Athena Thebus: Artist Conversation
I sat down with Sydney-based multi-media artist, Athena Thebus. Over a Nordic and Japanese fusion breakfast, as per her recommendation, we mostly giggled as the rain poured outside. What I learned is that Athena operates her artistic production in conversation with and in honor of her Filipino culture and family, her queer community, and all the *D I V I N E* women in her life. We immediately bonded over our love for LA and at some point in our conversation she described her time there as “effervescent”… Athena – you are just that.
L: I’m going to start by referring to your bio on your website. I know I shouldn’t solely go off it, but you state your “practice is driven by the desire to generate an atmosphere by which queer life is sustainable.” There’s a lot to pull from here but first, how do you define queer?
A: I think queer has a more political leaning. I feel like you can have queer qualities without necessarily being queer or do queer acts. But for me it’s definitely embodied through interpersonal relationships, sex, and all those dynamics. Like how you uphold your relationships.
L: What do you mean by sustainability?
A: Well I guess that within capitalism, queer life isn’t sustainable, it’s a bit squashed. By sustainable I mean: able to thrive and able to regenerate. Queer life is always on a new frontier.
L: When you refer to queer life are you thinking about it in the context of just Sydney, Australia, or more generally in consideration of the world?
A: I think more generally in the context of the world, but I think [my practice] is specific to this place and time.
L: Place and Time. Referring to your website again, the concepts of “Queer hope,“ “past shame,” and your “queer present” stuck out to me. I want to discuss your views of time.
A: In my Firstdraft show Athena in Thorns, using a magnifying glass and the sun, I burned these two quotes from my mom in dry wall.
And they were:
I think those were the two funniest things my mom has ever said. Not even Jesus, but Money, is second to God and I love how she has a hierarchy of DFOs[i]. So I looked at these two things as commandments almost and I asked myself, “How do I live that. How can I sit with this. How do I embody these godly and feminine things.” So trying to reckon with the femininity that I rejected in myself, because I always felt I was really tomboyish, and reckoning with the femininity my mom pushed, that didn’t sit authentically with me, I thought about how I would create my own type of quote.
So I tattooed DIVINE on my body and took a photo of myself while wearing a strap-on and put the whole thing on a blanket. Then I hung it side-by-side to my mom’s quotes.
L: Wow. How did your mom react?
A: I asked my mom if I could use those quotes but unfortunately she’s didn’t get to see the show. I don’t think I’d want to be there for my mom’s reaction but I feel like my work wouldn’t be as strong without my own take on it. But her reaction does matter. I realize that [my art] is the only way I can talk to my mom about these things.
Brisbane-based artist Courtney Coombs did a performance-project I was a part of called “Conversing About The Other” (2016). I don’t like the word “Other” because it puts the white patriarchy at the center, and that’s not the center of my world. I wanted to make spring rolls for the event and I was worried about fetishizing myself but I ended up doing it. My mom makes the best spring rolls out of all the Aunties so we sat down for 2 hours and I got to ask her all these questions about her growing up in the Philippines and so much more. It was great because we had this one thing to do together and it was where past shame, queer hope and queer present all collided in that one moment.
L: That’s what I love about “happenings” or “performances” or “actions,” because since they are art works there is imbedded “intention” to the action. Something comes out of it, knowingly or unknowingly.
L: So I myself went to liberal arts school and was a part of a community that was considerably very queer-friendly, positive, and safe (shout-out to NΑΦ). I’d say my experience and my peers experience was unique in that we were allowed to explore our queer politics with each other. But once we left our college consortium, I think the realities of a hetero-normative society bog down on many of us. Where and when did your queerness blossom and when and where did you realize it isn’t as sustainable in the real world?
A: I think it blossomed and was most sustainable in LA. I’d like to go back. In Sydney there’s a gay strip, and it’s very white and capitalistic and it makes it hard. I think there can be a big distinction between being gay and lesbian versus being queer.
L: You talk about queer in relationship to camp when describing your solo-exhibition, Athena in Thorns. I feel like camp is a complicated term because it’s double-sided. It suggests naivety, by means of the observer deeming something campy, and it can also be deliberately or ironically campy or excessive by means of the maker or performer. Let’s talk about the word camp.
A: I realize camp is a really white term. I wrote it that way so that white audiences could maybe understand my work a little better, and I really have to stop doing that. I use the word camp in reference to my mom’s style which I had felt ashamed about “it’s weird, it’s not normal” So I guess the way I was coming to terms with it was by looking at it as queer. It doesn’t fit in this thing. It’s aspiring to work within this capitalistic environment but at the same time it has its own flavor, this weird funk, that it sits outside of the norm.
L: I think using the word camp is helpful because I associate it with aesthetics. Like I could pull something from a thing’s appearance and say that’s “campy.” But can you do the same by describing a physical attribute as queer? I guess you can now but maybe for someone from a different time the word queer is less accessible. Maybe the word camp makes it more tangible?
A: It does, I feel like within the definition of camp is this earnesty. What I realized about my mom’s taste is that there’s really earnest aspiration. I realized that towards my mom my feelings were actually “I really love you.” I felt all this warmth, “you’re so earnest,” I can’t hate this aspiration.
I was at the Women’s baths in Coogee. There was a group of us mostly women of colour. We had all gone to private school and I realized there’s a different kind of flavor to being a child of immigrant parents who then send their kids to private school. There’s a different kind of aspiration. It’s like an aspiration that comes from being thrust in. I feel there’s a yearning for something looking from the outside.
L: I think we grow up seeing how hard our parents work to get us where we are and so we assume a sort of guilt if we’re not producing at the same extreme level. I think that guilt fuels an extra drive to try and accomplish more than what our parents have.
A: It’s that everything in front of us is never assumed. [Private school] was something that was so built up and pushed for. I feel there’s a different sense of drive.
L: ...A set- intention to each moment of being there.
A: Yes, I’m interested in those subtle nuances…Actually, that’s another thing. Going to an all-girls private school was weird.. But at the same time I loved it because it really taught me a lot about sisterhood.
L: Was it diverse?
A: Not really.
L: So is that where you first started to explore your queer identity?
A: No it’s actually where I really started to shy away. I mean I knew I was queer but I knew I needed to survive high school. And that’s when a lot of things like being really ashamed of my Filo-ness was from being surrounded by wealthy white people. It signified all this lack that I wasn’t fulfilling.
L: Because you were aware of your difference, do you think you were able to pinpoint specific ways you could uphold these mainstream definitions of femininity and privilege? Were you able to distinguish what they were and/or how to perform them?
A: Yes, you play into it and you put on a show but it’s really inauthentic. It just makes me sad. It’s strange because my mom and my Aunties will do this thing where one person will find a photo of me from my high school formal where I have long hair, I’m wearing makeup and a dress, and then they send it to each other and then they all send it to me at the same time! It’s hectic. I just get inundated with this one image of myself. I love my Aunties but they sometimes cause me a lot of grief. I do recognize that having grown up with a lot of older women to answer to, has influenced how I operate my feminism today.
L: Can you tell me more about your family? Did you grow up with a lot of women in your life?
A: My mother is one of 9. 2 brothers and 7 sisters, with one sister passed away she is now the eldest sister and she definitely plays that matriarchal role. 3 of her sisters live in Australia and the rest in the Philippines. I grew up in Malaysia for 7 years and we’d go back to the Philippines heaps. So my cousins, my titas, and my mom and I are all super close. I really do feel like I answer to them.
L: I think it’s a cultural thing, family and respecting your elders.
A: I’ve worked out a way of listening to my mom and at the same time disregarding certain things… I’ve been trying to bridge my life together more, just in terms that I used to try seperate my Filo side, but realized in the last few years that it's the most potent part of myself and to acknowledge that and work with that.
L: Yes, your bridging shows up in your work. Can you talk more about Filipina femininity and the incorporation of your mom’s shoes in Athena in Thorns.
A: Recently I’ve been pinpointing points of shame. And I realize that I feel this shame because of living under the heteropatriarchy. So I see how my mom used to wear these shoes that signify this difference of class and taste and are an expression of femininity that was different from the women I saw around more affluent parts of the city. So I felt the shame of that difference. But really I look at those shoes and I think they’re really great, and so wild, and such an extravagant femininity.
L: So it turns from shame to adoration. You write “sympathizing with uncomfortable feelings”. Acknowledging that there was pain and comforting it.
A: Yes. One of my favorite artists, Adrian Piper, pumps uncomfortable situations. There is this one performance where she is sitting on a bus with a towel stuffed in her mouth. I remember reading that she puts people in situations because there are 2 ways to react. Either you react in a way that affirms the patriarchy and ignore the person or you react in a way that sympathizes with the other. And I realized that by feeling ashamed was reacting with the patriarchy. So to turn that around I had to learn to see what it is. But, at the same time my mom has all these aspirations that fit under the patriarchy so I’m trying to figure out how to tease these feelings out. How do I honor it.
L: Does your family get your art? And I say this because I think we’re both so ingrained with our parents we sometimes have to validate things to them which is also validating things for ourselves so I think it becomes really sensitive. I think this “validation” comes from a way of respecting them and is our way of honoring them?
A: I’m still navigating that. It takes a lot of time. I notice myself getting scared but at the same time I’d just rather everything to exist at the same time. But only recently have I realized bringing them into my queer life is rewarding. Because to me being queer is also being resistant to capitalism, and many other things. It comes up from multiple angles.
L: Yes, queerness is a space to explore non-conforming natures. So going back to your mom’s shoes, ultimately it is you, the viewer/perceiver, that decidedly uses the word camp to describe them. There’s this outside perspective in and I feel like there’s an embedded hierarchy with the use of the term.
A: Yes, I realize it can be problematic but it is from my perspective and my way of relating to those shoes. I’m trying to bring them back to my world which is the particularity of my way of seeing the world. I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m stepping into two different worlds and I don’t like that.
A: Totally. There was this really affirming moment for me at Firstdraft artist talks. Caroline Garcia had a solo exhibition at the same time as me and she’s Filipino as well and had brought in all these very Filipino artifacts and decorations. The objects were all familiar to me though I felt I didn’t have the same access to them. I realized that all I’ve ever known is being of the diaspora, the Filipino diaspora. There’s this kind of 3rd party yearning for this ‘homeland’ that is never realized and I may not ever know. And I wondered, “Maybe this language that I’m using doesn’t speak to other Filipino’s” - but there were some Filo’s in the crowd and they said, “No, this is really Filipino” which made me really happy. It’s a tricky language that maybe I don’t know the sound of yet.
L: When it comes to making work about identity, about yourself, it may seem narcissistic in nature but ultimately when you’re presenting it, it’s vulnerable. While making your work, how do you consider your ultimate audience?
A: I thought about ‘honor’ how do I honor all these parts of myself. I make work for a specific community, and that community can be chosen. I think about who I want to answer to. I have so many beautiful women in my life through my family, friendships, and mentors. How do I make work that speaks to them and is also within the bounds of what we aim to do.
L: When I think about my own art practice from college, my biggest critique was that I was too didactic. Your work allows space for interpretation, how does one stop themselves from being too forceful with an idea?
A: My work is not theory heavy. For me, feeling is evidence enough. If I feel something towards a person or if something makes me feel uncomfortable, it’s enough evidence to make work about it.
[i] DFO = Direct Factory Outlet