INTERVIEW BY MAYA RENNEE CASTRO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKAYLA MILLER
Lukita is a Gen Z creative based in LA. She is currently the Head Web Designer and Editor at Sunstroke Magazine, an intersectional, GenZine. In addition to web design for Sunstroke, Lukita is currently working as a film actor. In the past she’s worked with ABC, 20th Century Fox, and most recently, HBO Max. She loves working amongst creatives, on or off a set, in front or behind a camera. Additionally to designing and acting, she’s passionate about photography, sustainability, good coffee, good music and traveling. This past month I got to sit down with Lukita and discuss small conservative towns, interests outside of acting and providing space for others.
Can you state your name, pronouns and how you identify yourself as an artist?
I’m Lukita Maxwell. My preferred pronouns are she/her. I am a GenZ creative based in L.A right now. I grew up kind of all over the place, but my teen years were spent in a small conservative town in Utah.
Is there anything else that was very important to you in your upbringing?
I was born in Jakarta, Indonesia and my mom is Chinese and she was born there. Her side of the family is all from there. I grew up very immersed in that culture. I moved to the U.S when I was five. It was definitely a culture shock, going from being around my Indonesian, Chinese speaking family and then coming to the states where nobody looked like me, especially in a small town in Utah. However my mom is the strongest person I know and she’s so unapologetically herself. That’s just what she taught me my whole life. I’ve been lucky to have that strong support growing up.
How does your cultural heritage play a role in your understanding of yourself?
I grew up around my mom’s side of the culture as a kid. When we moved to the states when I was five or six, I had no connection to her culture whatsoever over here other than small traditions my mom kept up. The thing that has stuck with me since moving has been Buddhism and spirituality practices. I always go to them when I’m anxious. I go to the practices, the chanting, the meditation that I’ve been practicing with my mom, with my grandma, with that whole side of the family since I was little. I’ll also go to the temple. That’s just something that I’ve always been really appreciative of and something that I’m really grateful I can tap into. It’s there to practice whenever I need, no matter where I am.
What’s your experience been navigating the world as POC or however you identify yourself? How have you experienced forms of colorism? And how have you benefited from colorism?
We’ve all experienced different forms of colorism. Especially growing up as a mixed person, being born in one place and then moving somewhere so quickly afterwards, you start to grow and become connected with one culture. And when it changes, it’s very abrupt and very, very confusing to your identity. I was really lucky because my family is really close on both my mom and my dad’s side. Living in Indonesia, surrounded by my family there, I felt very comfortable. But at the same time, I am mixed. So there I was looked at as a foreigner. When we moved to the states and then to Utah, I went to a high school with maybe three thousand kids and maybe 10 or 15 Asian kids. There was no diversity whatsoever. It was just the culture of the town I grew up in. Growing up, I was complimented for being exotic all the time. Looking back, I think about how uncomfortable I felt when people said that. Why is that the first thing that you point out about me? Now that I’m older, I’m more aware that that’s just something people of color or mixed kids experience all the time. I think social media has shaped that awareness. Our generation has access to fellow people our age that aren’t living in a small little town. It’s really helped me feel like I’ve found a community of people that identify the same way I do or are going through the same thing of questioning their identity. I’m very grateful to be living in this generation where you have access to connecting to other people.
Growing up with social media and the internet, did you still crave seeing people who looked like you or who had the same cultural background as you in the media?
I honestly didn’t even know that mixed kids were out there. In addition to growing up in a small town in Utah, I was also homeschooled through middle school, so I was isolated from a lot of kids my age. I had experiences with kids at dance class or whatever, but they were all the perfect little ballerina girls that their moms wanted them to be. As a middle schooler and as an elementary school kid, I definitely felt the need to fit in. Especially in this Utah town where it’s predominantly LDS (Latter Day Saints) or Mormon, everybody dresses and talks a certain way. There’s just lots of taboo subjects. My family’s not LES, my family’s not Mormon, so I felt myself trying to fit in with those kids and be as picture perfect as I could be. Then there is the bigger, more systemic box that society creates for you and ways that you have to be. I was told my whole life as a kid that I’m smart and I have to fill those shoes. You have to be super smart, super beautiful, super all these things. And I worked so hard to fill those shoes that everybody was presenting in front of me. My happiest times were honestly when I was at home and my parents just supported any art I wanted to do, provided me with books, cameras, art supplies and taught me anything I wanted to know. And that’s the joy of homeschooling in one sense. My parents fostered my interests and encouraged me to learn anything and everything I wanted to learn. In high school, I definitely started to develop my own style. I presented myself the way that my mom had taught me to, just be confident. I found my artistic friends and I found people that were really interested in creating and exploring, interested in learning about the world outside of this bubble and not settling for what’s comfortable and what you know.
What’re your parents’ backgrounds?
My mom was born and raised in Indonesia, but blood wise, she’s Chinese. Culturally Indonesian, racially Chinese. But she grew up with strong connections to both cultures. She grew up in a Chinese speaking household with three different dialects of Chinese going on from mom, dad and grandparents. I was taught all the practices and all of the traditions that they followed. But after moving here, I lost touch with that after some time. I am so lucky that I get to visit my family every couple of years. And when we do, we get to celebrate different holidays or even just be around family and cook at home. That’s a huge thing in our household, in our family. We’ll all get in the kitchen and it’ll be me and all my siblings, my mom, her parents, her grandma and all her cousins. We’ll get in the kitchen and we’ll all just cook, make the table up, and enjoy a delicious meal together. And there will be many different languages spoken, Indonesian, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese are all going on at the same time in different conversations. I miss that, I haven’t been back in so long.
My dad’s from Salt Lake, Salt Lake City, Utah. He grew up there and went to the Art Center for College. He was a nerdy little art kid, photography boy in high school. He worked his ass off and got to go to the Art Center, College of Design in Pasadena. I definitely get my creative side from my dad. I would say he was the one that gave me a camera, taught me how to use a camera and taught me principles of design. He didn’t give me names for any of them or anything complicated. He just said, “this is this and this looks good. Now let me tell you why.” We visited New York one time and we walked through the MoMA. My little sister was looking at the Red Square painting and she was like, “what’s this? What’s the big deal with the Red Square?” My dad got so offended, he sat there and talked to us about the importance of this abstract red square for like 20 minutes which was a lot for a six year old to handle. But I’ve definitely always looked up to my dad and his career. I think I subconsciously follow in his footsteps a little bit, which I’m not mad about. He’s had a crazy, cool life!
Are there any specific memories of foods, traditions, holidays or languages that your mom passed down to you that you hold dear to your heart?
I think my mom passed down a lot. I do speak Indonesian. That’s one of the languages I happened to hang on to. But the one memory you made me think of was the cooking. When I was growing up, we cooked a lot in the house. When I was 11, we went back to visit my Pho Thai’s house, she’s my great grandmother. I walked into the house for the first time in five or six years and the smell was the same. Everything was in the same place and it was just so familiar. That house in Jakarta, every time we go back, it’s just exactly the same. And it’s this formation of all the aunties, my mom and all her cousins and all her siblings, all getting into the kitchen. Everybody has their job. My mom’s usually just yelling at me to do little things all over the place. We also play this game, Chopsa, chinese poker and my family is very competitive when it comes to Chopsa. Like, oh, my God, if a deck of cards comes out at any point on any night, any day of the year, my mom will sit there and not stop until she wins. It’s funny. That’s a small tradition, other than cooking and big holidays that we celebrate. That’s definitely one that’s stuck around.
Do you remember specific instances growing up, where you realized micro aggressions or biases that someone might have towards your mom or you for being mixed?
There were definitely instances where people would come over for dinner or pass us in the grocery store and be like, “wow, you’re really exotic.” But you just don’t know how to process that. As a ten year old, eleven year old, what does that even mean? I think in Utah, especially in my small town, everybody is very sweet and very kind. It’s the nicest racism you’ll ever experience in your entire life. It’s not mean spirited whatsoever, but they make it known that there is still a line between white or white presenting people and other POC. However, I think that my peers and my friends nowadays, especially with social media and exposure to the world, are speaking out on this. When my mom moved out here for the first time, she didn’t experience direct derogatory racism, but people would pay her special attention or make sure that she felt a certain type of way, like the spotlight was getting shined on her. She just felt that wasn’t a reason for a spotlight to be shined on her, which is very my mother. She doesn’t like to be the center of attention. But, yeah, I am very lucky. I’ve never actually gotten microaggressions. I experienced more microaggressions from random people for being a woman in Utah. One time I was at my thrift store and I was looking through a camera. I was opening up these film cameras, making sure they all worked. And this older white male walked by and very aggressively said, “why are you taking photos? you’re a woman.” And I was like, “I’m sorry. We live in 2019. This is 2019, sir!” I don’t know, It’s just a conservative culture. You get catcalled, noticed for just driving to the grocery store alone. I mean everybody has to deal with that, whether you identify as POC or not. It’s a women’s issue, unfortunately.
How does your culture, ethnicity, and identity intersect and affect your beauty preferences or grievances?
Growing up and being homeschooled just really taught me to not give a fuck about what a lot of people think. But culturally, on my mom’s side, I wasn’t too affected by beauty standards. My mom isn’t an individual herself that is super focused or fixated on beauty, like a lot of Asian cultures are. A lot of Asian cultures have to have everything perfect. You have to have an ideal skin tone. You have to have an ideal eye shape. You have to have an ideal body shape. And I definitely had extended family members that would make passing comments at me and my siblings because we’re mixed. We have bigger bone structures and we have slightly larger features than my mother, who is five two. I tower over her, I have to bend over her when I give her a hug. She’s just this tiny little Asian woman. And I grew up a dancer, so I’m very muscular and do not fit into those perfect Asian stereotypes of what the ideal woman looks like. But like I said, my mom didn’t fuss about that in the slightest. My mom instilled in me that I am beautiful the way I am and being healthy means maintaining healthy habits, eating and sleeping well, meditating and grounding yourself, and surrounding yourself with good people and what you love, that’s what makes you beautiful. That’s what my mom instilled in me, as well as not giving a fuck what anybody else thinks. She was also very minimalist growing up. She was a very sustainable consumer. We reused everything. She’s had the same ice cream Tupperware container since like 2010. We don’t produce a lot of food waste. We weren’t allowed to throw away leftovers or anything like that. And those are all the practices that I carry with me today. I remember being young and going to my friend’s houses and after eating like three bites of their meal, they’d just throw the entire plate of food away. Then they’d grab a plastic water bottle out of the pantry with like 17 million other plastic water bottles. I remember just cringing and being like, “oh, my God, people actually live like this.” People don’t think that there are consequences to living like that because it’s easy to think that in a town where everything seems very safe and very picture perfect.
Can you tell me a little bit about your artistry and how you came to your craft? What drives you?
I consider myself a creative. My parents were very adamant that I never put myself in a box and kept my options open. They always told me, don’t get frustrated if you have so many different things that you love, you have a whole lifetime. I lean towards the arts: photography, graphic design and acting have always been kind of those three that always stuck with me, throughout everything. I started going to school at Pratt to study architecture because I felt that was something new that I really, really wanted to learn about. It really intrigued me. My whole life so far has been about discovering new passions and learning as much as I can about them. I think I’m driven by others’ work. My passionate friends really inspire me. I think I’m learning now as I get older that it’s ok to not have your creative mind turned on all the time. I’m learning to live life and let that influence my work instead of me creating surface art, which can be beautiful and very fun, but I’m starting to let my life experiences, the people and the places around me influence my work a little bit more.
How did you get into acting?
I’ve been a drama queen my entire life (jokes). However I grew up a very dramatic child. I wanted to grow up to be an actor. I never thought that that was a thing that I could ever do in real life. I guess the first thing I started doing was Shakespearean monologues. As a kid, I was the biggest bookworm. And after I read the entire children’s section of my library, I decided I was big, almighty and I needed to read the biggest book I could find. So I found this complete work of Shakespeare and I started reading it. I was probably 10 at the time. And I remember clicking with it immediately. It was weirdly, very nerdy for a 10 year old to me to connect with old English and be like, “I’m really relating to this shit.” But I could read it and I understand it, it was just the right amount of pretentiousness for me as a 10 year old. I loved it. In Utah we have a Shakespeare Festival and I had a friend in my homeschool group whose mom wanted him to compete. He needed a partner to do a monologue, so he asked me if I could go. I prepared a monologue from Henry the 8th. I competed and after the competition they were having an awards ceremony. I told my mom that since I was much younger than everybody and I’d never acted in my entire life, that we didn’t need to go to the awards ceremony. We just ended up driving the two hours home from the competition. I got a call that night from my friend’s mom, who was at the award show that I had won first place. So after that, my mom was like, so you can act! That was kind of the first acting thing I did outside of, you know, my bedroom.
Is there anything in the future that you would want to explore with your art and culture?
I’d love to get more in touch with the core of my family’s Buddhist religion. My family goes to this temple in L.A and I’ve been wanting to go, but I haven’t been able to go yet because od COVID. But I was going to do a journal series of my mental progress. It would be like a self portrait series throughout the time going and visiting the temple and connecting with that, because I haven’t been to a temple in person in over ten years. That’s just one idea I have. But right now I’m working as the Web designer/ editor of Sunstroke magazine. So right now I feel my work is more focused on highlighting other artists and other BIPOC that need their voices to be amplified right now. I don’t necessarily feel a strong urge for me to be necessarily creating my own art. I’m trying to help facilitate space as much as I can and amplify as much as I can. Yeah that’s the kind of the headspace I’m in at the moment.
Do you notice any common themes that come up in your work that you do? Certain characters you become? Certain photos you take?
I think it’s the case with a lot of photographers, but I’m very attracted to different kinds of people. It’s not like a super special answer but I do primarily shoot on film. Both film portraiture, shooting people in their space, in their rooms or in their hometowns outside. With acting, I don’t feel I have not necessarily experienced a recurring theme. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of roles and they’re all very different.
Besides facilitating space for other voices right now, what are the other ways that you use art as a tool of self-expression and community building within your community?
I’m very lucky to have a community of creative friends around me, like my friends. I’m very inspired by them and I keep surrounding myself with people who are unapologetically themselves. They are passionately creating all the time, constantly building each other up and constantly helping each other with their work. Whether that’s reading each other’s pieces or giving feedback on each other’s artwork or whatever it is, I’m really lucky to have so many creative friends. Like my girlfriend, she’s a dancer, and she’ll just facetime me and be like, “what does this look like? How does this look?” and that inspires me. Other than my community of friends that I surround myself with, Sunstroke is definitely a big part of my daily life. I’m surrounded by so many talented artists and writers and all of these stories that we’re facilitating space for. I’m the Web editor, so I’m not contributing work at the moment, but I make sure that the artists feel comfortable with the way that I am designing their work to be displayed on the website and make sure that they feel heard.
What made you want to showcase people and make sure that there are spaces for voices that are usually marginalized?
I felt a strong urge with this latest resurgence of Black Lives Matter. I was obviously very moved, very upset with what was going on. The first time I was affected by anything relating to Black Lives Matter was Trayvon Martin and his death.I remember reading about that, crying and feeling so helpless for somebody that I didn’t know. These were conversations that I started to see on social media that were happening all the time, but you know, nothing really happened because of that. There has been so much change, but I definitely feel like now after George Floyd, after Briana Taylor, after Elijah McClain, and the other lives that were lost in 2020, I started to get angry. I think that I was angry at myself for not having been more active and not having been listening or actively educating myself. That’s definitely something that’s on my mind every day. Our job now is to educate ourselves and make this generation a more ethical and accountable generation than previous generations have been. I just felt like that was something that I could do. I was already in a position, I was already on staff. We took a pause from everything with our regular media that we were producing and we said that we were going to clean everything up in terms of design. But more importantly, find and provide a space, reach out on social media to anybody and everybody that wanted to share their stories with us.
In your opinion, what is the role of art in the BLM movement right now?
I think at the root of it, it’s spreading awareness, demanding change and holding people accountable. That’s what I think art is moving people to do, because art is an expression of self. It’s an expression of experience and emotion and highlighting that. I think my role is to be a student of the world, to listen, really, really educate myself, and bring that to the discussion table and have those conversations with friends and family. They can be difficult conversations, especially growing up in this conservative town where everybody has this very defensive mindset. Conversations are difficult, but difficult is not dangerous. And I’m very privileged to be in that position where I do feel I am safe in the conversations that I am having.
Sometimes as an artist, especially at the beginning of everything that was going on, the resurgence of the BLM, I kept asking myself if I was doing enough? Is art even the thing that I should be focusing on right now? What are your thoughts on being an artist right now? Did it feel kind of hopeless or do you have hope that art can be a really powerful tool in this movement?
Art can be a powerful tool for anything and everything. I didn’t necessarily feel like creating my own art was the most useful to the movement. I felt like my voice was not a voice that needed to necessarily be heard. I consider myself very privileged. I’m very comfortable. I live in a loving, happy home. I’m not saying I haven’t had to work hard for everything that I have, but again, it’s not about me right now. I need to be a facilitator of the space, more behind the scenes. And for me that looks like using my social media platform to share resources so my followers can educate themselves to working at Sunstroke and helping share other people’s stories.
What’re some must see films/ tv shows/ plays that speak to you?
A play that I would recommend is this play called Man of God by Anna Moench. It played at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. and it’s by an Asian-American screenwriter. It’s a story about these four Korean American girls who go on a Catholic school trip. It’s a comedy dramedy type of situation. But I just read the script and was like, oh shit, this is funny as hell.
For a TV show, hands down a must see is When They See Us. My girlfriend told me to watch it and she doesn’t really recommend a lot of things. After I watched the first episode, I literally could not revisit it for a month. I cried for a week afterwards. And I’m not an emotional person at all. But I was so moved by it that I was so angry. I read all about it even before I finished the series. I had to know everything that happened. I read articles and boys’ sites and all the amazing, incredible work that they’re doing. Holy shit, that TV show. Tears, tears and tears and tears and so much anger.
I honestly haven’t been watching a lot of movies in quarantine. I’ve been living life inside my house and hiking. But I did rewatch Moonlight a few weeks ago and it’s incredible. The first time I watched it, I hadn’t come out to the world and I wasn’t dating my girlfriend, I just had this big fat crush on her. It just meant something so different the second time around. Of course, we love movies, movies that make you feel. I’m a sucker for beautiful cinematography, beautiful music, and a beautiful fucking cast.
Is there anything else you want to add, anything you want to share?
Fucking Vote. That’s all I got.
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