Archives for category: Culture

wp_20160905_002Above: a chalk portrait of Sandra Bland

Tonight I have my fifth solo show, this time at Vermillion, a gallery voted #1 in Seattle in a recent Seattle Weekly poll. I wanted to honor the police murder victims of Black Lives Matter, so I decided to return to figurative portraiture, a departure from the largely abstract work of the past decade.

The name of the show is “Rebirth.” To counterbalance the hatred and racial violence in today’s world, I decided to create a meditative, healing space to honor the Black victims of police murders. Using classroom chalk, I drew portraits of 14 of them from a composite of photos sourced online. They are: Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Meagan Hockaday, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Philando Castile, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, Nizah Morris, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Yvette Smith. I also included Trayvon Martin because his murder created Black Lives Matter. In the back of the gallery, I posted these individuals’ stories, along with information on Black liberation organizations, which included Black Lives MatterEnding the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) Seattle, and Black Community Impact Alliance, as a call to action.

Drawing someone in chalk is a delicate and tender process. You observe every minute contour of their face. You understand that this person was vital, multifaceted, funny—so much more than a name in the news. This person left behind a void that is still felt among their loved ones and their communities. You realize, in drawing them, that you deeply care. And it becomes evident that remembrance, particularly in a portrait, is a kind of rebirth.

What brought me to tears was working on the eyes of 7-year-old Aiyana, the youngest police victim in the group. I thought, “We failed you.” She and the countless people gunned down by police officers should be here today. We need to do better. We need to address police accountability, open-carry laws, overpolicing in Black communities, and all the racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia attendant in American society.

An important element in many Black religious communities, water is collected in a bowl at the end of the gallery as a symbol of purification and rebirth. In acting as an inherent threat to the chalk drawings, it carries a reminder of the fragility of life and memory.

I want to thank Davida Ingram, Blu the Baqi, Sooja Kelsey, Eva Abrams, Inye Wokoma, and Erwin Thomas for all their insights and guidance on this project.

Vermillion is donating 10% of its profits to Black Lives Matter; I’m donating all my profits to Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) Seattle.

Show info:
Rebirth, a show honoring Black Lives Matter
Vermillion
1508 11th Ave, Seattle, WA
Opens Sept. 8, 6 to 9PM
Closes Oct. 8

 

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On November 27, the Black Lives Matter, Not Black Friday protest shook up the retail core of Seattle. I stayed for as long as I could and documented it.

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1 PM: Signs in Century Square, the de facto heart of the retail district.

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Protesters strain to hear the speaker’s bullhorns over the blare of Christmas carols, Century Square.

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Holiday shoppers watch the protest from the safety of Westlake Center, a popular downtown mall.

Blocking intersection_mic checkSeveral hundred demonstrators occupied intersections while POC (people of color) speakers used an Occupy-style “human microphone” to spread their message.

Blocking intersectionDisrupting traffic in Seattle: some motorists were frustrated, while others were empathetic and waited patiently.

WP_20151127_096Occupying a popular intersection beside corporate retailer Nordstrom–fuck the holiday season, start a revolution!

Signs outside Westlake Ctr
3 PM: First attempt to get into Westlake Center, at the north entrance …

Altercation_Westlake Ctr… which doesn’t end well (cops 1, POC 0)–the first arrest of four arrests made that day.

White allies at protest
The crowd of protesters was diverse, with many white allies.

Cops and WTFAn attempt by protesters to enter Pacific Place, an upscale shopping center, brings cops–and a few incongruous self-designated “superheroes” (costumed vigilantes).

Forever 21 protestProtesters occupied all four floors of Forever 21, a corporate retailer guilty of unethical practices.

The organizers of protest4:15 PM: A quick conversation, as police block off streets, before heading to Westlake Center for the tree lighting–and the latter half of the protest.

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The Slog, the daily blog run by The Stranger (one of Seattle’s weekly papers), covered the protest and captured, among many other people, me (in dark glasses, foreground). I lost most of my voice shouting and leading chants.

I need to figure out how to upload some video footage here. It features protesters infiltrating Macy’s, even as a security guard tried to shut its doors, and occupying Forever 21. At the latter store, I was right behind one of the march’s organizers when she simply and miraculously opened one of its doors and said, “Come on in.” I patted her on the shoulder and said it was a good idea, and then we all swept in–an unstoppable tide of people that took about 15 minutes to all get through the door. We rode the escalators to the top of the store, shouting chants like “Black lives matter, not this shit.” Shoppers were flummoxed or pretended to ignore us while scurrying to the dressing rooms, but a few pumped their fists in solidarity.

The Black Lives Matter march went on to effectively disrupt the tree lighting ceremony and finally infiltrate the two downtown malls. Some great photos and coverage can be found here. Four arrests were made, but there were no blast balls, tear gas, or major violence like I’d experienced during the WTO. And unlike the Martin Luther King Day Black Lives Matter march earlier this year, it didn’t end in the cops going crazy with the pepper spray. So in that respect, the protest was a relative success. However, many white shoppers became irate, completely overlooking the point of the protest: black lives matter more than consumerism.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tanisha Anderson. LaQuan McDonald. The countless unnamed by the media.

So many. Too many. Black lives matter. Say it with me–not all lives matter”that’s also true but missing the goddamn point here.

Black lives. Their black lives. Our black lives everywhere. All of them. Protected and respected. That may sound like a liberational fantasy, but that’s what protests like these are working toward.

Affecting corporate retailersAmerica’s moneylike Chicago’s protesters did on North Michigan Avenue, is the best way of getting attention and pointing to where the real value lies. Not in 40% off the Kindle Unlimited, but in the black lives lost and those that need to be fiercely and lovingly cherished and preserved.

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Whew, the projector works! (my self-portrait on screen)

I’d dreaded giving this workshop. I literally lost sleep over it, turning over in my head a central question that I’d tried to resolve through innumerable conversations. The problem was built into the title I’d given the workshop, “Here I Am: The Self-Portrait as Act of Cultural Resistance.” And now I had to hash it out at the 2015 Seattle Race Conference.

My workshop was originally intended for people of color (POC)—both visual artists and writers. In a society where racial minorities are still marginalized, creating a self-portrait is an empowering exercise for POC to assert their autonomy and agency. It’s a way of actively resisting racial typecasting while also rooting out implicit racism in themselves. Sometimes self-judgment, like “My eyes are too small” (something I used to think as an Asian American), emerges during the process, and these indictments often carry internalized racism.

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Quarter Life, a self-portrait I did at 25 

Knowing the conference would be well attended by non-POC, I didn’t want to restrict the workshop to minorities and be accused of being, well, racist. So my big dilemma was figuring out how to position this workshop to non-POC. If whiteness is normative in our culture, then for a white person, creating a self-portrait is not necessarily an act of racial-cultural resistance. So the big question was: how can non-POC create a self-portrait and still gain an empathetic understanding of the racial minority’s positionality? It felt like trying to sell a car to someone and have them think of broccoli at the same time. Most of the non-POC I asked usually didn’t think about race at all.

So I asked the question to a diverse assortment of people I knew, from data analysts to artists to academics to executives. Their answers ranged from “Does this workshop have to include white people?” to “Have the white folks draw themselves as racial minorities.” The latter idea made me flinch, since it could easily lapse into stereotyping. I wanted this workshop to be a validating experience for POC, not another opportunity for hurt feelings and rage.

After weighing out the feedback, I finally settled on asking the non-POC to do self-portraits and hoped that the small-group discussion afterward could help them better understand the minority experience.

My next concern was: Is anyone going to be interested in my workshop anyhow? There were so many fascinating-sounding sessions, including ones run by representatives of the ACLU, Washington Bar Association, and Seattle Office for Civil Rights, going on at the same time as mine.

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An excerpt of the 2015 Seattle Race Conference guide (my session bracketed)

To my relief, 16 people showed up. They were visual artists and writers, varying in age and race but skewing POC and female. I shared some of my art and writing, including an excerpt of my piece at the Wing Luke Museum, talked about the politics of self-portraiture and the social/activistic aspects of art making, and described the parameters of the project. I asked the writers to produce a paragraph or several about their physical appearance, which is the manifestation of ethno-racial features and perceived difference. I recommended the artists stick to a realistic style but not worry about using a mirror, to avoid getting hung up on technicalities.

Then I asked the workshop participants how they would address the self-portrait challenge for non-POC. One mixed-race woman raised her hand and suggested that whites can experience oppression, similar to what POC feel, when they feel insecurity at their own features. It was an excellent point: oppression can come from oneself—we do it all the time.

Using the paper, pens and pencils I’d brought, the workshop participants got to work. They approached their self-portraits with courage and honesty; there was often pain and questioning on the page. One white woman drew her body as an outline and her head with only eyes, nose, and hair; in a caption, she berated her blankness and yearned for color. A young black man tried drawing himself several times; each time, a male relative’s face unexpectedly emerged. The mixed-race woman who had responded to my question earlier almost wept while drawing her self-portrait. On the paper, her dark eyes stared piercingly out but inward, as most self-portrait eyes do. She later told me the workshop changed her life.

When I divided the class into small groups afterward to talk about their self-portraits, the discussions were rich and deep, even spilling into the lunch hour. As I visited with the groups, I found it challenging to adroitly respond to some of the issues that came up. What to say to the young white woman who drew herself in long sleeves and wrote that she was seen by her high school as a threat to the community (due to self-harm) but “still doesn’t know oppression”? Or to the half-Hispanic woman who called herself “an invalid” because she doesn’t fit into either culture and it makes her feel sick and useless.

Or to the white senior citizen who had remained resolutely silent until she finally opened up about escaping her bigoted small town when she realized she was gay.

Many writers tried their hand at sketching. A biracial woman who had never drawn before brightly observed that she could pass as either Mexican or white. She drew her eyes looking down in a shocked but amused manner, the whites showing above the dark pupils, and a half-smile on her thin face.

I was inspired and moved by everyone’s braveness at confronting their issues and speaking frankly about them with strangers. A few participants told me afterward that they’d had a profound experience. I ended up making two friends: a talented young poet, who has since expanded her self-portrait into a long-term creative project, and a woman from the social justice organization Coming to the Table. The latter led an afternoon workshop that used art interpretation to reveal implicit bias, which fit the conference theme: Perceptions Kill! The Impacts of Implicit Racial Bias.

The conference itself was sold out, and the majority of the attendees were non-POC, which shows that Seattle is progressing, even if it has a long way to go. I met likeminded folks who offered me opportunities to lead workshops at University of Washington, North Seattle College, and Western Washington University. I was also invited to show my art at a gallery in Kingston, WA.

Sea Race Conference friends
New friends at 2015 Seattle Race Conference (me in center)

Talking about race in America is arduous, but it’s amazing how engaged people can become once they get started. I was struck by how coworkers at my office, even between meetings, spoke about it with earnestness and alacrity. Race is an issue that is alive and vital, percolating below the surface, and when siphoned out carefully—in moderated small-group discussions, even in large-scale events like this conference—it can become a potent and transformative force. So let’s keep talking. Let’s keep meeting. Let’s keep looking into ourselves, for our faults, our beauty, our future potential. Because that is where social change begins.

This post is dedicated to freedom fighter Grace Lee Boggs.

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My tribute to Grace Lee Boggs on the chalkboard at my workplace

The best art doesn’t ask permission–it just grabs you by the eyeballs and won’t let go. Even though the Seattle Art Fair happened almost a month ago now (ancient history in the fast-paced world of social media), these three pieces have clung to me ever since I encountered them there. Though not “easy” pieces per se, they are extremely easy to rave about, in my opinion.

The painting that stopped me in my tracks was this one by Michael Reafsnyder. Good god. (Moment of silence.)

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Michael Reafsnyder
Glacial Spring, 2015
Acrylic on canvas
60×50

The artist slathered on what looked like entire bathtubs of acrylic paint in a decadent, almost wanton, way. The kaleidoscope of tones that emerged was both sumptuous and disorienting; it was the most sublime kind of confusion. I wanted to lose myself in this painting, to swim in it and unashamedly glut myself with it. Even if I did, I could never be satiated, because that’s what good art does; it leaves a little something that keeps you coming back for more … and more.

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Color? Who needs color? Detail of Glacial Spring

I was equally enamoured with the satisfyingly chunky work of Cordy Ryman. His pieces are constructed out of lucite and wood and bathed in enamel and acrylic. Like Reafsnyder’s paintings, they almost have a mouth-feel. My eyes wanted to break off pieces and devour them like thick slabs of marzipan.

(Which gave me the idea of creating an avant-garde bakery that produces abstract paintings, all made with cake and custard, that you can ogle and then consume. Who’s with me on this?)

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Cordy Ryman
Bittar Plan 1, 2014
Lucite, enamel, acrylic, epoxy on repurposed wood
12 x 12 x 1 in

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Just for the hell of it, a detail of Cordy Ryman’s Nine, 2014  

And finally, here is a mesmerizing video by Char Wei Tsai that I must have watched at least ten times in a row. Using heavy ink, the artist paints the word “Ah” in water. The word erodes over time while different voices intone the syllable in the background. As infatuated as I was with it, I misinterpreted this piece … big time.

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Still from Charwei Tsai’s Ah, 2011

Created for a public space in Singapore, Ah was intended to celebrate religious diversity and elicit an “inner piece” in the viewer. I found the voices disconcerting in their dissonance as the word “Ah” became more ragged and pitiful over time. As the water moves to and fro, the shreds of ink take on humanoid shapes and seem to cling to each other. They reminded me, horrifyingly enough, of the victims of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

In spite of my misunderstanding, I watched the video in rapt contemplation and was surprised at the indelible sense of pity and alarm it left me with. The experience made me realize how much of my sensibility is rooted in the Western paradigm. Funny how universality sometimes has to carry a passport. And how you still love a piece even though you’ve profoundly misread it. But even after I researched and found what this video signified, it didn’t lose its luster; instead it just became more rich and enigmatic.

All in all, I hadn’t expected to enjoy the Seattle Art Fair as much as I had, having some pretty strong feelings about the current art market. However, these pieces and a few others outshone everything negative, and I was positively starstruck. That is the undeniable power of art: to transform even a jaded cynic into someone who can see the world anew with fresh, hopeful eyes.

My heart’s been hanging at my knees, with the one-year anniversary of Ferguson and the controversy around the BLM disruption of Bernie Sanders’ visit to Seattle. There are feelings I’m finding hard to articulate right now—they exist only as a molten mass in my head—but I did convey some of them as abstract drawings on paper, using permanent marker and a very blunt pencil.

Divided ever
Divided Ever
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The past few days have reminded me that as whites and people of color, we live in radically different worlds. The ferment around Ferguson and the Sanders disruption has shown, with very few exceptions, the grievous lack of understanding we have toward each other. Our comprehension and empathy still hinge on social constructs, and this often creates an impasse, and enmity, between groups.

It pains me to see this kind of fracture happen, and I don’t know how else to talk about it beyond carving marks into paper with a blunt pencil (as in 90% wood, 10% graphite)—a study in impotence and a physical reminder of the emotional limits to our subjectivity. We say we support a movement outside of our experience but still remain ensconced in our respective paradigms.

There is a movement to emphasize that black lives matter. And there are many non-black allies, but how much do we really understand about being a racial minority without wearing it on our skin and seeing how it feels?

We cannot understand
How We Cannot Understand/Stand
Sharpie and blunt pencil

The drawing above came out of the hostile response to the disruption of Bernie Sanders’ talk in Seattle. Some of the most mean-spirited comments came from those who should be the best allies to the BLM movement, white progressives. It occurred to me that as different races with differing agendas in that moment, we could not understand, or even stand, each other. We simply cannot stand if we continue operating this way.

I’m frustrated by the impotence in racial discussions. We are bound by our limitations, so how can we unite and fight?

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We Hate You/They Hate Us
Sharpie and pencil

There are allies out there with deep hearts and broad imaginations. These are the people who can help, and yet today I’m feeling discouraged, haplessly bound by my own skin and embroiled in conflicting, mutually uncomprehending discourse. I’m especially tired of hearing stubborn but futile attempts to analyze the Sanders situation. These are as effectual as a blunted pencil, whose insignificant marks cannot rival the deep, plush darkness of a brand-new Sharpie, a symbol of the stark and unyielding truth of racial inequality.

On Martin Luther King Day, I joined hundreds in Seattle at a rally in front of a downtown federal courthouse. Speakers addressed the growing movement against police violence and racial inequality, and the rally concluded on a high note—but there was unfinished business. As the crowd dispersed, an independent group of protesters headed north to join #blacklivesmatter activists who had lain down in the middle of Highway 99, using the “sleeping dragon” tactic of locking their arms together in pipes. I joined the group, knowing this unsanctioned march was an act of civil disobedience that carried the risk of arrest. As the sole breadwinner of my household, I felt deeply apprehensive but compelled to see, photograph, and march in solidarity, like I had in the WTO protests a decade and a half ago.

MLK protest march to SLU
Marching through downtown behind an IWW (“Wobbly”) flag

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Occupying the road, on the edge of the Amazon.com campus  

We entered the sprawling campus of Amazon, half of it under construction (talk about a sleeping dragon). The road was lined with partially built condos and apartment buildings for the nouveau riche. Our chants echoed through the urban canyon: “Hey hey, ho ho, new Jim Crow has got to go!” and “Fight back! Fight back today! The USA killed MLK!”

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Protesters link arms, unfazed by lines of bicycle police

MLK protest march Hands Up
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” chants the crowd. Jesse Hagopian, a writer, history teacher, and Black Student Union advisor at Seattle’s Garfield High School, on the left.

MLK protest Derek phone
Some protesters, such as community organizer Derek Orbiso Dizon (pictured), had the phone number of a network of pro bono lawyers written on them, in case of arrest.

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Others showed solidarity with #blacklivesmatter.

I warily noted the bike cops encroaching on both sides of the crowd and remembered the rubber bullets and tear gas from the WTO, anti-Bush/anti-war protests, and countless other demonstrations since. Then the inevitable happened: we approached a line of cops blocking the road and a few protesters who attempted to cross the line were seized, beaten, and pepper-sprayed. They were soon pinned on the ground and in handcuffs.

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The police’s violent response causes confusion, outrage, and disappointment among protesters.

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One of many arrests made on Martin Luther King Day 2015, Seattle

Some high-school-age protesters looked on, cowed and in disbelief, before vanishing from the scene. Some jeered, others moved to the sidewalk, and one intrepid black man stood in front of the police and shouted at the top of his lungs, “As a protest of one, I say: FUCK THE POLICE!” He refused to budge and was escorted into a waiting police SUV. My heart sank.

A young protester wept on the sidelines, so I gently approached her and asked if she was okay. She had marched all the way from Garfield High School and was distraught at how a peaceful protest could end in such an ugly way. I listened to her talk and then gave her a hug and told her that, as disheartening as it is, this is how the world eventually changes. I urged her to keep coming out to protests and silently reminded myself to do the same.

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A disillusioned young protester

The crowd of protesters began to thin out; some went home and others took the back roads to join the activists blocking the state highway. Feeling unnerved and sickened, I seeked out a quiet corner and sat down to process what I’d seen. A good part of me wishes I’d gone on to show solidarity and help block an interstate on-ramp. After all, disrupting traffic on one afternoon only starts to convey what it’s like to be constantly disrupted, on a day-to-day basis, as a racial minority.

Many jaded armchair warriors can “tsk tsk” and claim that there’s a catch in protesting: you can take to the streets and yell all you want, but you will suffer consequences that include arrest. But there’s a bigger catch that the authorities who oppose civil disobedience need to realize, and it’s this: you can make arrests but you can’t halt social change. It’s larger than all of us, and it’s spreading more rapidly and prevalently than you think.

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Exuberant and empowered young activists block a downtown Seattle intersection, Martin Luther King Day, 2015.

Selma and Charlie
There were small, wet sounds throughout the theatre at the Selma screening. As a young black man lay dying on screen—too familiar a sight in today’s media—a gray-haired man in front of me dabbed his eyes, and somebody in a back row stated plainly, “Ferguson.” Selma is that kind of film, one that seamlessly enmeshes the past with the present and wrings out tears of recognition from its audiences. Though it has been criticized for factual inaccuracy, the movie reworks the historical narrative to better represent a truth that existed then as it does now: systemic racism.

While a new kind of activism is emerging in the aftermath of Ferguson, it is important to remember the pioneers of the civil rights movement. Selma does a good job of honoring them, particularly Martin Luther King, who projects both softness and strength. It is jarring to see an unvarnished Oprah playing civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper and to realize that just over 50 years ago, the queen of all media would barely be allowed a drink from a segregated water fountain. It’s downright hair-raising to see unarmed, ordinary African-American citizens approaching the huddle of white, racist state troopers and police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Selma opened in Seattle theatres a few days after Islamic extremists launched attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket. The massacre resulted in a global outpouring of grief, outrage, and solidarity, including the largest rally turnout in France on record. Meanwhile, the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo quietly prepared its next issue, unsurprisingly featuring Mohammed on the cover.

Initially, I felt like some of the Charlie Hebdo comics were cheap shots with unremarkable technique, but I came to understand that France has its own distinctively rich history of anticlerical satire. Even though the voices and images can be obstreperous and vulgar, they can be particularly effective tools for social critique. I fervently believe in freedom of expression and, like those working at the magazine, tend to be distrustful of all religions and authority figures.

Selma and the Charlie Hebdo killings have reminded me, in the most wrenching way, that ordinary citizens can and will make a difference in driving social movements forward. Whether marching or sketching, acts of resistance are necessary to combat the psychological and physical violence of racism and religious extremism.

Selma and Charlie: the names evoke a quaint couple of yesteryear. I envision a blood-spattered pair who have been brought to their knees but have risen up to plod forward, doggedly and painfully, on the long road ahead.

Over the holidays, I laid a large piece of raw canvas on the floor of a friend’s art studio and slashed and hacked away at it with a housepainter’s brush. Sure, it was action painting—nothing nobody wasn’t doing in 1951 (wait, does that triple-negative still make a positive?). However, old methods can convey new messages, including one that represents the sweaty, immediate present.

This was the result:

Denature

Every single inch of the 5-foot-long canvas is affected; even the seemingly blank areas are activated by small splatters. In this way, this painting acts as a metaphor for race; that is, there is nobody in America that is not affected at this cultural moment by the discourse of race and difference. Ferguson was the watershed, the explosive catalyst. Eric Garner, like a wide receiver, carried the message farther.

I titled the piece Denature because it talks about how Michael Brown, and many others before and after, was stripped of his dignity–and all his essential qualities–as he lay bleeding in the street. It talks about the denaturing and pervasive effect of systemic racism.

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Hiccups and droolings of paint: Denature, 2014 (closeup)

Working spontaneously on a large scale was extremely cathartic for me; a lot of grief and rage bubbled out. However, as an artist, I was careful to follow up with methodical refinement. Right now this piece and another larger painting, titled 12:01 to Eternity (referencing the time Michael Brown was shot), are in an incubation period. I’ll leave them alone for a month or so before revisiting them for additional revisions. Because, as with emotion itself, time provides some perspective. But in the end, this perspective may only open up more questions than answers, not unlike race in America.

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12:01 to Eternity, 2015 (closeup)

Convergence
For contrast, a painting from 2008, Convergence 

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A small drawing I made using Sharpie, Dec. 2014

From a racial perspective, 2014 has been a watershed year. In light of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it feels as if we are on the cusp of a new, reinvigorated and more media-savvy civil rights movement—one that is manifesting in intellectual and visceral ways. All of the sudden, being minority, and especially being black, has an urgency to it. Take, for example, the website of #BlackLivesMatter; its main text is telegraphic and immediate: Get Active, Get Organized, Fight Back.

The events of the past few months have forced race into the national discussion to an almost overwhelming degree. We’re no longer avoiding the topic; we’re glutted with it. There have been innumerable articles, from both mainstream and underground publications, that offer incisive social critique and cultural analysis. Ironically, the more the country talks about race, the less I feel compelled to write about it. I’m more inclined now to simply witness, and gradually process, the societal change this dialogue is fostering. There’s too much to take in; I’m speechless.

As a side note: For those who still believe that the police were justified in killing these black guys because they were criminals, you’re ignoring the national subtext—an entire cultural narrative—underlying these events. Wake up and smell the prejudicial coffee!

Even though this blog was originally designed to talk about race (it’s even built into the name, for better or worse), I’ve delved less into general musings around it and more into the specific experiences of being an Asian American. Life is politicized when you’re a minority, and as an Asian-American female, I’m reminded of that fact every single day. Even the minutiae of everyday life, such as habits, personal appearance and conversations, are charged with identity and difference.

My hope is that in the new year, the discussion around race continues and we learn to understand one another better. Increasing awareness and recognition engenders compassion and empathy—at least, ideally. With the President of the United States candidly admitting he’s been mistaken for the valet, and even multinational conglomerate Starbucks taking a stand on racism, this kind of bipartisan social change could very well happen, maybe even quicker than we imagined.

POC Power crop

I batted around many ideas for my submission to Art Bash 2014, the annual charity auction held by the American Advertising Federation in Seattle. The theme this year was “Throwback Thursday.” The Mona Lisa taking a selfie? Too glib. A stark horse skull remembering itself as a handsome stallion? A little macabre. Plus I’d have to incorporate a cartoony thought bubble, which seemed wrong. (But at the same time kind of awesome.) It all seemed like too much work. “Why don’t you just paint a nice picture of an apple or an orange?” my mom rather unhelpfully suggested.

I had just gotten a piece of my art into the Korean-American show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Ferguson was in the news, this time because of the unwelcome involvement of the KKK, which added its own vitriolic brand of fuel to the fire.

The goal of Art Bash 2014 itself was to level the racial playing field by raising money for the AAF’s Western Washington University minority students scholarship fund.

For these reasons, I felt like I needed to produce a piece defending and promoting minorities. And what better artist to exemplify the power of POC (people of color) but Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Though a controversial figure riddled with his own problems, Basquiat embraced a range of media to explore racial politics, class struggle, and street culture. His paintings emanate heat; his writings as a member of graffiti crew SAMO are epigrammatic and thought provoking. His photogenic presence graced indie film Downtown 81, cult TV program TV Party, and the New York City nightclubs as a member of art-rock band Gray. He was the real meal deal, and he didn’t last long. Whether by heroin OD or speedball, Basquiat died at 27, following a dizzying, meteoric rise to the top of the art charts.

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Basquiat: Polar opposite of Warhol, but a de facto heir (with the hair)

I found an image of Basquiat looking inscrutable and undeniably cool in his shades, and reproduced it within a couple of hours. Rather than try to imitate Basquiat’s graffiti-inflected style, I chose to create a portrait of him in the style of a street memorial mural. Those murals, found in any poverty-ridden neighborhood, may not be the most technically accurate depictions of the deceased, but they project heroism and an indelible soulfulness. I was also inspired by Sophia Dawson’s most recent mural, Every Mother’s Son–a tribute to minority mothers who’d lost their sons to police violence–on the Lower East Side.

To prevent my painting from being sold to some douchey, clueless art director who only knows Basquiat as some “badass black dude,” I added a few hashtags at the bottom (alluding to #TBT, the show’s theme): #radical and #pocpower. Obviously, the painting is welcome to anyone of any race, as long as they are familiar with the minority struggle. And yes, “POC” may be an in-group term used in racial discourse, but it precludes Basquiat from being hung like some mounted deer head in some dude-bro’s rec room.

Most important, the painting attests to the power of both sociopolitical firebrand Basquiat and people of color, especially the radicals. The still life with apples will have to wait until next time.

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Basquiat’s Exu (1988) may as well be a portrait of present-day Ferguson

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My earlier tribute to Basquiat, done in marker on a whiteboard at work