Hanna Pettyjohn: Imagined Homes

Hanna Pettyjohn, make/ familiar PN, 2018, Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm.
Hanna Pettyjohn, Ground (C series), 2019, Porcelain, 15x15x16 cm.
Installation view (left to right): Hanna Pettyjohn, memories / yet MMH, 2019, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm. / Hanna Pettyjohn, Mari / CT, 2018, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm. / Hanna Pettyjohn, relative / humidity HP, 2018, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm.
Installation view (multiple works from the same series): Hanna Pettyjohn, Ground (C series), 2018, porcelain, varying dimensions.
CoBo Social Market News Reports

In a world where mainstream media is saturated with stories of cross-border conflicts, rendering us immune to images of mass migration, refugee crisis and even modern-day genocide, Filipino-American artist Hanna Pettyjohn creates an intimate encounter with subjects of diaspora in her latest exhibition Concurrencies at the Mind Set Art Center, Taipei.


Text: Shormi Ahmed
Image: Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center

Hanna Pettyjohn, make/ familiar PN, 2018, Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm.


An artist of diaspora, Pettyjohn’s work addresses migratory experiences through the visual lexicon of painting and sculpture. Through portraits of eight female immigrants and sixteen porcelain sculptures, she brings back humanity that is increasingly absent in media representations of immigrants. Pettyjohn’s decade long exploration into the subject of diaspora appears to have matured in Concurrencies where the artist’s gradual outward progression is delineated in the subjects of her paintings as well as in the choices of medium. Her inquisitive journey in the footsteps of an immigrant has expanded to capture voices of others on the same path. Thematically linked to her previous exhibitions, Concurrencies shifts the focus away from the artist and into the broader concept of diaspora.

Those who are familiar with Pettyjohn’s work, will be able to identify recurring iconography of fabric and earthy textures in her paintings. Previously, Pettyjohn used texture as a means for expressing a narrative; a tendency that stems from her practice with clay. The recurrence of landscapes and personal objects, such as clothing, not only aide in continuing the narrative but also establish a relationship between the subjects, the viewers and their environment. In the new series of works, she plays with the idea in her porcelain sculptures which incorporate fabrics, but in an ephemeral form. Each of her works embody the process and memory of migration; moving away from, and seeking, a new home. If home is synonymous with safety, comfort and acceptance, then the stories of her portraits provoke a contemplation on the notion of home.

Pettyjohn’s methodology in expressing the conceptual maturation of her artistic pilgrimage into the theme of diaspora is one that is layered, subtle yet deeply moving. She found a way to connect to her audience, especially those who are a part of a diaspora and have experienced migration (or bore its effects), metaphorically as well as emotionally. In this interview, the artist walks us through the inspiration behind new works, artistic practice and her expectations of the audience.


Hanna Pettyjohn, Ground (C series), 2019, Porcelain, 15x15x16 cm.


Could you briefly introduce the concept of Concurrencies?

The definition of concurrencies is events happening simultaneously and events converging; so that’s sort of where my idea for the show developed. In this exhibition, I wanted to tell the story of the eight women that I painted. I wanted tell their stories of immigration and individual experiences, and how those stories are sort of different, yet the same. They coincide as part of a shared story for everyone who immigrated. I would really like the viewers of this exhibition to contemplate their personal experiences, the people they know and what home means to them.


What inspired this new series and selection of subject matter such as female immigrants?

My previous work was about myself and my personal experience of moving to America. Coming to America, it was meaningful to meet and speak to people who were trying to make a new homeland in a place that was foreign to them. I was so interested in hearing everyone’s varying ideas and opinions about what they were doing to assimilate, or in one or two cases, deliberately not assimilate. To keep the idea of their home country alive and part of their lives, how they were coping without something that is so much a part of their identity. Once you move away from the place you grew up in, you are able to view it a little objectively. You begin to disassociate yourself from the place you are from and begin to think about what you are without that, what makes you – you, and what it is about a place that you can substitute for the things you’ve lost. You’re forced to think about the idea of home and reevaluate yourself, I think, in one way or another.

At first, I thought of these things on a personal level but then realized I was such a small part of this huge global current of migration that generally flows westward. There was something that really moved me, speaking to women who were immigrants. I found that women speak about the idea of home a little differently, and also emphasize their (in most cases) newly found independence a little bit more.


Did any of the eight subjects feel obligated to move?

Yes. For instance, one of them is an Iranian artist who didn’t really want to move. She is a painter and there were instances where she was detained by Iranian authorities for partaking in nude-drawing session. She wishes it wasn’t that way but she felt it was necessary to leave.


Do the titles have any meaning?

The titles are answers to my questions about what home meant to them. For instance, in make/familiar PN, home is any space that she could feel safe and turn it into a familiar place. Home is no longer one particular place but any place that is familiar.


Installation view (left to right): Hanna Pettyjohn, memories / yet MMH, 2019, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm. / Hanna Pettyjohn, Mari / CT, 2018, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm. / Hanna Pettyjohn, relative / humidity HP, 2018, oil on canvas, 182.9 x 137.2 cm.


Portraits, from your body of work, gradually shifted away from pure figurative representation to include abstract elements. What does this signify?

I feel like a lot of the imageries and fabric in the paintings have been recurring since 2012, the way I see it is, as its progressing. To me, the fabrics are sort of like characters in a narrative and I am moving the story forward. They are fading away, becoming a memory. So, in the recent series of works, the fabrics have been reduced to outlines. I am thinking of different ways to express them as the story moves on.


Why did you opt to portray objects in a foreign land as a trigger of fading memory? Does this convey cultural eclipse or displacement?

Yes, in the sense that they are taking new forms or being left open to interpretation. I see memory as being something vivid in your mind but you’re not really sure if its accurate or even real. So, the outlines leave you to ponder, you fill them in in your own way.


Would you say there are certain limitations or liberations in each medium? Such as sculpture and painting?

Working with clay and paint gives me opportunities to play with texture. I want the women (in the portraits) to seem like they’re part of the landscape with the way I apply texture in an earthy way, lumpy and irregular, on the portraits. The clay and paint are conceptually tied. With paint, I am referring to landscapes in the portraits; and with the clay, I am referring to the fabric texture in the foreground of the paintings.

Since the fabric in the foreground of the paintings is supposed to refer to a security blanket (previously featured in older paintings as a symbol of comfort to me) that was once mine that I’m “sharing” with everyone else. I wanted the fabric to have some weight when I articulate them three dimensionally in the sculptures.


Installation view (multiple works from the same series): Hanna Pettyjohn, Ground (C series), 2018, porcelain, varying dimensions.


Inspired by your parents, you initiated your art practice in clay. However, your creative process involved destroying your work, then re-constructing it. Does this have any significance in forming your identity? Do you feel that disruption or rupture is necessary in the process of identity formation?

Yes, I do. I feel like it’s a really good way to start to examine an idea by seeing the same object in a different way. For instance, some of the fabrics painted on the paintings are also fabrics in the sculptures. I dipped the fabrics in liquid porcelain (liquid clay), then I placed them in a box where it took its form. Then when I fire them in the kiln, the fabric evaporates into gas but the sculpture retains its form. It’s sort of like a transformation, where you are different but the same. I keep thinking about expressing the same object or thought process in varied ways.



About the artist:

Hanna Pettyjohn was born the Philippines in 1983, and currently lives and works in Philippines and the United States. A Filipino-American with a transnational narrative, Pettyjohn possesses first-hand knowledge of the global diaspora. Autobiographical details and “fragments of memory” inform her work, which is tinged with both nostalgia and an acute awareness of life’s transience. Pettyjohn’s practice is built on reclaiming objects and impressions from the past, and repurposing them into new work.



Hanna Pettyjohn – Concurrencies
23 Feb – March 29 2019
Mind Set Art Center




Shormi Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-born art practitioner in Hong Kong. She was the Head of Arts at Duddell’s Hong Kong and has executed several public art projects including Carnival – fundraiser for Amnesty International HK and Art in the Bar for CoBo Social. She studied at the University of Hong Kong and is currently pursuing MA in Curatorial Studies at the National Taipei University of Education (Taiwan). Shormi is interested in art, education and contemporary art developments in Asia.


Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply