Archives for posts with tag: social justice

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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Scooter_YL_sm

Me in London, 1995: I crouched next to this random scooter and jokingly said my ’67 Lambretta went tits-up, so I get around on this Spree.
(photo credit: Silvia Manzanero)

Once upon a time, I was a self-loathing Asian who hung out with the skinheads. Now, they weren’t neo-Nazis; they were traditional skinheads, or “trads” (I’ll get more into that in a minute). And ironically enough, they were more antiracist than I was!

Before you say, “But wait, aren’t all skinheads racists?” it’s important to note that when skinheads emerged as a youth culture in late ’60s England, they embraced Jamaican ska music, ultimately helping disseminate it—often called skinhead reggae—all over the country. However, neo-Nazis co-opted the movement in the 1970s and recruited violent white supremacist skinheads. This subgroup, with its right-wing extremism, has unfortunately exemplified skinhead culture to the mainstream ever since.

Found on nearly every continent today, skinhead culture comprises an array of political beliefs. The most recognizable antiracist faction is the  Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs); other skinheads consider themselves to be trads, a term referencing their apolitical origins. And there are plenty of nationalist wingnuts, like the culturally confused Malaysian neo-Nazis. (More on skinhead subculture and identity can be found here.)

My introduction to the skinheads, or “skins,” came through ska. Although this upbeat music is ubiquitous enough now to be heard on any used-car dealership commercial, it was underground and hard to come by for a long time. When I was 11, my older sister brought home a record that changed my life; it was the debut album by The Specials. The track that made me jump to my feet and take notice was Do the Dog. With its explosive drum intro and the lead singer’s bawled, profane vocals, this song would foretell, and maybe even determine, my later interest in radical politics and punk.

“All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead”
—The Specials, “Do the Dog”

As a gothic punk in high school, I never stopped listening to ska and eventually became a full-fledged “rudegirl” (a female member of the ska subculture). Most of my favorite bands were on the 2 Tone record label, but I listened to old-school Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and nonracist Oi!. I wore all black-and-white clothes under a bomber decorated with ska buttons and patches (part of the skinhead aesthetic), and frequented ska shows, where I’d “skank” all night with other rudies and skins, who were some of the most avid fans.

Rudegirl _ room at home.jpg
Rudegirl selfie, Philly, 1994: I’m in a ’60s dress with ska paraphernalia (most of which I drew myself) all over my walls.

It was easy enough to take on a subcultural persona; it was much harder to deal with my racial identity. In spite of being staunchly antiracist, I was at odds with my Asianness. As a kid, I was bullied because of my ethnic features, and as a young adult, felt entirely detached from Korean culture. I didn’t have Korean friends, barely knew the language or who my grandparents were, and was usually at odds with my immediate family. Being Asian, for me, meant only experiencing racial slurs and fetishism; it was a deficit and a liability and, at best, a major inconvenience. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As an alienated 19-year-old, I met and got to know the Philly United Skinheads (PUSH). The first encounter was uncomfortable: on a lonely West Philly street one night, a drunken skinhead began talking shit to me and ripped a patch off my bomber. I screamed at him and got the patch back; then two of his friends came up to apologize to me for his behavior while he reeled away and puked in a vacant lot. From then on, I was accepted by the group.

PUSH was led by an intensely charismatic 27-year-old skinhead named Spud. He could have been mistaken for a neo-Nazi because of his Aryan features and German blackletter tattoos. His girlfriend, an African-American skinhead, was a former mod/goth hybrid (she’d worn a lot of black suits, apparently) and daughter of a southern Holy Roller. We busted out Madness moves on the dancefloor and drank heavily while watching early-’90s ska bands like The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim play. (The stalwarts of 2 Tone ska, such as The Selecter and The English Beat, hadn’t reunited yet, but I would later see these bands in London and Seattle.)

I quickly learned that PUSH had its heroes, antiheroes, and an intricate, occasionally self-contradictory, system of values. These skins were almost religiously antiracist without identifying as SHARPs. They always partied on the anniversary of Hitler’s death and, conversely, abstained from alcohol on his birthday. They also villainized a newly dead neo-Nazi named Joe Rowan, the 22-year-old singer of a Delaware white-power band. PUSH celebrated on the anniversary of his death, too, and didn’t drink on his birthday. Like all antiracist skins, they shunned the neo-Nazis’ favorite numbers, 88 and 14 (representing, respectively, “Heil Hitler” and the 14-word white supremacist creed).

When the neo-Nazis, or “boneheads,” would visit town, members of PUSH would go fight them, but I would stay out of it. Even though I was violent, rambunctious, and ready to use my fists at the drop of a hat (and did, more often than not), I wasn’t ready to take on race. My racial identity had not crystallized enough for me to confront these rabid white supremacists.

It seemed strange to me that PUSH, who were primarily white, felt more strongly about racism than I did. I appreciated their activism, but felt almost a little suspicious, wondering if there was a white, self-heroicizing, hetero-paternalistic element to it, or at least a perverse kind of privilege.

In 1995 I moved to London and got to know some of the skinheads there, mainly at the ska shows. England had its own virulent brand of fascist boneheads, mainly from the National Front and the British Movement, but it also had more diversity in its skinhead culture than I’d seen before. I met Caribbeans, East Indians, and even an Israeli skin one night.

Rude London roomMy room in London, 1996: checkered skirt and a car coat, along with dozens of fliers from ’60s mod and ska events around town

In both England and America, there were aspects of nonracist skinhead culture that I disliked. The men were usually looking for a fight and often homophobic. Many were blatantly sexist and would get sloppy drunk, relying on their girlfriends to help them get home. (But let it be known: skinhead girls are not to be messed with—they are feisty and can hold their own.) Plus, there were many “fence-sitters,” who would hit on me but still confess to having racist friends. In one particularly chilling encounter, a good-looking but semiliterate skin flirted with me at a party and then, sidling up, admitted he’d been best friends with Joe Rowen, the infamous neo-Nazi.

As I spent more time with the skinheads, I realized that my own personal rage—which had helped me relate to them—came from my own cultural ambivalence. I couldn’t identify with my Korean heritage and didn’t care to understand it. I felt alienated from other people of my race and avoided them. Yet I also hated those who hated my race. In other words, I was a convoluted mess.

It would take decades for me to fully accept and embrace my Korean-American identity, and begin work as an antiracist activist, making art around it, leading workshops on race at University of Washington and Seattle University, and eventually drumming up the courage to confront the white-supremacist Hammerskins.

These vicious skinheads were rumored to be marching in Seattle, but never showed up. I joined about 400 other antifascists to meet them with a counter-protest on a cold, blustery night. After waiting for a half hour, we marched through the Seattle streets; I led several chants, screaming, “Say it loud! Say it clear!” The crowd responded, “Nazis are not welcome here!” We sent out a strong message: we will fight to protect Muslims, refugees, and racial minorities against fascists.

That night felt like less of a closure to my skinhead past and more of an entry into something new and dangerous, but filled with an irresistible and fortifying sense of promise.

 

The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

The shoes
Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

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?

Scan 1
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.

I know you’re tired of it. Race. Race in America. It’s a topic ripe enough to burst, and it dominates the headlines: racial terrorism, police brutality, Obama using the “N” word. I’m sick of it too, but it’s what people of color, like me, live and breathe every day. We talk, cry, and yell it; it’s the key in which we sing.

Lately, I have been developing a body of work that deals with the fraught and beleaguered issue of race in America. These paintings are a continuation of my recent show at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race. After Ferguson, I began this series as a way of processing the rage and grief that I felt.

Using a large housepaint brush, I flung acrylic paint on more than 30 feet of raw canvas. Working in such a visceral, often violent way–and on such a large scale–was cathartic for me. Although the Action Painters of the ’50s used the same methods, they produced work that was largely apolitical (and most were Caucasian men). My work is firmly rooted in the discourse of racial disparity.

The first piece in the series is Denatured, a tribute to Michael Brown.

Denatured
Denatured, nailed to the wall at Zeitgeist Coffee, March 2015

Most of the other pieces use the same splatter method to represent the squandered lives that racism takes by force. The random patterns of the paint form tumultuous narratives of struggle, evoking bodies rent apart through physical or psychological violence, the disemboweling of entire communities, and the quest for liberation.

Race 2_FergusonRace 1

Race 3

The following pieces talk about structural racism, the bias written into institutions and systems in America. From the Confederate flag flown over Southern government buildings to racial stratification in housing, vestiges of white supremacist ideology are still present in our culture.

Race 5
If this reminds you of a penitentiary, then you’re on the right track.

Race 4

What does experiencing racism feel like? I can say from firsthand experience that you feel eviscerated, stripped of agency, and blinded to everything except the incident itself. Your perspective distorted and self-worth negated, you feel like sawdust or, worse yet, nothing at all.

But as an Asian-American, I have it easy compared to the struggles of the black community. According to writer Julia Craven, “To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.”

Even so, you still get some wildly posturing, colonialist asshat like Rachel Dolezal, who commodifies Otherness (in the words of bell hooks) in the ultimate appropriative act of white privilege. As if race can be simply performed and adopted. As if we all had the luxury of that choice.

That’s why we have to frankly and openly address race in America–and run it ragged: understand its ins and outs, all its vagaries and gray areas. And then do something about it. From rewriting the policies and laws to subverting the dominant media narrative and its outdated tropes (see the Wall Street Journal coverage of Charleston for an example) to supporting communities of color.

This all takes thinking critically, listening carefully, and acting compassionately. Not turning the other way or pretending it’s someone else’s job. It’s our job because, goddamn it, it’s our world.

1-philomel
(This drawing, published in Philomel Magazine in 1997, wasn’t included–though it could have been, with its themes of gay/interracial relationships and AIDS.)

Last Tuesday, January 27, I presented some of my visual art at the juried Arts & Social Change Showcase, a booking conference that is part of the Arts & Social Change Symposium, in Bellevue, Washington. I was one of nine featured visual artists, who ranged in style and subject matter. In addition, there were 14 live performances, ranging from Guinean dance to Taiko drumming, held in the same room—which kept things lively (and loud). The event was attended by arts professionals, bookers and funders, including members of 4Culture, Washington State Arts Commission and other organizations.

I was surprised to find that much of the featured visual art was created by “diverse” artists but did not necessarily have a clear social message. My pieces were some of the more pointed there—no surprise when you include a drawing of a petroleum conglomerate’s CEO ejaculating oil. Then again, the event was organized around the idea of social change, not social justice. (Further clarification of this kind of terminology can be found here.) So I understand that showcasing artists of different ethnic backgrounds helps inform the public and shift cultural perceptions, which can contribute to social change.

I showed the following pieces at the conference.

2_Hostage

Atrocities V, 2001
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing above is part of a series on the ravages of war (which can be found here on my website). This and the drawing below, of BP CEO Tony Hayward, were published in The Slog, the blog of Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger. You can see Jen Graves’ original post here.

3_BP Wet Dream
BP Wet Dream
, 2010
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing that follows was published as the cover illustration of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, an interdisciplinary journal that comes out of the Seattle University School of Law. It was a tribute to Robert Frank, whose unflinching outsider’s eye exposed the hypocrisies and existentialism of American life in the twentieth century.

 1_SJSJ cover

The United States of Inequality, 2010
Cover illustration for Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Fall/Winter 2010
Mixed media on paper
8.5 x 11 in

The next two drawings come from a conceptual collage series I created around racial politics and the minority experience. (You can find more here on my website.)

4_Infiltration

Slippage, 2012
Ink on canvas
10 x 8 in

During production, I poured Sumi ink through a slit in the protective plastic wrapping of a blank canvas to suggest the infiltration of the postcolonial “Other’s” perspective into a previously white canon.

5_Internment

Camp, 2012
Mixed media on bristol
14 x 17 in

Composed of shreds of black paper left on Scotch tape loops, Camp represents containment and internment, compromised identity, and the tenacity of survivors.

Overall, the work I showed at the Arts & Social Change Showcase elicited a positive response from viewers. It helped that the attendees and presenters were already thinking of how an aesthetic medium can be used to produce transformative social change. There are myriad ways to do it, and it will take me a lifetime to figure out the best, most generous way possible. But for now, I am taking one step at a time to get my work out there—both visual art and writings—to help effect some of these changes.