Artist accused of yellowface withdraws from Fringe Festival

An artist has pulled her show out of the Melbourne Fringe Festival after offending members of the Asian Australian community.
Artist accused of yellowface withdraws from Fringe Festival

Kate Hanley Corley as Aisha the Aussie Geisha. Image supplied.

Amid a backlash from the Asian Australian community, performer Kate Hanley Corley pulled her show Aisha the Aussie Geisha: The Accidental Oriental from this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival on Wednesday due to cultural insensitivity.

The show's synopsis describes Aisha the Aussie Geisha as a ‘cross cultural love story about a Koo Wee Rup dairy farmer who becomes the world's first foreign geisha.’ Corley has previously appropriated French stereotypes for her 2013 show French Women do Everything Better, which ArtsHub panned for its use of stereotypes.

Corley’s withdrawal came after an open letter from Asian-Australian Magazine Liminal was circulated online with over 70 signatures from creatives from Asian and Asian-Australian backgrounds including founding editor Leah Jing, Mama Alto and Nikki Lam.

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The letter was critical of the show's use of Japanese identity: ‘From the initial information and visuals communicated to audiences, this performance centres on a stereotyped depiction of orientalist fantasy that borders on yellowface.'

‘We can confirm that this performance revolves around the belittling and insulting depiction of Asian peoples for cheap humour,’ it continued.

Petition signatory Mama Alto, a current Melbourne Fringe artist and the winner of Melbourne Fringe Award for Access and Inclusion 2016, condemned the show's inclusion. Alto said the inclusion of the show in this year's fringe festival was disappointing, particularly the insensitive cultural references to the depiction of Corley's characters in the show.

'Melbourne Fringe centres diversity and inclusion as key cultural priorities. In the festival context, a work based on extremely demeaning, mocking and derogatory depictions of Asian peoples – including a character named “Mrs Okaytobashme” – is contrary to those values, and distressing to the diverse artists Fringe claims to create space for,' Alto told ArtsHub.

Artist responds to accusations of cultural insensitivity

Corley has since withdrawn from the festival with a statement that read: ‘That the show is being referred to as racist and 'yellowface' has upset me greatly as I have many Japanese friends who supported the first iteration of the show, along with it being well received by audiences without any accusations of racism.

‘The content of the show focuses on sending up masculine Australian culture and it's my belief that it does not in any way denigrate Japanese culture – a culture I have always loved and been fascinated by. I never envisaged this would cause distress to anyone as this is the last thing I would ever want to do.’

'That the show is being referred to as racist and 'yellowface' has upset me greatly as I have many Japanese friends who supported the first iteration of the show...' Kate Hanley Corley

Fringe management have stated on Twitter: ‘Melbourne Fringe strives to be an inclusive place for everyone and acknowledges that our commitment to freedom of artistic expression sometimes comes into conflict with this. We recognise in this instance the balance wasn't right.’

Melbourne Fringe Creative Director and CEO Simon Abrahams told the Age that the festival has been receptive to the community's response in regards to the show.

'We are listening to our community's concerns on this issue,' he said. 'We are taking the comments on board as we review our policies and strengthen our procedures for our open access program to ensure that Fringe does not compromise the safe cultural spaces we seek to create.' 

ArtsHub has asked Abrahams (who is currently in Edinburgh) for additional comments and will update the story once a reply has been received.

Staff writer

Thursday 22 August, 2019

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