I had the honor of sharing space and words with two amazing artists, Asia Lae Bey and the Childlike Empress to record the majesty that was Asia’s November 2018 solo exhibition, Evening Plum, at Bunker Projects. I invited the Child Empress to celebrate Asia and her exhibition through photography, knowing that their vision of Asia and her work would capture the energy of this show and this artist. This article also includes excerpts from the conversation that unfolded organically during the shoot, which took place on November 27th. It is edited for clarity and brevity.
Asia and the Childlike Empress use many different mediums and materials for artistic expression. The Empress is a photographer, musician, filmmaker, cook, writer, and dancer. They also sometimes draw. They considers cartoons and comics as “the foundation of [their] childhood and [their] inspiration to be into art,” something that they shares with Asia. Asia considers herself a comic artist more than anything else, although she also paints and sings and performs. We began talking about all the different mediums Asia and the Empress operate in as artists, which led me to comment: Anna: I have been having so many more conversations with artists who are just like, I just do everything, and it seems to be more and more the mode these days. I think artists are realizing that one of the ways of resisting capitalism is to just fill needs.
Asia: Recently Steph Neary (IG @rusnearious) made a comment about art being food. And when you look at art as food you don’t hold it as leverage, you give it
Empress: You share it, and you savor it.
Asia: It’s also really difficult in capitalism. It’s also difficult depending on what identity you have, [because] as a black woman in the arts, I’ll talk to... maybe a socialist white man who is anti-capitalist, and they are like, “Why are your prints this much?” And it’s just like, oh! Because I need to live. I’m literally hunted otherwise… Regardless of whether or not I believe in capitalism it’s not going to deconstruct the system and if I don’t participate to some degree I will starve. That’s how it works. If you don’t participate you will be starved.
Anna: And part of the system is convincing people their labor is useless and it should just be taken from them or given away. Like, “this bit of culture is useless so I’m just going to take it from you” and then they’ll just turn around and make millions.
Asia: People think that, being a black woman, our labor is for free, Like, Doot doot dooo… I’ll Just take that. Aren’t you a Marxist? and I’m just like, ‘Boy! If you don’t!
Empress: Dude! Seriously, that’s a big struggle!
Asia: I have literally had people at the zine fair come up to me and - at the zine fair I try to keep them moderately priced - but I had a guy say to me one time, ‘fuck anybody who sell their prints for more than ten dollars.’ (Asia looked at us both incredulously) And I was like, ‘My prints start at fifteen.
Empress: (laughing) Oh so fuck me? So fuck ME then?
Asia: I love this city, I was born in this city, I was mothered by this city, but the kind of isolation and suffocation that it fosters - the kind of instruction that tells you you have to explain yourself for being alive as a black woman - I’ve really experienced this in the arts because there’s a surrounding elitism because of the institutions in this city and the schools. So you have to sit here and pound on your chest and beg to be seen and heard as a human being. You have to plead for your art to be considered art and work.
The Empress sees this as more than just a Pittsburgh problem, but something inherent in the structure of the art industry.
Empress: As someone who is newer to this city and is from New York City, I think that’s an art industry thing. And the beautiful world of creation and of sharing your art becomes - like you said - so suffocating and makes you feel worthless and it’s isolating as fuck.
Asia: One of the biggest capitalist crimes is it’s reach onto the arts, because art is active liberation of the self, and when you capitalize on that, you’re using this structure of liberation to re-oppress. And then you convince people that it’s validation. So then you have these - I’m gonna call them “alleged artists” - buying into these institutions for this illusion of validation and perpetuating this structure of oppression. So it’s like you take the medicine and then you just put micro-doses of poison within it. And then you continue to prescribe it.
This creates an environment in which artistic success is falsely associated with capital success and fame. The results are toxic not only for the artists who achieve that status, but also for other artists who are trying to survive and create and form some sense of stability in an “art career’ and who are comparing themselves to their ‘successful’ peers.
Asia: I feel like, when people want success and notoriety and clout… it’s because they want to extend their influence. They want to have higher visibility so their art can reach more people. [But the issue is that, once you’re at that level,] you’re not thinking about your influence right now because you have not interacted with these people and you have not made a conscious influence in people’s lives… Are you still researching? Are you still discovering? Are you changing, adapting, are you letting yourself fuck up?... Because influence needs change! Influence needs to grow…”
Asia never wants to forget about her own growth of self.
Asia: When you’ve got an artist who, you know their name (she snaps her fingers here to imply instantaneity) you can immediately see their work (snaps) ...I don’t want that for me. If you say my name, I want you to feel me. I want you to be like ‘Asia Bey, yeeaaah! What’s she up to now?’ That’s what I wanna hear: what is she up to now. Cause I’m up to something, and gonna be fresh, and it’s gonna be different. It better be different! And if it’s not, check me. What am I learning? Who am I influencing and how am I influenced?”
Two questions to get to know the Childlike Empress a bit better:
Anna: Who are your favorite subjects to shoot?
Empress: Not to be all Kanye about it, but myself. I love taking pictures of myself. It helps me take pictures of other people and also puts me really deeply in contact with myself. I also can be really triggering to dysmorphia sometimes but it usually alleviates that more than anything. Sometimes, If i’m creating for the sake of social media, which is very much so for the sake of other people approving of you, it feels not so good and not so therapeutic and healing. I critique myself through the eyes of others so I expect other people to see me so that gets really messy and sad sometimes. So I really made it a thing of just like, put on music that is familiar and just do the damn thing and it’s cool... But other than that I really like photographing my friends in non-planned moments.
Anna: What about art makes you want to consume it?
Feeling. The feeling it evokes. It doesn’t have to be a good one; it can make me bawl my fucking eyes out, it can make me super fucking horny, it can make me really happy or make me remember something about myself or my past, just evokes strong feeling. Feeling has been very important to me in everything and I think that’s the whole reason why I wanted to start doing art, was to evoke strong feelings in other people, because I think that feeling is proof that you’re alive.
Art by Asia Lae Bey @asialae
Photos by the Childlike Empress @visionsoftheempress @the_childlike_empress visionsoftheempress.tumblr.com thechildlikeempress.bandcamp.com
Written and orchestrated by Anna Nelson @anna.l.nelson annanelson.net
Bunker Projects 5106 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224