Interview: Kay Thebez

Birthplace: Jakarta, Indonesia

Grew up in: Singapore

Currently lives in: Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.

Age: 21

Find her: Instagram Listen to Kay talk about her work 

(Photos courtesy of Kay Thebez)


Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell me more about yourself. 

I’m in school now for photography and video at the School of Visual Arts. It’s kind of funny because in the past year, with my projects, I haven’t really taken any photos because I’ve been working with archival materials from my family.

I love to eat food. I love eating food with my friends, and I think that’s something I cherish a lot, when I’m able to share food or when I can experience food with the people that I care about. I love to go on bike rides now because I think that’s my quarantine lifestyle.

[…] I like screen-printing. That’s been very therapeutic for me to get into. I love taking photos of my friends and family for documentation. I love photographs, and they mean a lot to me and are a source of inspiration always.

Left: “Mama, 1961, Jakarta, Indonesia.” // Right: “Papa, 1965, Ambon, Maluku.” (Courtesy of the artist)

Q: Tell me more about your interest in photography. 

Growing up, my mom always had a camera, and I’d watch video-recordings of me being really annoying and being like, “I wanna see! Mau liat, mau liat!” I think my mom got me a Polaroid camera as a kid, so I remember taking a lot of photographs, even as a child.

Growing up, I’ve always taken images using disposable cameras, but then I didn’t think that it could be something that I studied or something that I did until I was in high school and I did a pre-college darkroom course at SVA.

School felt forced to me, singing felt forced to me — all the things that I grew up doing, like dance, or pottery, or anything like that, I just lost interest. But taking photographs felt therapeutic, and I think it was a way for me to process things. I think that’s why I love photography, even though there was a moment where I hated taking photographs, like last year, where I was like, I don’t even believe in this medium! Why are we even doing this? But I think we’re back to loving it again.

(Courtesy of the artist)

Q: Tell me more about growing up in Singapore. Did you grow up with an Indonesian community?

So, I moved there when I was 5, and I did grow up with an Indonesian community on and off. I went to the local school first, until primary four, and I had Indonesian friends. […] Then, I moved to this Christian school, from fifth grade to eighth grade, and I did have this Indonesian community with me. We did international nights together; we always did different Indonesian dances every year. That’s something that I’m still processing, because like, whoa, everything is so rooted in cultural performance and this performance of national identity, when most of the teachers there are white, and what does that mean to do that?

And then I moved to a different school for high school; it was an international system, an international school, so most of my teachers were white and from the U.K. I had an Indonesian community there — it was more so one or two of them, but it was different. […] I’ve always been surrounded by that community, but I wasn’t always actively a part of it.

[…] It’s something that I’m still unlearning, the experiences that I had in international schools, because it was so Eurocentric, and also the Christian school that I went to was Americanized, so I went through this process of trying to fit or make myself — I guess, assimilate to this Western hegemony, like I thought I had to speak a certain way, and had to change my accent. Before that, I had a Singlish accent, and that was something that I was ashamed of, and I knew that as a child.

But I’m so glad that I’ve been able to keep in touch with my school friends because we’ve been able to share our experiences together. It’s something I’m still processing. Even in Singapore, my experience still felt very Eurocentric in the way that I perceived things, because that was what I was surrounded by.

(Courtesy of the artist)

Q: How did you start thinking about your Indonesian heritage?

I think I’d always considered myself as someone of Indonesian heritage because of my proximity to it — I always flew back home, because Singapore is so close to Jakarta. My parents went back every few months. They’re still Indonesian citizens. I think it was important for me to note that because we have lived in Singapore for almost 15 years, and my parents did not think to apply to be citizens/be a permanent resident. They come into Singapore as visitors, and with COVID, they’ve been able to extend their stay, but it has highlighted the fact that my parents’ bodies have always been in between borders.

[…] I grew up with a lot of stories, from my mom mostly — she’s a storyteller essentially. I grew up listening to stories that she would tell about the May ’98 riots ’cause I was born a year after, on the anniversary of it.

Because it was always in the back of my mind, I never fully explored it until I moved here (to the U.S.), where I was like, oh shit, I feel so displaced. Who am I? I think a lot of 18-year-olds go through that moment of feeling lost, especially when you’re Indonesian, and then you grow up somewhere else that doesn’t actively tell you who you are, and then you move to another place where … you’re categorized as just Asian, but then there are so many different dynamics and complexities that are being forgotten, and your narrative is always being simplified. So it was only when I moved here and I started to think about, oh, I’m Indonesian, but what does that mean to me?

[…] I think, now because I understand more about the history and the different dynamics that Indonesia has, now I’m like, yes, OK, this is very complicated and there’s still so much I have to learn, and I have more tenderness towards that and more appreciation, instead of like associating my Indonesian heritage to very shallow-level things, that’s still very comforting … but yeah, Indonesia is so complicated and dense and filled with so much culture that I still have more to experience.

(Courtesy of the artist)

Q: Why did you start thinking of your heritage more in the U.S., and how was the thought process different from being in Singapore?

I think you just feel so much more othered here (in the U.S.). My freshman year, when I came here, and I had to introduce myself in class … I felt like I had to explain myself more, in a very simplified way. I think because I had to box my experience in a one-minute spiel … like, I was born in Jakarta — but it was also my language; I was saying it so often, but why was I saying but I grew up in Singapore instead of and I grew up in Singapore. It was like I was saying, oh, no, I’m not from Indonesia — but that’s problematic. What’s wrong with me? That was the starting point.

I also felt very homesick. I felt a very intense homesickness that led to a lot of panic attacks. […] I wanted to feel a sense of belonging and understand my Indonesian heritage.

Q: What conversations have you had with your siblings?

My sister is the one that I talk to, and she’s the one who’s kind of guiding me through my journey. When I started my project sophomore year — in my studio class, we had to think of a project that we wanted to work on, and at that point, I didn’t have the mental capacity to just make editorial still lives, and at that time, the only thing I wanted to think about was trying to understand my family’s experiences from ’98, and that was the starting point for me.

From there, she introduced me to a lot of different artists that were also thinking about ’98 or the experiences similarly, so like F.X. Harsono, Leonard Suryajaya, and from there, it led me to so many different artists thinking about this. I also want to add my sister’s experience of viewing F.X. Harsono’s work, and how it was an emotional experience because it was the first time she felt seen as a Chinese Indonesian. I went to F.X. Harsono’s opening, because he had a show here in May last year, and I met this girl who introduced me to Rani Pramesti’s work, “Chinese Whispers,” and that was so beautiful to see that being portrayed and that story being told in that way. I feel like a lot of the times, those histories are erased and forgotten actively.

(Courtesy of the artist)

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

It means the histories that I’ve inherited from my family. I don’t know. There’s so much that I have to learn, to have Indonesian heritage. I think it’s something that I’m still trying to process because somehow, I still don’t feel that I’m “Indonesian enough,” even though I am, and that’s the constant battle. My mom and dad were told they weren’t Indonesian because they’re Chinese, growing up, and somehow, because I grew up in Singapore and I’m not actively there (in Indonesia), it feels like I’m not Indonesian enough. I don’t know how to answer this question.

If you want to come back to it. Or take your time to answer it. You can answer it later.

OK, yeah, I think it’s something I’m trying to understand through my work. Maybe I need a minute to think about it because I feel like I’m so used to giving a simplified answer, like when people are like, “Hey, so what’s your work about?” I’m so used to giving the spiel that I kind of forgot to fully think about it myself.

In art school, you’re kind of used to being told your work should do this, or your work should do that, and having primarily white professors be like, “Yeah, your work is here to educate.” But I’m like, I don’t want to educate you, I’m trying to educate myself! I barely know! I think I’m still undoing that. There’s a lot of unlearning in education, especially when you go to college and you have to undo a lot of things for yourself and forget the voices that censor you. In my senior year, I want to actively be more selfish in my exploration of my Indonesian heritage and belonging.

Editor’s note: Kay texted her answer the next week. This is her response.

It’s complicated, but my Indonesian heritage to me means inherited histories. The constant learning of these inherited histories and what it means to me. And at the same time, the undoing/unlearning of my own internalization. It is embracing the deep complexities, and accepting that parts of my Indonesian heritage will remain opaque even to myself in my journey of understanding. What my Indonesian heritage means to me will also be in flux as I define and redefine it for myself through my process of learning.

(Courtesy of the artist)

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

I guess I’ll give you my spiel! It was mostly last year, in my junior year, my grandfather showed me this photograph of him and Sukarno. It was a very formal photograph, and they were shaking hands, and that was the starting point for me, the way that I was thinking of things and using archival images. I’d never seen that photo before. But, essentially, the work that I made last year and that I’m still making is an exploration of my family’s experiences of colonization, erasure, and violence. It’s what happened, as well as their experiences through the New Order and that process of them changing names and essentially assimilating … and how this led to this inherited history that I have had to understand by myself and with them.

(Courtesy of the artist)

So, I use archival images from my family, as well as photographs I take of them in a collage manner that’s kind of like a thread of understanding them. Like, oh, my grandmother’s family, because they didn’t want to change their names, they went to Germany and started their life there.

It’s working with archival photographs as well as understanding my experiences in international school and performing this sense of Indonesian-ness, of putting on a batik and saying, “I’m Indonesian. This is my culture,” but in a way that’s palatable to people without understanding the political complexities that come with all of this. I think there’s always a constant simplifying of our identities to a lot of people. So, I think with my work, I’m trying to let it be confusing. And it’s not linear. …Which is kind of how we think about things, even though our histories are nonlinear.

[…] Through making that work, I think through the ethics of making it, because it’s very important. I’m constantly asking myself questions, especially because my grandparents and my mom are sharing personal stories and their experiences, and I don’t want to exotify it, I don’t want to exploit it, and I think that’s why I go through a lot of emotional turmoil when making work.

Q: Do you hope to exhibit your work one day? 

Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to see my work exist in a space, because at this point, I want it to be something people experience. It’s not necessarily for the general audience — I don’t know, I don’t know if there needs to be an access point, but essentially, I think I also want it for people who have similar experiences to me to see the undoing of this complicated history that we have to deal with when you’ve grown up in a different place.

[…] I do want to exhibit the work, but I don’t know if it’s ready yet. In the future, if COVID is ever not where it is now, for it to be in a space where it can be experienced, because there’s so much hope for what I want my work to be. I think I’m starting to want it to be in an installation and not flat images, but I’m still trying to figure it out.

[…] If it doesn’t even get exhibited, I think it’s OK, because it’s for me and for my family, and I think I really just want to be selfish about it because, for the past three years, it’s been tainted. Even though my teachers were trying to help me, they couldn’t, because they’re white and they don’t know that experience and that understanding of work that is complicated, because they’re constantly trying to simplify it, or be like, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” I want it to be more than that.

Thebez_Karenina_Bick from Karenina Thebez on Vimeo.

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