“Once Upon Camellia Blossoms”

Essay by Mari Tanaka

Jihee Min's exhibition “Once Upon Camellia Blossoms” explores the stereotyped “exotic other” identity that is applied to the Asian woman's body, rooted in the history and imagination of Orientalist discourse. By using familiar symbols of “Asian-ness”, Min attempts to make visible the stereotypes and misconceptions perpetrated on the bodies of Asian women. Her exhibit makes use of the camellia blossom, origami and a long black-haired wig which she wore as a part of a performance piece.

The camellia blossoms on the walls of the exhibit space are characterized by either a penile extension or a vaginal “button” shape with long thin locks of hair emerging from the center of the button. It is interesting that Min has separated the sex organs, since camellia's are most often what is called a “perfect” flower, or bisexual, and has both male and female sex organ combined in one flower. But by separating the sex organs and making them visible and anthropomorphic, she comments on two prominent stereotypes about Asian women: that they are “hairless” and sexualized.

By choosing images and symbols associated with “Asian-ness”, Min attempts to challenge the ways in which the varied diversity among Asian cultures are made to be invisible in representations of “Asia” by the media. Most of the components of her exhibit have distinct geo-cultural roots; yet, they also appear to represent all of “Asia,” in a similar manner in which hyper-sexualized commercial images of Asian women, such as the ones re-printed on the origami papers, have come to represent all Asian women in media.

On opening night, the audience was asked to make origami camellias and pin them to the long black worn by the artist herself. The next day, Min walked through the city, placing these paper camellias throughout her path. Min’s march symbolizes her own hope for change towards attitudes and images regarding media representations of Asian female bodies, contained inside these origami flowers. Although the artist’s intentions behind these pieces may be hard to interpret without her there to provide the context, Min’s work dares the audience to challenge these stereotypes within our society.