 
I was writing my dissertation and reading the classics of postcolonial theory – but I wanted to connect the theory to something real, that I could study in the context of a lived experience, something I could see reflected in what I knew and felt about Malaysia. Interviewing my mother was a natural choice, the closest I could come to understanding Malaysia, in a way. I reframed the essay so that the subjectivity of experience became the central focus. That interview with my mother was so informative and emotional, and placed her personal narrative, which I had always known, within the greater historical narrative of Malaysia, as she was born the same year as Malaysia’s Independence Day. The value of the spoken account, of particular lived experience, of learning from our elders and understanding how they engaged with the history we can only read about, is immeasurable.

And why did you choose to center on the ‘Othered’ body, particularly focusing on postcolonial rhetoric? Do you think fashion, like your own, can influence the larger society in the views it projects of post-colonialism, counteracting this previous appropriation perhaps? 
The postcolonial period in history is this really fascinating, constantly evolving state of becoming which is characterized by modernity confronting history, the tension of a newly independent nation confronting contemporary reality on its own terms, so designing with postcolonial consciousness is a core value for me.

Fashion has so much power to affect real change in the way we perceive and deal with questions of identity and culture, yet it still has a very problematic relationship with the Othered body: there is a problem of the position of the Other in fashion, both as visible participator and as a source of inspiration, fashion is a mirror to society, but it also has the power to shatter hegemony and disrupt dominant cultural flows. The position fashion occupies today in society shows the potential of its commercial and institutional power. It is our responsibility in the industry to support the people and systems that uphold values which nurture the postcolonial condition.

Did working alongside creatives from the East and Southeast Asian diaspora, like in XING, help inform your practice?
That we are of Asian origin was not fully intentional but now feels very significant, and I don’t think the work we made together would have been as successful otherwise, because it wouldn’t have been completely honest given the subject matter. I think we are all very keen to continue collaborating, especially with other East and Southeast Asian creatives. Birgit is the only non-Asian in this little group of collaborators, but she’s brilliant and her sensitivity to cultural issues makes her a very welcome presence.


And, how was it working with Elizabeth G. Lee and her photography in particular?
I contacted Elizabeth about collaborating after seeing her photo work, as well as the XING archive she was compiling on Instagram. She has an amazing eye and was responding to influences I was also looking at, such as colonial-era portraiture and ethnographic photography, but with a focus on elevating new visions that are self-aware and quietly revolutionary. She is from Singapore, from a Peranakan background; my mother is from Johor Bahru, just across the strait in Malaysia, and is also Peranakan on her mother’s side, but did not grow up with much of that influence in the family. So Liz’s work felt close to me because it echoed questions I was asking but didn’t have the means to answer.

see the archive at ‘SAYANG’ september 1st pilgrimage to mecca

A post shared by AZURA LOVISA WÄNNMAN (@azuralovisa) on

How important is Elizabeth’s project XING to you, both personally and in the creation of the collection? 
XING is an amazing archive that encompasses not only the classical ethnographic records produced in the height of colonial times, but also popular media, advertising material, modern film, etc. The breadth of the collection testifies to the value of considering all cultural output, rather than just what is traditionally accepted as historically or culturally significant. It’s so importantly to actively work against the essentializing and exotifying of East and Southeast Asian womxn, and I think particularly Southeast Asian, which has been so affected by the convergent effects of colonialism, war, fantasies of civilizing the ’jungle savages’, large disadvantaged indigenous populations, sex industry and human trafficking trauma, and the usual Asian fetishization; it is a region that has been reduced to a subject of the West’s lustful imagination.


So, did this ‘civilizing of the jungle savages’ inform the set design and the location of the shoot being within swamps and marshland? 
The idea was to create a surreal space in a natural location – dreamscape ruins, strange and out of context but somehow familiar. We wanted to foster a feeling of displacement, or a sense of being in some eerie folk tale. Swamps are imagined as these primordial, mysterious environments, where civilization is unable to fully rise above the mud and water. They also are very present in the mythology and folklore of various cultures for this reason. an anonymous location whose barren emptiness is filled with our own memories. We were also attempting to satirize the ethnographic gaze by channeling these studio sets from colonial studio portraiture that were often a combination of painted backdrops and carefully selected and arranged props, as well as subjects photographed in situ, meant to show them as a ‘specimen’ in their ‘natural environment.’

And why did you choose to exhibit with Enterprise Projects? 
Enterprise Projects puts on pop-up art shows in various spaces in the city and is a platform run by curator Jade Barget, who has previously exhibited Elizabeth’s work for the launch of XING as well as in a recent group show. Jade is also half Malaysian, so her familiarity with material I was working with made the collaboration feel very natural. I also appreciate Enterprise Projects’ format as an itinerant exhibition space, which counters the institutional power of traditional art spaces that historically have held the power to assert the value of artworks.


Finally, what does ‘Sayang’ mean to you personally?
‘Sayang’ is what my mother has always called me since I was little, but it’s a commonly used term of affection. The word, to those that know it, will summon unique memories and emotions for different people. There is a feeling of familiarity, warmth, tenderness in the word – an inceptive nurturing love.

‘Sayang’ is on view on the 1-2 September at Enterprise Projects.




film @azuralovisa and
accessories @twongsa and @bttauka
set design @sheridantjhung
styling assistance @naomialannabarling and
models @helene.selam.prosperitee and @ebilaseth
assistance @kidbambi and tom
music @gidgeofficial


interview HELENE KLEIH

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