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Dragon Lady
Courtesy of Gogo Graham

What does it mean to be a dragon lady?

Designer Gogo Graham broke down stereotypes associated with the term in a one-night only exhibition

Last night, fashion designer Gogo Graham presented a one-night only sculpture exhibition. Held at Romeo Gallery, artist Aurel Schmidt’s space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Graham’s show – titled “Dragon Lady” –was a take on harmful stereotypes, featuring works that push back against the cliché. “‘Dragon lady’ is a western term that’s used to describe a domineering East Asian woman who embodies this white vision of Asian feminine mystery and exoticism, so I wanted this to be about my experience with that,” she said. “I’m half-Japanese and half-white, and I think after the third time someone referred to me as a ‘dragon lady,’ I decided I wanted to explore how that kind of impacts me on a daily basis. It makes me feel like I’m not a person or something, which is the nature of exoticism.”

Dragon Lady consisted of mannequins and masks, the former arranged in a coven-like circle and the latter presented flat on the gallery wall. Graham built up her sculptures with industrial materials like electrical wire, dry wall, plastic wrap, and latex paint, piling them on to monstrous effect. She was inspired by Japanese Noh masks, which are used in performance, and Kumadori face paint from Kabuki theater. All of the pieces were covered in hair fresh from the beauty shop. “I was really fascinated with the ways that Japanese hair pieces are constructed,” she said. “I’ve just been watching way too many ancient Japanese hair tutorials.”

One mask – which was semi-covered by one of the thongs sported by all of the mannequins – represents the hannya, a woman who was transformed into a demon, usually due to the misdeeds of a wayward man. “I find it really fascinating, and I really identify with these monstrous femme archetypes,” said Graham. “They embody everything about women that is not sexually desirable through the male gaze, and that’s a place to celebrate. This is safe, almost – except it’s not, because it’s usually brought on by wrong-doing from men.”

“I wanted to do some conventionally sexy stuff, with the bikinis and thongs, because I feel like it’s representative of the sexualisation of my body” – Gogo Graham

Graham is primarily known as a designer who specifically caters to trans women. After coming out as trans herself and realising how physical features like broader shoulders and slimmer hips could make it difficult to shop, she started making clothes custom made for each of her models – and giving them away for free. The mannequins at “Dragon Lady”, displayed with shiny, skimpy underwear, were a comment on her own body. “I wanted to do some conventionally sexy stuff, with the bikinis and thongs, because I feel like it’s representative of the sexualisation of my body,” said Graham. They also wore slightly precarious heels. One was balanced on cans of tuna fish. “The tuna fish was the only thing that would hold her up!” Graham said, laughing. “I tried shoving a bunch of stuff and then I was like, I just ate some tuna fish, and I put it under and she stayed up! I thought people would think it was funny.”

The mannequins were also displayed with genitals exposed. Can or should they be read as trans? Can they even be gendered at all? “The mannequins are representational,” said Graham. “They’re not human, they’re humanoid. So I think if something resonates with people, it can mean that for them.”