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n his arresting piece “Savage Fenty (Rihanna)”, queer Filipinx Canadian visual artist Jay Cabalu utilizes the medium of collage to produce a portrait of the musician Rihanna. The portrait itself is a reworking of the militaristic imagery and fashion in Rihanna’s music video for the song “Hard”, which was released in 2009. Cabalu describes his inspiration for the collage portrait as follows:
Wearing a Moschino Mickey Mouse combat helmet and Muto-Little bullet bra, gyrating on top of a tank, I thought this image summarized American imperialist capitalism so succinctly. This was well into the war in Iraq and Rihanna’s Rated R era, a fierce comeback after Chris Brown and the beginning of the no-fucks persona we love her for. (quoted in Mushet, 2022)
I first saw “Savage Fenty (Rihanna)” on May 6, 2022, as part of Jay Cabalu’s first solo exhibit at On Main Gallery in Vancouver’s Chinatown. The exhibit is titled Extra, indexing an aesthetic of excessiveness that characterizes both the pop art sensibility of Cabalu’s collage portraits and the celebrity figures and their popular culture representations that are the subject of his portraiture. Critiques of the industrial aspects of celebrity and representation are readily apparent in Cabalu’s work: pages of newspapers and magazines and the logos and images found in advertisements are repurposed and reworked via the practice of collaging. References to comic books, corporate imaging, the internet and the entertainment industry are also present in the hand cut pieces of glossy print media that comprise the portrait. “Savage Fenty (Rihanna)” is one of five portraits displayed at the exhibit. The title references Rihanna as founder of cosmetics and lingerie brands Fenty and Savage X Fenty. Visually, militarism, cosmetics and fashion are key subjects of engagement and critique in the collage. Rihanna’s neckline is draped, for example, in what looks to be artillery belts, but what are in actuality gold coloured eyeliner, mascara, lipstick and watches. Explicitly pop art in its aesthetic, the portrait’s background includes cartoonized militaristic images of burning houses and soldiers in combat, arranged alongside eyeliners and lipsticks made to look like rockets in flight. In this collage, beauty and brutality are brought representationally onto the same canvas and frame, as are the industrial and militaristic infrastructures and systems that produce them.
A few weeks prior to the opening of Jay Cabalu’s exhibition, I had the pleasure of being part of an author-meets-critics virtual AAG session for Thuy Linh Tu’s book Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. As I was transfixed by Cabalu’s “Savage Fenty (Rihanna)”, I kept thinking back to the lessons offered by Tu in her book, whose focus is on skin as a geopolitical and geo-economic space, stage and target of military improvement, scientific study and commercial interest, during the Vietnam War and its long and ongoing afterlife. Simply put, Tu makes clear, with archival and ethnographic precision, the entwinement of the cosmetic and the geopolitical in Vietnam, both presently and during the Vietnam War. Her piercing analysis of US military dermatology as a racialized scientific-capitalist enterprise and its lingering manifestation in the beauty industries of contemporary Vietnamese cities provided me with a global historical context from which to be able to see the depth of Cabalu’s creative critique.
Experiments in Skin is a superb gift: beautifully written, intellectually expansive, accessible and engaging. One of the most admirable aspects of Experiments in Skin is its ambitious capacity: it covers a lot of intellectual ground, but does so in such a way that still maintains analytical depth and thoroughness. Tu’s capacity to balance both is enviable, and is a quality that makes this book such an engaging and enjoyable read.
Skin—as a corporeal object located in and shaped by history and geography—is the central frame of the book. Tu’s work forces us to confront dismissive language about skin, as in the phrase “skin deep”. Various online dictionary definitions, for example, emphasize that the phrase “skin-deep” connotes superficiality, not only in terms of spatial depth, but also in terms of rigour, utility or function. Cambridge Online Dictionary goes both methodological and sensorial, defining “skin deep” as “not carefully considered or strongly felt”. Similarly, MacMillan Dictionary goes into intensity and value, noting that “a skin-deep quality or feeling is not as strong or important as it seems or as someone wants it to appear”. And finally, Dictionary.com defines “skin deep” as “not profound or substantial”. In all of these definitions, “skin deep” is taken to be a shorthand for frivolity, superficiality and unimportance.
Thuy Linh Tu’s book requires us to rethink these common definitions of “skin deep”. Skin teaches us a lot, she makes clear. Her work makes crystal clear that skin is, yes, surface and vessel, and also a site of what feminist geographers have called “the global intimate”, where the body and the world exist together, with and through each other. Experiments in Skin forces us to redefine “skin deep”, with full recognition that paying attention to the skin requires a certain commitment to methodological and political rigour and the practiced capacity to trace relations and intimacies across times, spaces and scales. Thinking with and through skin requires something of an epistemological and methodological reorientation, and an attunement to connectivity rather than fixity, and thus a turn away from the limits of traditional area studies approaches. Thinking with and through skin invites us to approach phenomena through juxtaposition, in order to see historical and geopolitical intimacies and connections. In the book, Tu (2021: 21) skillfully applies skin as a methodology to her study of what might be called a globally entangled Vietnam; she writes that this approach enables her “to draw into the same view the U.S. and Asia, the domestic and the international, the military and the commercial, the violent and the beautiful.” To me, one of the most important lessons offered by Tu is the point that to think with and through skin is to think intimately and in an embodied way about, with and through the world.
I come to the task of reviewing this book fully aware that the discipline of geography and the interdisciplines of Asian Canadian, Asian American and Asian studies and critical race and ethnic studies do not necessarily meet or converse regularly, despite their general shared interests, for example, in spatial issues such as diasporas, movements, geopolitics and borders. Geography continues to grapple with its racial history of the present, perhaps most obviously in its ongoing, if at times stilted, work to address the demographic, political and epistemological whiteness of the discipline. Experiments in Skin is an exemplary instantiation of the possibility of a politically committed geographical analysis of skin, war and beauty, enabled in part by its insistent and deliberate positioning between multiple fields. I was taken quite strongly by Thuy Linh Tu’s powerful analysis of skin’s spatiality: in the introductory chapter, she insists that we move away from treating skin as a border separating self and other, a hermetical seal that enables the Hobbesian subject to defend its separation and sovereignty from others. Skin, for Tu (2021: 9), should instead be understood as akin to “a connective tissue enabling the movement of knowledge, goods, and people across the Pacific; not as the final boundary between self and other, but rather the record of our collective imbrication. To see skin instead as a repository, an alternative archive through which we might grasp how history becomes embodied.” In other chapters, Tu powerfully documents and examines the ways that skin comes to be a target of military and economic improvement: she notes that it is often on the skin that geopolitical desires (e.g., for efficient and effective American soldiering during the Vietnam War) and hopes for development (e.g., for fully modern Vietnamese urban subjectivities) come to be pursued.
Tu’s book successfully exemplifies a truly skin-deep analytical approach in each of the chapters. She moves in an admirably seamless way across a variety of archives and corpuses, from military archives, medical publications, photographs, and through ethnographic work on the ground. One of the most important gifts for geographers that Thuy Linh Tu offers is her example of a transpacific methodology attuned to the embodied, felt and intimate, that is, a mode of knowledge production that seeks to “read the skin for signs of social life”, to quote a beautifully phrased argument in the book. Echoing and reiterating an insistence among feminist and queer geographers about how we feel our way through the world and its politics through the sensorial capacities of our bodies and minds, Experiments in Skin limns a wide variety of texts, archives and corpuses in order to trace skin’s mobilization as space – variously, as land to be mined for resources; as territory to be known, managed and governed; as an ecology of racial differentiation characterized not just by color, but by capacity and limitations; and, quite importantly, as a nodal point in the global nexus of capital and militarism. Skin, for Thuy, is archive and memory – a set of records and traces that make skin story also ghost story and war story.
In the book, Thuy Linh Tu’s commitment to close reading and thick description is admirable in part because she re-routes the common methodological approaches that she engages in away from the desires for mastery that usually animate their uses. Instead, she applies, via her methodology, the insights that she gleans from her ethnographic relations and experiences: that knowledge production often requires making peace with uncertainty and that speculation and reading between the lines and across the grain are powerful and necessary analytical modes. Tu also takes seriously stories of ghosts, hearsay and other forms of vernacular knowledge, along with relations and exchanges gleaned from the margins (both of geopolitics and of pages in the archives); she insists, rightfully I think, that these knowledges move the world in important ways alongside institutional and formal forms of, say, state and scientific knowledge.
I end with some questions, but before I turn to these, I name that this book review panel has taken place in the shadow of war and pandemic and also of social movements for decolonization, anti-war and anti-racism. Many have noted that these crises are not new, but have very long histories. Health, in the broad Foucaultian sense, at the scales of both the individual body and the body politic are at stake. I am thankful to have Thuy Linh Tu’s book at this specific time, both for the grounded and contextual specificities of its methods and analysis and also for the broader lessons it offers to us in this current moment. This book is both weapon and shield, sharp and protective at the same time.
As with anything that offers lessons, the book also invites further thought. I offer questions for further engagement, inspired in part by Tu’s examination of the implication of universities as sites of teaching and research in a global geopolitics of skin. These questions are not indications of the book’s limitations, but are instead invitations for all of us to bring Tu’s insights back to the university. One important argument in the book is that care work is inter-dermal, that is, a set of intimacies across skins, bodies and people who touch each other. I am curious about how this might be applied to thinking about the university as a space. I ask this question as someone whose university’s motto, until recently, is “a place of mind”, betraying the commitment to Cartesian dualism that Thuy refuses. What might it mean to apply the care work of skin work in the university? Is it possible to think of the university as a place of skin? My second question, very broad, comes specifically from my perspective as a teacher: How do we teach method through skin, through body work, in ethical, anti-racist and intersectional ways? I am especially interested in this given the book’s strident analysis of universities’ entanglements in geopolitical and geoeconomic processes as sites of military and corporate projects. Is there a pedagogy of skin that can reroute teaching in the university away from the violences documented in the book? And what might it look like?
Mushet M (2022) Jay Cabalu: Collages mine the glittering trash of popular culture. Galleries West, accessed here.
Pablo C (2022) Vancouver collage artist Jay Cabalu takes extra look at consumerist excess. Straight, accessed here.
John Paul (JP) Catungal is an Assistant Professor in the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice and in the Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies program at the University of British Columbia. A critical geographer of race, gender and sexuality, JP's research is concerned with the community organizing efforts of racialized, migrant and LGBTQ communities and how these enable them articulate and address the limitations of social services, public health and educational systems in Canadian cities.