Alexa Malizon is one of 14 Australian artists who have been nominated for the Institute of Modern Art’s the churchie emerging art prize this year. In the run up to twin landmarks in Alexa’s budding career – the churchie finalists’ exhibition and her first solo exhibition – Elizabeth Harris chatted with Alexa about her experience growing up in the Filipino diaspora, cross-cultural humour, and building her practice.

Elizabeth Harris  |  Ed. Peter Traynor | 8 August 2021
Alexa Malizon, Mag Otso Otso (2020). Video, 1:11 minutes. @ Courtesy of the artist.

You were recently announced as a finalist for the churchie emerging art prize, congratulations! Could you tell me about your experience of being nominated?

I was pretty shocked to say the least. I’m really happy to be part of a line-up of artists who explore their own identities whether those are cultural, or related to disability, or something else – using innovative practices. 

Before I was nominated for the churchie, I was part of PICA Hatched 2021. The Hatched curator, Miranda Johnson, and my Honours supervisor, Ella Barclay, suggested that I apply for the churchie. I didn’t really think about it, and just thought, ‘We will see how it goes.’ At the end of June, I was supposed to go to Perth to see my work in Hatched, but I couldn’t because of COVID. Soon after that I got the news that I was a churchie finalist and I just saw how many people had applied and I thought, ‘Wow, from about 500 people, I was one of 14,’ which is pretty surreal for someone who is new to the industry.

Alexa Malizon, Mag Otso Otso (2020). Video, 1:11 minutes. @ Courtesy of the artist.

Your Eczemanotypes and Too Deep series engage with your skin condition, eczema, through cyanotypes, which make up a large proportion of your work to date. The cyanotypes are very self-reflective and personal in that they deal with your body. But then there is a bit of a shift with the Diversitea Talks videos – Mag Otso Otso and Ningning: they are still very personal but look at you as a person from a societal perspective. Did that play into why you started to use video?

It is more that I wanted to go more out of my comfort zone. The video was really new to me, and I really only learnt about techniques and how to ‘properly’ make videos that year.  In Eczemanotypes and Too Deep, I only show sections of myself close-ups of my skin. Another work, Wear My Skin, was a larger installation, but it still featured close-ups of my skin. What I particularly wanted to do was to challenge myself by being ‘in front’ of the work. I have always held expectations of what my audiences and lecturers would like, so my practice was somewhat under the influence of their feedback until my Honours year when I started making video art. Video art has given me a voice that doesn’t involve other people’s opinions – although I appreciate receiving critiques, I don’t want that to take over my work.

I usually get really embarrassed when I see myself on the big screen, but when I’m making art, I don’t. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to myself from the editing process, but I think it’s also because I feel like an actor playing those characters even though they represent me in a more exaggerated but direct context. Exploring the idea of diversity and my personal experience within that… it’s easier to do that and be direct in a three-dimensional form, or in the moving image.

Alexa Malizon, Ningning (2020). Video, 1:50 minutes. @ Courtesy of the artist.

Your videos are quite humorous. Ningning deals very directly with the idea of internal discomfort and as a viewer, you cringe a little bit with uncomfortable laughter as the two versions of yourself look at each other awkwardly and fall into silence. Why do you use humour in your work, and does it make it easier for you to deal with personal experiences?

I think using humour is a powerful tool to use in video art especially; it can reveal the potential of resisting common cultural stereotypes while discussing the underlying issues of identity. It makes it easier to talk about serious issues without offending people. In Ningning there is a language barrier, which often arises for people who are part of the Filipino diaspora. I’m addressing a topic that is relatable for collective audiences, using my personal experiences, and humour is an easy way to exaggerate ideas, to deal with them directly.

What’s interesting about the way I use humour in Mag Otso Otso is the different ways that different communities find humour in it. When I showed it to other Filipinos who know the song, they really got excited because they relate to it – it’s funny because I’m playing with something familiar. It’s an inside joke for our community. When I show it to an Australian audience, they find it a bit weird. One person said that the dance looks like ‘twerking’ or it looks like a cat puking. The humour arises from the knowledge and power relationships between ‘people who know’ and ‘people who do not know’.

Alexa Malizon, Still from Ningning (2020). Video still. @ Courtesy of the artist. 

Thinking about those dual personas in Ningning, I read that as an illustration of what is really the eternal struggle of a member of a diasporic community – parts of you feel more or less comfortable in one culture or another, and that might fluctuate over time. The background to the video looks like a Zoom background, such that both sides of yourself are superimposed on a false background.  I was wondering if you could share the meaning behind your use of that background?

That idea plays with my and the Filipinos’, generally love for karaoke and the format of karaoke. The background is typical of a stage background for Filipino karaoke: they have the lyrics and a slideshow of images of Filipino landscapes. I wanted to replicate that experience, so I decided to show a ‘performance’ of the stereotypical expectations of being a Filipina, which is to be graceful and talented , so singing and dancing. And of course, being able to speak the language. Then there is the other side, representing me, who is basically the opposite of what the expectations are!  It was an experiment in practising collaboration between those two identities.

Alexa Malizon, Installation View of Mag Otso Otso (2020). Photo – installation view. @ Courtesy of the artist.

At the end of the video, as we mentioned earlier, the two characters fall into silence. They don’t seem completely reconciled. Have you found that exploring your experience within the diaspora through your work has helped you to reconcile your Australian and Filipina identities?

I feel more self-aware, which has helped me reconcile with both of my cultures. I recognise now that I didn’t appreciate the Filipino culture as much as I should have when I was younger. However, I wasn’t really ashamed of my Filipino culture. I do eat the food and participate in Filipino cultural activities. But I wanted to get along with my Australian friends, so I thought I would get into their trends to fit into the society that I have been brought up in. Now that I’ve done this self-exploration, I feel that I am representing both cultures, by interacting with both of them. I didn’t know much about Filipino culture other than what I have grown up with and what my parents have told me, until I did research for my Honours project, which these videos were a part of. What I like about my practice is that I am constantly finding out new things about myself, and expressing that through different media.

Finally, I was wondering if you could tell us about a video artist who inspires you or who influenced you?

I’m more conceptual, so I don’t really focus on artists who work in a particular medium, per se. For the work I’m producing at the moment, what I am looking for is people who have worked with identity, particularly the Filipino identity. Contemporary artists such as JD Reforma, who works with installation and video and sculpture, and Caroline Garcia, who is a performance artist, who puts herself into her work and looks at her Filipino identity as well, have been great sources of inspiration. Then there are Bhenji Ra and Justin Shoulder, who formed the Club Ate collective. Those artists are key reasons why I started to make video works; I was inspired to feel connected with my identity, bring myself to the camera, and be outside my comfort zone. 

About the artist

Alexa Malizon portrait - Agora Digital Art
© Courtesy of the artist.

Alexa Malizon (b. 1998, Canberra) is a Canberra-based artist whose practice explores her personal experience existing within the Filipino diaspora in Australia. Alexa works in a range of photographic media ranging from cyanotypes to social media video posts, exploring the concept of intersectionality and the challenges of conforming to two cultural worlds, each with their own paradigms, modes of communication, and histories. Alexa holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) from the Australian National University School of Art and Design. Her work has been shown at PhotoAccess, Tuggeranong Arts Centre and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Following her selection as a finalist for the churchie, Alexa will be taking part in the finalists’ exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, which will be on view from 9 October to 18 December 2021. 

Key Achievements

  • 2021, Finalist, the churchie
  • 2021, Finalist, The Schenberg Art Fellowship
  • 2020, Recipient, Tuggeranong Arts Centre Exhibition Award

Past Shows and Fair booths

Solo Shows

2021, Alexa Malizon – ANU SOAD 2020 EASS Exhibition Award, Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Canberra

Group Shows

2021, the churchie emerging art prize 2021, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

2021, Hatched: National Graduate Show, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Perth

2020, VIEW2020, The Huw Davies Gallery at PhotoAccess, Canberra

2020, amplified/together: Graduating Exhibition, ANU School of Art and Design, Canberra

2020, Iridescence: ANU BIPOC Department Art Exhibition (with aMBUSH Gallery), Australian National University, Canberra

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