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This exhibition is unpacking the whitewashing of nostalgia through Old Hollywood

IMAGES VIA JAMES J ROBINSON
WORDS BY KAYA MARTIN

Who benefits when the lived experiences of minorities are erased?”

The past is an elusive concept. What was once something real and tangible to us now lives only within our records and the slippery, dream-like world of memory. But our reconstructed version of the past is not always innocent: there are those who are remembered and those who fall through the gaps.

Photographer James J Robinson explores this topic in his debut solo exhibition, On Golden Days. The series reimagines old Hollywood glamour with an all-Asian cast to shed a light on the faces that are forgotten in pop culture’s whitewashing of history.


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For James, who has worked with high profile celebrities like Rihanna, Sydney Sweeney and Virgil Abloh, the concept arose while watching movies set in the ’60s.  After falling in love with the music and aesthetics, he began to feel like he had been born in the wrong decade – until he realised the reality of actually existing as a marginalised person in that era. 

The oppressive underpinnings of society’s obsession with nostalgia became clear when he noticed that most of the directors who were romanticising the past were White men.

“There’s been so much social change and so many people who have sacrificed their lives and tried to change the world to make the world a place where I can openly be queer, and be happy with myself as being Filipino,” says James.  “It almost erases their stories for me to be wishing that I lived in a time where they were being actively oppressed.”

On Golden Days features a bricolage of classic Americana visuals – bubble glasses, beauty queen ball gowns and big pin-up hairdos. “I want it to be very sleek and sexy, with ’20s, ’60s and ’40s references – red carpet glamour waves with sleek eyeliner, exaggerated glitter,” says GG Gaillard, the hair and makeup artist who worked on the shoot.

The original theme was 1960s, inspired by recent Gucci campaigns by Glen Luchford and the art photography of Alex Prager. But GG says James let the creative team play with features from different eras, such as adding some 1920s-esque finger weaving to the wigs.  The flexible interpretation of the time period evokes the imperfect nature of memory: it’s history translated through an emotional, and often inaccurate, lens.

GG’s strategy for this shoot was to illuminate the cast by working with their unique features and making them feel as confident as possible. This was especially important, she says, as many were not professional models – some were dancers, some were cast on the street. Because they shot on film, the hair and makeup needed to be heavy and exaggerated to come across on camera.

“A lot of the makeup we used for this was very in-your-face and eccentric, so I just wanted to make sure everyone knew that before we started and we could reach a happy medium where they felt comfortable and I was happy with the final looks.” She credits the success of the looks to the hard work of her team along with some wig styling help from iconic Fitzroy costume shop, Rose Chong.

The shoot’s stylist, Kevin Cheung, took visual cues from two classic films: Rosemary’s Baby and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He says most of the garments were sourced and edited with the help of his assistant and seamstress, fashion designer Olivia Rowan

In his work, Kevin typically draws creative inspiration from his personal life, so James’ project provided a unique challenge for the stylist. To help him get a better feel for the time period they were recreating, he enlisted the help of his parents.

I talked to my mom a little bit about the ’60s, but she was also a kid – a kid growing up in China.” He also sought advice from his Danish stepfather, who told him stories about his youth and what the culture was like when he was growing up. His family isn’t usually involved in his work, so it was a nice change. “It was kind of family bonding,” Kevin tells me.

When speaking to James, GG and Kevin, they each echo the same sentiment: this project was a dream come true.  A year after its conception, On Golden Days will run from April 29 to May 22 at Hillvale Gallery in Fitzroy, Melbourne. All proceeds will go to Pay the Rent, a Victorian collective that provides financial reparations to First Nations Australians.

James hopes his work will encourage audiences to reflect on popular representations of the past. The way we see our history, he says, has an impact on how we build our future. “Who benefits when the lived experiences of minorities are erased? It’s always going to be the people on the top of the systems.” says James. “Of course, it’s going to be in their benefit to be showing us versions of the past which keep them in power.”

For more about ‘On Golden Days’, head here.

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