Diyan Achjadi

To recognise the injustices of colonisation as a history of the present is to rewrite history, and to reshape the ground on which we live, for we would recognise the ground itself as shaped by such histories. If the violence of what happened is recognised, as a violence that shapes the present, then the ‘truths’ of history are called into question. Recognition of injustice is not simply about others becoming visible (though this can be important). Recognition is also about claiming that an injustice did happen; the claim is a radical one in the face of the forgetting of such injustices. Healing does not cover over, but exposes the wound to others: the recovery is a form of exposure.


— Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion1

Vancouver, British Columbia. Unceded Coast Salish Territory. 2010

As I sit in my Main Street apartment, enjoying the rare West Coast sunshine, I wonder about these words above. What does it mean to be an immigrant to a country that still celebrates its colonial past and sweeps over its colonial present? What does it mean to immigrate to what is essentially an occupied territory? How am I complicit in the politics of this land?

I have lived here now for five years. First, as a Landed Immigrant—one granted permission to reside permanently in this country—and, more recently having taken the oath of citizenship, as a new Canadian. This city is now my home. Prior to my move here, I had only been to Vancouver once before, for a short work visit. While the landscape and the weather were completely alien to me, I felt an instant sense of familiarity here: the abundance and diversity of Asian foods, places, and peoples and which continue to comfort me during the moments of acute homesickness. When here, I am closer to Home, to where I was born, where my parents are. I look westward and imagine Jakarta at the other end of the Pacific Ocean, dense, loud, colourful. Yet, my history and connection to Canada goes back farther than this.

I grew up as the child of an English-Canadian mother and a West Javanese-Indonesian father. My parents met in Ottawa in the 1950s, where my father was stationed in his first diplomatic post abroad, and my mother worked at the new Indonesian embassy as a local staff. They got married and then moved to Jakarta. My mother eventually became an Indonesian citizen, which, at the time, meant relinquishing rights to the country of her birth. “You are no longer considered a natural-born Canadian,” states the official letter from the Canadian consul. My siblings and I grew up as Indonesian, our only connections to Canada being the stories of our mother’s childhood in Quebec and Ontario, letters and occasional visits from our foreign grandmother, and speaking English as well as Indonesian at home. Canada became, to me, a kind of mythical land, exotic and strange.

Indonesia is a relatively new country, barely sixty-five years old. It is an archipelago of thousands of islands, with hundreds of ethnic groups and distinct languages. As a nation, it is a somewhat constructed entity, its borders and limits defined by the vestiges of the territorial boundaries of the Dutch occupation. Europeans first sailed to the Indonesian islands in the 1500s in search of spices, initially setting up trading posts that eventually expanded into full-fledged colonies.

My father is of a generation that experienced colonization first-hand, born in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies, he lived through the Japanese occupation during World War II and participated in the movements for Indonesian self-determination that were occurring then against both of these foreign governments. After independence was proclaimed in 1945, my father, then fifteen, joined the mobilized youths sent to villages and towns across the islands to inform people that they were now citizens of the Republic of Indonesia. My father, and my grandfather, did not cooperate with the Dutch; they spoke Indonesian as a matter of principle; they worked towards building the country.

Ottawa, Ontario. Around 1953

There is a small, square, blurry photograph of my father. There are three people in this picture: my father and another Indonesian man, both dressed in a suit and tie, and in between them an older Aboriginal woman in a beaded leather dress. My father is in his mid-twenties, dapper, and smiling. I ask him if he remembers what the photograph is from. He takes his glasses off and peers closely at this picture. “No. Oh, wait. I think we visited a reservation. Yes, that must be from the trip we took to the reservation.”

My mother was born in Montreal to a British father and Anglo-Canadian mother. Her mother’s family had been in Canada for generations, having landed in the New England colonies from England or Scotland sometime in the 1600s, moving north with the Loyalists when the movement for independence began in the States, staying true to the monarchy and ending up in Ottawa. At the age of nineteen or twenty, my mother found a job at the Indonesian embassy there, without even really knowing what or where Indonesia was; she just needed the work.

Not long after she met my father, they married, and she followed him on his assignments. They were first posted to Washington DC and lived in Virginia where, in 1957, their mixed marriage was technically illegal due to the anti-miscegenation laws. They were finally called back to Indonesia in 1958. Once there, my mother did not return to Canada for over twenty years.

As a child, I do not remember there being many “new Indonesians.” My mother was the tall white woman who could sometimes be spotted in native dress—a batik skirt, a kebaya, hair in a soft bun—standing a foot over all the Malay women. Everyone recognized her; it was easy to find her. It was only when we were moved to England when I was seven that I realized that there were lots of women as tall as her, and only a few girls who looked like me.

Jakarta, Indonesia. 2009

I sit in a taxi with my mother, going from a garish, air-conditioned mall to her home in the suburbs. My mother says the address to the driver in Indonesian; he replies in English and comments on how good her Indonesian is. He asks her where she is from. She says, “I am from here. I have been here longer than you have been alive.”

There is a single recurring character in my work, only known as “Girl.” She is a golden-skinned, brown-haired child, always clad in a sweet dress and surrounded by a candy-coloured, disjointed, miniaturized landscape that teeters on the edge of destruction. In some of the pictures, Girl can be seen engaging in a series of synchronized group activities—marching, saluting, parading—performances meant to demonstrate the cohesion of a unit and the potential power inherent in a unified crowd. In others, Girl is seen in conflict with her double, engaging in an uneasy struggle for authority and control. It is unclear where Girl stands. She is both the perpetrator of the destruction that surrounds her and the victim of its circumstance.

Girl is ethnically unidentifiable, other than by the fact of what she is not: white. This characterization is crucial, as it indicates her position outside of the dominant pictorial discourses in North America. But more importantly than her non-whiteness is her unfixability; if we cannot place who or what she is exactly, she could then be any and all of us who have been positioned by our difference.

In these pictures, there is no Other. Everyone is the same: you see Girl over and over again, repeated, duplicated, and cloned. She/they wear seemingly identical dresses—with subtle variable markers: sleeves, socks, belts, hats, and other embellishments—suggesting where and how a particular Girl fits into this world’s social structure.

These works are not autobiographical; I am not Girl. Rather, Girl is an amalgamation of stories, fears, and desires. She is not a blank screen—gendered and racialized as she is—but a screen nonetheless, open for projection. Girl functions as an avatar, both in the graphical sense of a drawing that is a stand-in for a real-life person in an imagined, constructed environment and as a “manifestation or presentation to the world as a ruling power or object of worship.” She is there, conveniently able to step into any role; she is simultaneously aggressor, victim, and innocent bystander. Girl is always surrounded by the suggestion of violence and conflict, while often seeming quite separate from what is happening around her. Finally, Girl is always larger than her surroundings, a mary-jane-clad Godzilla in a pink and orange world, a monster of sorts, toying with the miniaturized landscape around her.

In making these pictures, I think of histories of nationalisms and by extension the role of militarism and violence in defining and maintaining the borders of nation-states. I think of the idea of a home or a homeland and how a place that one is deeply connected to may be steeped in conflicts that one must come to terms and reconcile with. I think of the ideologies—from the banal to the menacing—that one is inculcated to from an early age through the images and texts that circulate around us, reinforcing their supposed normality through their repetition.

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud describes how a simply drawn, iconic cartoon character functions as “an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel to another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.”2 Girl is simple enough that anyone can step in and inhabit her character, regardless of one’s gender or origin. Through this identification, it is my hope that the viewers of these pictures begin to question their own relationship to the world around them, their place in that world, and their relationship to the spaces that they occupy. We are all, to varying degrees, complicit in the systems and environments that we live in, from the social to the political, to the material. Perhaps, it is through artistic inquiry and spectatorship that we can interrogate and begin to come to terms with these intertwined and complicated histories.


Diyan Achjadi was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to a West-Javanese father and an English-Canadian mother. She grew up moving between Jakarta, Hong Kong, London, and Washington DC, relocating every three years or so for her father’s job. Her formative years were spent negotiating different educational, political, and cultural systems, leading to an ongoing interest in how our understanding of ideologies is influenced and informed by the visual popular culture that surrounds us. Diyan received a B.F.A. with a concentration in printmaking from the Cooper Union School of Art in New York in 1993, and an M.F.A. in Studio Arts/Print Media from Concordia University in Montreal in 2002. Her printed works have been exhibited widely throughout Canada and the US, in venues such as the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon), the Ottawa Art Gallery, Centre A (Vancouver), Centre MAI (Montreal), Open Studio (Toronto), and AIR Gallery (New York). Her animations have been screened at festivals worldwide, such as the Images Festival (Toronto), Kinofilm Short Film Festival (Manchester), Interactions XVI (Sardinia), and Le Instants Video de Manosque (Manosque, France). Since 2005, Diyan has been teaching print media and visual arts at Emily Carr University in Vancouver.

  1. Ahmed, S. (2004:200). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
  2. McCloud, S. (1993:36) (capitalization and emphasis in original removed). Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.