The fusion between classical and contemporary painting motifs feels beautifully synthesised in the work of New York-based painter Augustina Wang. Initially it was her fantastical fairytale piece The Stare of Cio Cio (Madame Butterfly as Fairy Queen) on display at The View We Seek exhibition at Anthony Gallery that caught our eye. It is not in fact a painting, but rather a pastel drawing that highlights the artist’s unique talent. “I think of this piece as a way to re-empower Cio Cio, a character from the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly,” she tells It’s Nice That. “The opera is cited as one of the premier early examples of both the ‘white saviour’ complex and the systemic fetishisation of Asian women as docile, traditionalist, and submissive.”
As an Asian woman herself, Augustina first reckoned with the opera and its yellowface when she was a teenager. “It was a tumultuous time back then– my body was changing, my identity was still in flux, and now I had come to realise that the way people looked at me on the street was not my own eyes deceiving me, but actually part of a long canon of what it meant to be an Asian woman in a post-colonial Western nation,” she explains. Now, The Stare of Cio Cio empowers this character. “Here she is Asian, no longer in yellowface, and she has been promoted from geisha into Fairy Queen– ruler of a realm of magic and spells, untethered from her troubled canonical form or the lovers she was forced to have,” Augustina says.
Augustina’s first solo exhibition earlier this year, For Glory and For Love, was also a triumph of talent. “For that exhibition I was interested in the idea of ‘power’ and all of its forms,” she explains. “I settled between the dichotomy of outer and inner strength.” This exhibition in particular was a cathartic one for Augustina, as it was born from a place of pain that transformed into a healing process. “I felt intense pain coming out of a sexually abusive relationship, and afterward, I felt this strange strength well up in me where I had a deep urge to call my rapist out on social media,” Augustina tells us. “It was a strange moment, in my mind I felt genuinely like a martyr, a woman warrior, someone who was going to be thrown into fire, fed to beasts, and torn apart.” Despite the mixed concoction of emotion, Augustina persevered in her intentions. “Afterwards, I was in firm belief that every creature, no matter how weak, has an innate strength to survive.”
Thus, common motifs of armour, swords, and protruding muscle on femme characters cropped up in Augustina’s work. “That very experience of myself as a legendary woman warrior, somewhat dramatic and borderline delusional, inspired a lot of the imagery for For Glory and For Love,” she explains. “I was fascinated by my strength to endure and my strength to grow, as well as my fixation on the idea of ‘roleplaying’ as a method of healing.” The phallic sword is reappropriated into beautiful and adorned weaponry, where “its beauty belies its violence”.
Now, Augustina looks back as the ultimate reconnection to her “inner child” from yesteryear. “She was always kind of a lonely girl, and found refuge in video games, anime, roleplaying blogs, and fan fiction sites,” she says. “I hope that I made her proud knowing all of the things she was teased for would pave the way for a voice in the future.”
Augustina Wang: Housewife (or After “She, The Ultimate Weapon”) (Copyright © Augustina Wang, 2023)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.