NextShark sat down with Australian Filipino director and photographer James J. Robinson, 26, to talk about his newest collection that puts Asian subjects against the backdrop of Old Hollywood glamor.
Photographs from his exhibition “On Golden Days,” which opens today at Hillvale Gallery in Brunswick, Australia, show everyday Asians in beehives – a hairstyle characteristic of the 1960s – kitten heels and boxy-skirt suits reminiscent of the ones worn by former first lady and fashion icon Jackie Kennedy.
It is an unfamiliar sight, seeing Asians with blonde wigs and glamorized in settings that could be a scene out of “The Great Gatsby” or right next to Maryilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Robinson describes his exhibition as an effort to unpack the “nostalgia industry,” referring to how we live in a culture that “loves to romanticize and fetishize the past.” He chooses to do so with an exclusively Asian cast, surrounding them in the same glitz and glamor. It is what he describes as his way of making an “ironic statement.”
He also describes how he was intentional about creating a product that did not center itself around the “trauma or negative experiences of minorities” but rather on a rewriting of history in which Asian subjects are also dressed in extravagant and beautiful outfits.”
Robinson’s idea for his exhibition was in part inspired by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book “Nothing Ever Dies,” which addressed the way in which the world remembers the Vietnam War.
“And even though America was the one to retreat, the way that it’s memorized in the media and in pop culture in general, dictates how we feel about this particular war, about this conflict,” says Robinson. “So I started thinking a little bit about the other ways that our culture dictates the way we look back on our past.”
He began his creative process by watching films by Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson and thought about how their highly stylized projections of the ‘60s and ‘70s, largely white-centered, would be “entirely different” from the way a marginalized group probably looked back at that era.
“I had this overwhelming sense when I was watching a show like ‘Mad Men,’ like ‘Wow, I wish I had grown up in the ‘60s! The clothes are amazing, the music is amazing,” Robinson shares. “But thinking about it, I’m a queer, half-Filipino person who is quite feminine, and if I lived in that period. I don’t think I would have had such a beautiful experience, as I’m being told that time would be.”
Robinson also confesses that there is no specific time period that he focused on, instead taking inspiration from “kind of everything.”
“I liked the idea of getting this one big blob of general nostalgia,” he says. “So you get some outfits that are more ‘70s inspired, then sets that are more ‘50s inspired.”
“We grouped everything into this general bubble of nostalgia, which I think captures the way the nostalgia industry is never really specific about what it’s trying to do, it’s more the aesthetic principle that’s trying to be sold. So I wanted to play into that by keeping to a broad era.”
When photographing his subjects, Robinson says his priority is to make them feel as comfortable as possible and also “visible and seen.”
He explains that he also tends to gravitate towards casting people of Asian heritage, and that there’s “an instant shared understanding” about their upbringing when working together.
“Knowing that I have a similar background with these people makes me instantly more comfortable, and I feel that they feel safe being at my hands [and] about the way I’m trying to portray them, which is a really nice and disarming feeling.”
When working with Asian subjects, Robinson shares, he aims to create work that is not something “tokenistic or performative,” but instead “authentic” to him and his expression through art.
He talks about a particularly special connection he had with actor Vanessa Hudgens, who is also half Filipino.
“We had this shared Filipino ancestry, we instantly felt like family. And I feel like I got some of the best photos I’ve ever taken just because everyone was so relaxed,” shares a smiling Robinson. “[I felt a] beautiful sense of family working with her in particular. … She’s one of my favorites.”
Robinson’s “On Golden Days” will be open from now through May 22 at the Hillvale Gallery in Brunswick, Australia, before making its way to Tokyo in September. Robinson stated that he plans to come to the States, but no dates or locations have been confirmed yet.
You can follow James on his Instagram: @james.pdf