Diana Oh: Creating the Image of Us
 

In 2014 Diana Oh took her theater show {my lingerie play} to the streets in New York City. She stood on a soap box, in her lingerie, holding up paper bags with a manifesto that passersby could read and respond to.

I was labeled an activist before I even knew what ‘activist’ meant.

Exposing lingerie, whether in private or public, may be seen as a peeling back of layers, a deconstruction. Diana uses {my lingerie play} to construct: a public and collaborative stage, and a conversation about how to look at a woman. “{my lingerie play} came about because I wanted to present the whole woman as a human being. I wanted to humanize the sexual woman.”

The work received widespread attention, and Diana was labeled as an activist and invited to speak on panels and participate in workshops. “I was labeled an activist before I even knew what ‘activist’ meant. I fought it for a little bit because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed. Once I came to terms with it on my own, I was like, ‘Alright, I’m an artist-activist. I’m an artist who’s an activist.’ I felt liberated.”

The evolving work, which will be staged ten times internationally in 2017, draws on Diana’s experiences coming of age: as an artist, as an activist, and as a person.

Born and raised in LA, Diana was a “theater kid.” She acted in plays and musicals, and sang in choir. After high school, Diana attended Smith College, where she began to explore themes that would later appear in her work. “It took going to Smith college, an all-women’s campus, where I started to feel like, ‘Oh - it’s okay for me to be the way that I am. It’s okay for me to be incredibly curious about my sexuality, and experiment.’”

Diana recalls being “exposed to the middle gender, and being exposed to people who did not fit into the binary.” She learned the term queer. "I hadn’t heard the term queer in high school. It was just like, Oh my god, I’m queer! No wonder I felt so different in high school, without even knowing what the term was.”

After Smith, Diana was awarded a fellowship at the Graduate Musical Theatre Program at NYU, where she started creating her own material. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was just like - Oh my god, oh my god. Experience life, be an artist, be an actor.” She tried her hand at songwriting, but kept her songs private. After acting in a play with the terraNOVA Collective, the artistic director, Jennifer Conley Darling, commissioned Diana to write a solo show. “I point blank was like, ‘I don’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. All I have are all these songs.’ And she was like, ‘Great. Awesome. You have one month to put it together.’”

The solo show, “Diana Oh is Going Rogue” was a multidisciplinary theatre piece with songs and storytelling that incorporated the audience by having them read aloud from cards printed with Diana’s thoughts. Eventually Diana named her evolving show {my lingerie play} and used it as a platform to expand her ideas about activism. “It taught me that I didn’t want to fly with a kind of industry that I found very difficult for me to be a part of as a queer woman of color. Women of color, people of color, we have lost that luxury to separate our activist voices from our artist voices.”

Women of color, people of color, we have lost that luxury to separate our activist voices from our artist voices.

This dynamic is created by a culture and an arts industry that treats white bodies as universal, and artists of color and queer artists as caricatured “others.” Audiences are inundated with stories and images that center white bodies, while stories that represent queer people and people of color are severely limited and often underdeveloped and/or stereotyped.

As an actor of color, Diana is constantly limited in roles she can audition for. “It’s a constant confrontation. It’s a constant thing that you’re coming up against where it’s like - Oh, right. I don’t get to just be an artist. Because I’m a visually viewed person. Who’s going to be open minded enough to look at a person who looks like me, who will say, ‘She can do anything’?”

For Diana, clothing and fashion are also arenas for activism and self-expression. “Nowadays when I think about clothes, I’m always thinking about performance of gender. As identity politics matter more and more to me, my fashion choices get broader and broader.”

When purchasing new, Diana likes to know about the people who create her clothing, and their design and manufacturing practices. Her favorite tank-top and hat are from Immigrant Apparel, a business founded and run by Betty Penate, that celebrates immigrants. Diana bought the hat and tank at a Queens night market. “It was the best $20 I ever spent. It felt really good to support an artist. It felt really good to support a message.”

For jewelry, VERAMEAT is one of Diana’s favorites. Owner and creator Vera Balyura is a musician, writer, model, and jewelry designer. Each piece is hand-crafted and her line features an imaginative array of mini-sculptures, including pit-bull heads, dinosaurs, a human hand, a wishbone, a tooth, kissing sea-horses, and others.

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The thought of owning more shit feels like this constant barrier I’m putting between myself and another person.

Purchasing from hand-made and boutique shops is not always feasible, and Diana has recently been thinking about the impact of buying from low-cost corporate stores, versus second-hand stores. “There are times where you go to H&M and you’re like, ‘I just need cute underwear that’s going to be cheap and look good.’ H&M has lots of malpractices that none of us should be taking part in. My partner is constantly teaching me how none of us should be buying clothes period - how it’s all unethical. What we really should be doing is only getting things from second hand stores, and not partaking in this super fucked-up industry.”

In addition to where we purchase, Diana explores why we purchase. “I’m being confronted with this reality that we’re doing so much pushing away. The thought of owning more shit feels like this constant barrier I’m putting between myself and another person.”

Instead of using clothing as a layer between herself and others, Diana is trying to use {my lingerie play} as a way to connect people, specifically around clothing. “There are people behind the clothes that we wear. There’s a message behind each article of clothing. My mission is trying to connect with independent manufacturers who have a message behind the clothing that they’re making.” After learning about the show, Anaïs Bouchard, the lingerie designer who created the NaïS brand, contacted Diana.

We have to create the image of us. That is incredibly exciting because we don’t necessarily have to answer to anybody, which is fucking awesome. It’s total innovation.

“She started making lingerie because she was sick of seeing the images in the lingerie business. She was like, ‘I’m not being seen. The bodies I want to be seen are not being seen. I want to create lingerie for athletic, fucking bad-ass women.’”

In 2016 Diana launched her own line of clothing. Speaking of the queer community, Diana says, “We have to create the image of us. That is incredibly exciting because we don’t necessarily have to answer to anybody, which is fucking awesome. It’s total innovation.”

Diana is inviting people of all identities to innovate and collaborate with each other as part of 10 {my lingerie play} installments, that will happen all over the world in 2017.  Open submissions are happening now; for information visit the website. Stay up to date about future installments on Facebook.

To learn more about Diana’s work, follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Photographer: Haley Varacallo is a portrait photographer who works with unconventional performers, capturing their glamour and grit, and exploring their beauty behind and beyond the stage.

Anna Rae writes about the lives and fashion of queer artists and performers. She created and produces the inclusive multimedia event series All Together Now, and is a member of the poprock band, Hemway.