"Representation matters": Hazel Xu

Now You See Me, by Hazel Xu

Fusing their experience with conservative Chinese culture, sexual abuse and trauma, and their own queerness, Hazel Xu is an artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau.  

“I remember I’ve always been quite artistic,” Hazel Xu says. “There was a story my mum likes to remind me of: once when I was three or four years old, I took my mum’s lipstick and drew all over the wall. I’m sure we took photos but those was sadly lost.”  

Born in mainland China, Xu (they/them) came to New Zealand at 14 to study, eventually becoming an early childhood education teacher. Today, they are a full-time artist, make-up artist, and creative director, and one of the most exciting young creatives working in Auckland.  

"Obligation" | Photography by Karen Ishiguro

Labelled a “gifted” child from a young age in terms of their singing ability and academics, Xu skipped two grades in school. “I have always enjoyed the arts, but art, at least when I was growing up, needed to fit in with the academic and competitive nature of the education system in China,” Xu says.  

In later childhood, however, Xu experienced trauma that would shape their existence. It is “your typical gifted child burn-out story with a few twists,” Xu confides: “during my extra class in my primary school years in order to skip grades, I was molested by my own private tutor, it was so shameful and to date one of my darkest memories. By age 11 I was clinically depressed, had an eating disorder, and experienced regular panic attacks. I didn’t tell anyone, and with all that I became physically ill too, and was bullied quite a lot by peers everywhere I went.”   

Xu had to drop out of school and was home-schooled, staying at home for more than a year, before finding an opportunity to leave China and go to high school in New Zealand. “ 

My family is just an average family, I don’t fit into the wealthy international student stereotype, and I know my parents gathered all they could so that I could go overseas, and give me a second chance in life,” they say.  

"Blending In" | Photography by Karen Ishiguro

“I worked my butt off to assimilate to New Zealand culture because I don’t feel like I could go back, and I knew to work hard because I don’t have my parents here to support me in person. There was so much sacrifice I had to make, just as my parents made theirs and those things were all so valuable to me as an artist. I was born to tell stories through my art, and it is so wonderful that I could do that right now with my whole being, my whole heart.”  

Through art, Xu discovers what it means to be human, they say. “I’ve always been a feminist and questioned gender roles and expectations from a very young age. It is very interesting how us humans decided we were going to experience our time on earth,” they say. “Misogyny to me simply doesn’t make any sense – why are people hating on someone simply based on their assigned gender? And yes, my work is my way to paint out how I feel about it all as a person outside of the binary.”   

The women in Xu’s family experienced the pain of growing up with misogyny in Mao’s China, including in their mother’s marriage. That pain – the contempt for women and girls – was “passed onto me as a person assigned female at birth,” Xu explains.   

“When I realised my grandmother’s pain turned into misogyny, and became my mum’s pain, and my mum’s pain became mine, those were things I also took inspirations from in my work.”  

"Dreamer" | Photography by Karen Ishiguro

Navigating this experience with conservative Chinese culture, and their own queer identity, isn’t easy but underlies all of Xu’s artistic work. “I don’t think all of my family will ever fully accept my true identity, as they tend to hold on to more traditional Chinese values that are rooted in the patriarchy. At the same time I know my sense of belonging is belonging to myself and trust the process as I continue to experience life.  

“My queerness is rooted in self-love and I learned to not apologise for my emotions, instead to simply live with my whole heart open for opportunities and live my truth. Authenticity is everything to me, and in some aspects it would potentially clash with my family’s traditional values. But at the same time they would only have those expectations because that’s the only way they know how to love me. Deep down I know I am loved, and cherished.”  

"Seek" | Photography by Karen Ishiguro

Through Instagram (@Hazelpaints), Xu has built a community online. “Because of my experiences in China, my social skills were, well, lacking its depth, I had no friends in China, and I didn’t know anyone here in New Zealand,” Xu says, “and on top of everything, racism was added on top as a delightful surprise,” they jest. “Oh, not to mention when I first came to New Zealand, I didn’t speak a word of English. I kept going, and kept feeling invisible, then when I entered my twenties, I asked myself, ‘why don’t I just represent myself?’ and that’s when I started my makeup journey and started to post my work online.”  

To their surprise, Xu found others just like them: misfits, people of colour, people who were told they weren’t worthy or will never be good enough. “Representation matters because we as human have the innate urge to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be loved and cherished. I featured mostly East Asian models for my collection ‘Now You See Me’, because it is my story and I am finally at a place in my life where I belonged to myself. I also hope to show my audience that it is possible: to open your heart to possibilities, be seen, and blossom from your pain.”  

- Asia Media Centre