Riya is Hong Kong’s jewel of diversity and a complex creativity. Her experience needs to be read and listened to carefully - there is so much more behind her incredibly vibrant artworks to interpret. Together, we sat down in her airy studio and discussed religion, inspiration, eating disorders, gender, commercialism, capitalism and much more. Take it all, pop it into a shaker and here we were - had a wonderful cocktail of wisdom and insights that Hong Kong’s current young talents, such as Riya, represent.
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains topics pertaining to eating disorders and sexual assault. If you are triggered or if you (or someone you may know) are going through your own struggle, here is a link to Hong Kong’s Eating Disorder service providers: https://www.mind.org.hk/service_providers/hong-kong-eating-disorder-association-limited/
What were you up to before you became a full-time artist?
I was working at an NGO before and believed in the cause, but I didn’t enjoy my role there – Doing the numbers, admin and calculating donors….it was not for me. I was doing art on the side, every night after work I would come home and paint. Eventually, I made the jump and have now been a full time artist for three years. And so far, it has worked out for me really well!
Yeah! I feel like Hong Kong has the sparkle of hope where you can do your own thing eventually.
And the fact that you say that, having you come only last October already means a lot. This is Hong Kong at its worst - an absolute worst state. Hong Kong was amazing before! I’m just getting chills just thinking about it because I’m so excited for the city to pick it up again. I was born and raised here and I’m so excited for it to come back - the magic that it has always had.
The diversity of the people here is incredible. And you were born to Indian parents - how did they end up here if I may ask?
Yeah! My mum is originally from Mumbai and my dad's family is based in Delhi. My mum spent her last year of high school as an exchange student in the US and stayed for college so she left India quite young. She studied graphic design. And my dad completed his undergraduate university in India and also went to postgraduate university in the US. They never actually crossed paths in the US (laughs) but this is really funny - my mum’s aunt and my dad’s uncle were married! And my parents met at my aunt’s and uncle’s party. So they are not blood related in any way but I have a cousin that falls on both of my dad and my mum’s side (laughs).
I love that!!!
My parents had a 7 year long distance relationship! Because during that time it was very expensive to fly so they saved up all of their money to make calls to each other. They eventually were in the US together where they got married and then moved here to Hong Kong in the 1990's. I was born in 1994, so 4 years later after they moved here.
Do you think that your mum was the first influence where you picked up your creativity from?
I think so! She really encouraged it. I remember her sitting with me and teaching me the colouring inside the lines…every Sunday we would sit and I would practice drawing borders, using coloured pencils (I actually still have that set that she gave me) and went to create something. Both of my parents really celebrated a lot of South Asian art - our home also had pieces of things that I made. As I grew older they saw how much I really loved being creative, but none of us thought that I was going to make a career out of it, myself included.
Living in Hong Kong creates probably also a pressure of making money….
Yeah! And there was noone I know that makes their own money from art. Having a career being an artist is very hard so I did not particularly have any role models in that respect. I’m still figuring it out (laughs).
So you went to school in Hong Kong but was it already something that triggered you to keep going with art?
I went to a German school here. I’ve learned 13 years of German! And it’s not helpful now - it’s been 10 years since I went to the school there and haven't spoken to anyone in German since. I did both IGCSE’s and A-levels in art. You’re given a subject and then you need to build a series around a topic for the rest of your year. So for my A-levels I chose Communism versus Capitalism. And even though it’s already been 10 years, everything I do, stems from that because it was all about consumerism, the propaganda, advertising - two sides of the same coin. Different ideologies but both are pushing something on you. The work I created 10 years ago is cool but I don't think I would be able to make it anymore, regarding Hong Kong’s current political state. I’m hearing from my art teacher who I am still in touch with that they even had to censor some of the art that the students made for the final show. Times are really changing when you hear that.
What were your main sources of inspiration to that?
Hong Kong is really changing in the blink of my own time here. It all started about Hong Kong, China, the time of globalisation and how western brands hold so much status here. I used to have a strong attachment to certain things when I was a kid, like always drinking Nestea - that was the only thing I drank. I’m always very focused on the things I associate myself with - bringing the elements of traditional Chinese culture and the essence of these brands. That was the series I did in my high school and then when I left for the US for university, I did not major in art as I never thought about myself as being an artist and making a career out of it.
What was your major?
I chose communications and the focus on gender and media. And I also took Chinese, so it was a pretty strange combination of things to others, but for me it was all very well connected. I tried to engage in internships during my breaks and coming back to Hong Kong as well - to have safety and if not being an artist, at least being engaged in the art world. But I did not enjoy it at all - the advertising, working for the PR company….I could do it though, don't get me wrong and I could do it well because I’m a Hong Kong raised kid with a very survival mode. But it does not mean that it was sparking this passion in me. At this point I just thought that I should maybe just keep my art for myself and do something else. That is where it came from. And then when I learnt more about gender studies, when I was at university, a lot of things happened and fit together.
What happened if I may ask?
So, when I was in my second year I was sexually assaulted. It was also the year when I started to learn about feminism and gender equality. I felt like a bad feminist for letting that “happen to me”. Very soon after that happened, I spiralled into a very severe eating disorder. I never connected the two events together. I had no idea what the eating disorder was. Until I was dying of it, I did not know what I was doing was an illness.
Let me unfold it if you are okay with it - I was wondering what triggered the idea on focusing gender and feminism - was it actually the assault, or inspiration for your art?
It’s “funny” because they were separate opposing events happening at the same time. Education here in Hong Kong - there was no education about gender and equality whatsoever. At no point did I ever have a conversation with someone about how it is like to be a woman in Hong Kong. There were stigmas and a lot of censorship that would just slide by. Looking back at it now - I’m like “oh my god it was that and that and that at school”. All of the jokes that boys used to make and the things that all the girls would say! I did not see it then, it was obviously only when I got to the US and got to the campus. In my first year I watched the Vagina Monologues. Second year I wanted to join that community that would meet every week and would help to put on the show as well - and became a part of the crew. Those Sunday meetings we had with this crew completely opened my eyes. It seemed that everyone in that room was so equipped for the conversation and had all of those buzz words and things to talk about and I had no idea what they were talking about. I had no idea how to talk about it the way they were. I was just sitting there absorbing and learning. And as I’m learning, the assault happened, for which I punished myself. I told myself that I’ve asked for it and how come I let myself have this happen to me. It took me a few years and Chanel Miller’s story (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/25/stanford-sexual-assault-victim-chanel-miller-interview) to realise it was not my fault.
Did you share it with anyone during that time?
I completely pushed it out. I was studying and working so hard that year - that time I was taking a silk screen course. I was down in this basement studio for about 13 hours from Friday to Sunday. When I was down there working, I did not want to take breaks so I didn't eat. And so my not eating just started out as “I’ll eat later, I’ll eat later…”. But it didn't. They say it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. I think the control and the reward I got from holding, holding, holding, holding was something that my body got addicted to. It slowly became eating less, less, less, less…I’ve always been a small person and since I was a child I had issues with my self-esteem…Being seen as the sidekick, the ugly, smart friend to a girl that everyone viewed as a much prettier, more stylish version of me. That was the comparison. But my body wasn't really the issue when growing up. From what I learned (very little) from eating disorders, for example people with anorexia want to be skinny because they want to look like models. I don't think that’s what I had or what I was doing. It came from a place of control, finding control, punishment and the reward. It was not just eating but it was also exercise and “indulging” in everything that was fun for me - like meeting my friends, that was all controlled by me. I had to earn it. It slowly but surely ate away at me. A few months later I was feeling the effects of what I didn't know back then was the eating disorder. I thought that it was depression. I’ve had anxiety my whole life but I didn't know about it growing up. Mental health here is something that is not talked about in Hong Kong at all.
Yes, it still seems completely taboo still…
Not only Hong Kong, or even being part of an Asian culture in general. There were so many suicides at my university during that time. Then I got worried - the climate was really toxic, so I took myself to the counsellor.
Wow, good on you, though!
Yeah. As I think that I was THAT low. I don't think that I was really a pro at doing it but I was comfortable in doing it. I felt like I needed to talk to someone because this was a very…”Hong Kong’s banking world”. This school was like that - where everyone goes to become an investment banker. I knew that I definitely did not want to be an investment banker, but you are surrounded by people in this pressure cooker and I was feeling all of the weight. So during the counselling I did not really tell her what I was doing or not doing with my eating but everything she kind of got the sense of was that she evaluated me expressing depressive symptoms and anxious symptoms. She told me to go back to Hong Kong as it was close to the holidays and to tell my parents about what's been going on. So I came back home and I tried to have a conversation with them and kind of broke down. It was hard for them to understand. Trying to respond to questions “why are you depressed” was not possible. At this point I also lost my period as I shrunken down for it to affect it.
Did your parents do anything?
They took me to the doctor and he had some idea what was going on in general but I told her “please, let me go back to school I don't want to stay in Hong Kong”. I could not stand the idea that if I would stay I knew I would be watched. My disorder was still telling me to keep my privacy and to keep doing the things I have done before. It’s like a demon in your head. Then I got back to school and it kept getting worse and worse. At this point, my final year, mental state was “I’m going to die”. Then I went to the dentist and he took my heart rate and asked me: “Are you alive?” She said that my heart rate was about 35. I did not know what that meant but it did not sound good. And when I came back to the school counselling they told me to see someone professional in the city. The minute I met this guy, he said: “you need to go to the school’s hospital”. The minute I got there they told me to leave school as I would be having a heart attack at any moment. It was so bad. I told them that I’m fine, I’m getting straight A’s, you have to let me graduate. I was begging them for me not to come back later. But they kept telling me to leave and get treatment immediately.
What did you do - have you went to have the treatment?
It ended up being the best thing for me. I was in a residential centre with 14 other women just outside of NYC. I lived there for 4 months. It was a very tight regimen of having a chosen breakfast from the night before and set meals (6 in total) every day. Then it was this therapy and that therapy, a full day of activities. I look back on it now with warmth. I’m so happy it happened but being there back then I was questioning everything. I’ve never witnessed anything like someone coming with you to the toilet, not being able to shut the door and they wanted to make sure you’re not doing anything inside of the bathroom. We were also not allowed to have certain things like for example a hair straightener in case you would have a roommate that would self-harm. You had to ask someone to salt and pepper your food, you had to eat your meal within 20 minutes…there were a lot of rules. And if you didn't finish your food within the time limit your penalty was drinking this disgusting shake to get the calories in. Each week then you would write a contract about your behaviour and your goals and if you stuck to them you were allowed more privileges.
What were the privileges?
Like meeting up with your family outside for a few hours, that kind of thing. Very intense. But it ended up being just what I needed, and at that point I was also ready to get better. I think that people who never recover are the people that don’t want to recover and don't want to be there. I was so ready to find my way to be better. So that year off from school ended up being such an important year for me, because when I came back to school to finish, I was such a better version of myself and I cared so much less about what everyone else thought. This was the time I wrote my thesis on masculinity because so much had been going on - especially on the US campuses regarding men and sexual assaults and just horrible displays of masculinity. So I went in with bias but of course you cannot write an academic piece based on bias so I asked the question “what is it about this culture that creates a certain kind of masculinity”. It ended up giving me a lot of empathy for men. Women are told and conditioned in a lot of ways of how to be “everything”. But I think men have much tighter cages. It’s only one way to be versus women have few more ways. And that cage causes so many issues, for men and women, for everyone.
When did you come back to Hong Kong?
After when Trump was elected (chuckles). I remember my roommate going to bed crying after the results. It felt like everyone was at a funeral the next day. I didn't feel safe staying in the US after that so I came back here, not knowing what I was going to do. I loved creating art but I was coming back to Hong Kong as a new person. I didn't particularly stay in touch with my high school friends and the ones I did stay in touch with weren't here. It felt like a brand new city so I had to meet new people. So luckily I found the Women’s Foundation and they had a spot. It was a slow get-to-know Hong Kong a little bit better.
Through your art process, when all of these things happened, can you see the difference between the way you express your work? Can you tell the difference when you were really low and then after your recovery?
I think when I was really low, everything was about survival. But I was still creative and produced some great work whilst I was really sick. But I think about how my brain was or wasn't functioning. Even if the end result might have been the same it would have taken me way way longer and more anxiety then, because my brain was in a constant state of “this isn't right, this isn't right”. Overthinking to the maximum. It got to the point where it spirals and drives you crazy. That was the case for my art and for writing my essays. My brain wasn’t functioning. I got so caught up in caring about what other people want to see versus what I want to share. So that was me before versus me now. And I think it’s a problem if I sit here and think that “this is selling really well and I just keep doing more of that”. I never want to be doing something for the sake of being popular and positive feedback. Don't get me wrong, I'm so happy that people love and appreciate my work- it's a wonderful feeling and I also need to make a living too but I don't want it to drive my creative decision. And also this is just the start of me being truly creative.
Do you find yourself sometimes when you are being creative, are you self-censoring yourself at the same time?
Well with commission pieces it is interesting because I like to work with the person who commissioned the piece. But I also think that if someone commissions a piece, the artist should have creative freedom and flexibility as well. Otherwise you could just go to anyone. I pick my clients based on that too. I don't want it to be too structured because I know I would be able to do it but I wouldn't be able to enjoy it. A little while ago I had a commission piece from a client who wanted a cereal box with a goddess that was important to her. The goddess I painted had her breasts exposed, but the client asked me to put a blouse on her to cover up. So these things I understand you care about as these are going to your home and it’s okay but it’s not what I would choose to do in the first place. I would choose to leave her breasts out for a very important reason.
How do you seek feedback?
Mostly from exhibition and Instagram responses. I try not to let a lack of Instagram feedback get to me because I don't understand the algorithm. Sometimes some pieces get more or less likes and if I let that get to me until the point where I’m reworking the piece because it did not get enough likes on Instagram then that’s going to drive me crazy. I would probably have an issue with this if I were younger. I like to try and channel myself into what I want to put out there. I get swayed so many times as there are so many people out there wanting to share their opinions with you even though you didn't ask them (laughs).
And also maybe because there are so many influences that play in your field as well, right?
Oh yea that is a big one actually. Right now in India there is this huge wave of extreme nationalism going on. It’s bad and big. I mean (sighs)...all realities are valid and have a reason…have you heard of a movie called Padman?
Yes! I watched during the UK's 2020 lockdown! It’s amazing. (context: a Bollywood film about male protagonist called Laxmikant who is upset when he sees Gayatri, his wife, using an unhygienic cloth during her menstrual cycle. Thereafter, he creates a machine that can make affordable sanitary pads and raises awareness.)
I was sobbing throughout most of it. It’s so good! There is a company in India called “Paree”. They are doing what that guy did - bringing business of making pads to women in these rural areas, giving them jobs and giving them pads. I was so proud of my dad, because me and my dad when I was growing up we never would talk about my period or anything. But he brought this to me. His company was looking to invest in it and he told me he really wants to. I was like “yes”! And he actually shared the deck with me and asked for my feedback so it was a very special moment in many ways because I could contribute to dad’s job that I didn’t know anything about before. And the company is doing really well it seems. It is crucial and vital - the education gets impacted, the safety gets impacted, the general status of women is impacted by - this thing that a couple of men, centuries ago decided was “dirty” because it’s “powerful”. All of us have so much power and men taking it away from us that is what my work is supposed to be about. And even though I write about my work, not everyone reads it. But now, since my work is getting more attention, I keep getting these messages from people saying: “You should be more careful about this, especially with what’s going on in India”. And I say: “I know, but that's why I have to do it and I’m doing my job right if someone is upset.” But I also understand that if I were to produce my current work in India I would probably be beaten to death. For nothing. As I still don't see myself doing something as bad and disrespectful. I’m just trying to say “respect women”. I’m aware of this reality and I guess I should say that I’m privileged to be here and to be able to do the work I do here and to be able to have a chance one day hopefully to show my work in India at some point. Although there may be a lot of people who would not be okay with it there may still be some people who would love it and want to buy it. But it’s just about sharing it in the right way to make sure once when the show would happen that it’s not going to be set on fire. Because that is the reality and I believe that could happen. I’m not saying that my work is that amazing for it to happen but people can take only one look and not think and get angry. It’s education at the end of the day.
What is the most important value to your work?
To make people have conversations. I want people to be questioning. I don't put boobs, vaginas and penises all over my work because it’s “fun” but because I have a complex relationship with these parts in myself and sexuality. If people think of me as someone who is very openly “tits out-erotic friendly”, that’s not true – I feature such images because my relationship with them is so complex. I basically had to grow my breasts back by being fed. And my breakfast at the treatment centre was always cereal. So that has always been there. But if you take a look at the cereal boxes and the branding….all of the mascots are male. And nowadays everyone eats cereal from a very young age. Kids cereal is such a thing - the brands create this trusting connection between them and the mascots and when you see that all of them are men, the names, the voices, the general sports…it’s not okay actually. But for me it’s still much more layered - the body stuff is all very personal although it may not come across to people like that. Maybe one day I will get even more personal in my work.
So why are you displaying India even though you are very conscious of the pressure?
I think I am unfortunately a more “radical Indian woman”, just because I’m honest. To me I don’t think I'm doing something that is so special but it’s just that not many people are doing it.
It’s just a shame that in order for you to feel free in your work and be able to freely express your thoughts that you are dependent on creating such work outside of India.
Yeah! Luckily for me, this is home and I know more people here than in India, discounting my general family. I would visit for lengthy periods but I never lived there as a citizen, even though I am an Indian citizen by passport. I can't comment on daily life in India since I’m not there but I can comment on the culture and comment on things that I feel like I've been impacted by. Otherwise I'm being someone who is speaking for other people and that’s not fair. But a lot of this academically came from this amazing module I had at my last year of university called “Gender, Sexuality and Hinduism” which then taught me the scripts on that aspect and what one of the scriptures say about menstruation. That has trickled down into society, it was never supposed to. It was just because of these few men who wrote the script only for themselves and for their own caste which was only 2% of the population. Then the British came in and took it and made it into law. And that’s where a lot of this basically came from. These were the “new ideas” from the grand scheme of history. Before, there was a worship of periods!
Yeah! Let’s look at Tantra!
Exactly! A lot of my work is inspired by Tantric teachings.
I adore so much all of these layers of your inspiration! What do you think is next for you?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think conditioning and childhood is rooted in a lot of this. I'm so nostalgic as a person. Me eating cereal is one part of how I stayed as a kid. Whatever I do next it will be linked to my childhood, there will be more of a personal link to me. I can draw people but they are not the main thing that I'm skilled with – I prefer to use symbolism. In the future it could be a self-portrait in some sense and possibly to do with conditioning and other beliefs as well.
What are your beliefs?
(Chuckles) well in general, I want all of us to be free of all these barriers that are put on us. I’ve been listening lately this awesome podcast called “Man Enough” (https://manenough.com/podcast/). It’s made by Justin Baldoni, Jamey Heath and Liz Plank who bring a guest in each episode and they talk about these amazing things regarding masculinity and undefining it, but there is also a lot of conversation about race in it as well.
I was wondering what you think about the masculinity in Hong Kong people here as it is very rooted by the dynamic of the city but then of course, in India it’s incredibly masculine. In here, women still have a chance to speak out and take charge as I can see them being dominant at sometimes but on the other hand when I see expats (I’m trying to be very balanced the way how I meet with people) and every time when I see an expat white guy, you always see them with Hong Kong local female but I never see it reversed….
Yep! Growing up I had a couple of friends where it was reversed with their parents, but it was like woooow, very rare. It’s very interesting. It’s a status thing. Because of the colonialism in here with the British being here and whatever they brought was superior. Automatically combining that with gender (and that's the world too), white men are at the top of it all. David - my partner is really good at acknowledging being white male here in Hong Kong and that there are some certain things that he can totally get away with (but not that he does). Covid is a really good example - the masks in the public and the police. But when I think for example about domestic helpers or when there is a choice to find someone or go after someone, there is a lot of profiling going on here. White people and white men in particular can get away with a lot more with fewer questions. Most Asian cultures believe that “fairness” is beauty. My teacher once told me that none will marry me because of my freckles (laughs). All links back to the status thing where people thought the darker you were the more likely you were working in the field. Elite is fair and then on the other hand in the West you have the opposite – I guess when you are tanned you have more money to afford to go for a holiday in the sun.
You just can't never win! Please never get your freckles lasered off!
Never! (Laughs). They are part of me, I like them but growing up I hated them.
So just to put a few final sprinkles on top. What do you want people to feel when they see your work for the very first time?
Ohh! Very often people say that my work makes them happy because of the colours. And I'm happy that the initial presentation makes them feel good of course. I love the vibrant colours myself and I’m happy they stimulate some positive feelings but I also want them, if they have a chance, to stand in front of my work for a while to look into the details. In the details they will find more clues and answers or even more questions that I hope they will ask themselves. I would love to challenge their perception about how gender roles can be swapped and challenged so the female and feminine is given respect. I want them to be a little curious and seek out what I also wrote about the piece too to understand it better.
Follow Riya on Instagram: @riyachandiramani
Riya’s Website: www.riyachandiramani.com
Alex Edwards is a founder of Creative Womxn in Hong Kong who has media and journalism background but also experience in art community development and social media management.