Sunday, October 3, 2010

Art & Activism: Telling stories to change the world

Q. Do you believe that art can actually have an effect on the general society?

Of late I've found myself involved with the practice of oral history - listening carefully to other people's stories and the responsibility of recording, transcribing, and the process of editing, retelling and/or transforming these stories. It started with teaching seminar courses on "Asian American Arts & Culture" and "Mixed Race Art" and simply not being satisfied with the materials out there so for the past two years, my students have been interviewing artists across the country and specifically in the Midwest for the Asian American Artist Oral History Project Archive I started at DePaul. I've also been conducting my own interviews with mixed race artists for a book project. Trauma, loss, pain, suffering, and victimization are not central themes in my own work but when you open yourself up to listening to's all part of the story. So what good can retelling a story of trauma do? How does this empower the original story giver? What toll does this take on the story teller as vessel? What action are we the audience supposed to take after we hear the story?

Cherry Blossom artwork by Alfred Li Tsao

On Sat. Oct 2, 2010, I had the pleasure of attending FALLING PETALS. The show was presented by the theater group Erasing the Distance  and Asian American Suicide Prevention Initiative (AASPI). I went to support a fellow artist, Alfred Li Tsao, whose work was on display during the show and also used as the set design. Professionally trained actors and one real life story teller, got on stage and retold true stories of "people of Asian and Indian descent, impacted by mental illness and suicide." Following their intense and emotional performance/sharing, the actors debriefed the audience and conducted a Q&A. We came to find out that many family members and friends of the original story tellers were in the audience. They shared. We all cried. It was very powerful. Leaving the theater, I dashed back to a kids birthday party that I was supposed to be attending at the same time as the play. I ate an amazing red velvet cup cake from Sweet Mandy B's and this took my mind off of what I'd just seen temporarily but I found that I couldn't get rid of the weight of hearing these painful stories. I guess empathy feels like heartburn.

On a side note, if you would like to bring one of the story tellers or the entire play to your organization (say for Asian American Heritage month in May...hint, hint...), please contact the director Brighid OShaughnessy.

So today I found myself on a panel discussion about "Activist Art and Social Transformation" as part of the Iraq History Project Art Festival at DePaul University directed by artist, writer, and activist Tom Block and organized by Tom and the DePaul International Human Rights Law Institute. It was an incongruous place for me to be in one sense. I am not involved in any way in art or activism about Iraq. Here again, the day started out with listening to more stories of trauma.
Tom Block's "Mazlum: Artist Book"

First about the Iraq History Project and the Art Festival:
Iraq History Project (2005 – 2009)
The Iraq History Project (IHP) gathered and analyzed first person narratives of severe human rights violations committed under the government of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein (1968 – 2003) and by a variety of groups after the U.S.-led invasion (2003 – 2008). While some data on past and recent human rights violations in Iraq is available, the suffering of the Iraqi people has been inadequately documented making it difficult to understand the severity and impact of political violence over the past four decades. The IHP addresses this issue by collecting over 8,900 testimonies representing over 55,000 pages of personal narratives. The material documents the individual experience of torture, massacres, assassinations, rape, kidnapping, disappearances and other violations. The IHP is one of the largest independent human rights data collection projects in the world and provides important insight into both past and current violations in Iraq. The project provides Iraqis with an opportunity to talk about their experiences of political violence, analyzes patterns of violence to provide a better understanding of the systematic nature of political violence, and presents policy suggestions regarding transitional justice in Iraq and mechanism of improving human rights protections.
For the Iraq History Art Festival, artists were asked to make a work of art in response to one or more of the 8,900 testimonies. One of the artists that really stood out to me who took on this brave task of responding and retelling was Benjamin June. He created three handmade artists books (Loss, Trauma, and Hope), in which he hand embroidered excerpts from these testimonials followed by the name of the original teller. His use of embroidery made one slow down to read the text. You had to don white gloves to read the book so this also reminded me that this was something that must be respected. That you had to slow down. I was surprised how much the simple shift of changing the color of thread (black for loss, red for trauma, green for hope), changed the way I read the text.

After viewing the art works at the fair, four students from the DePaul students School of Law, one of whom is from Iraq, took the stage and shared testimonials.The act of listening as an audience member is not a passive thing. My heart began to race and my cheeks turned red, listening to the horrors of war retold on this very personal and specific level. This was not the distanced voice of a news report that we have grown accustomed to. Surly I shouldn't be sipping a coffee or nibbling on snacks while hearing these stories?

After a brief break, I joined my fellow panelists, Miles Harvey, Rachel Albers, and Sufyan Sohel, to take on the more general question of the role of the arts and activism.

One of the prompts we were given as panelists was, "Do you believe that art can actually have an effect on the general society?" More heartburn, anyone? I share my brief notes here in part as my own "therapy"....I'm not sure what to do with these two experiences of listening this past weekend.

First of all, I’m a visual artist. In one sense I’m quite traditional. I make paintings. I draw pictures. I embrace the genres of portraiture, landscape, and history painting. My work is aesthetically pleasing, and hopefully beautiful. You can buy it and hang it over your couch, if you wish. I have a solo show called Sugar up right now at Women Made Gallery in Chicago through Oct 28th:

Set during the 1920’s-1940’s, the paintings in SUGAR recall obake ghost stories and feature Japanese and Okinawan picture brides turned machete carrying sugar cane plantation field laborers on the Big Island of Hawaii. Sugar take us into a beautiful yet grueling world of manual labor, cane field fires and flumes.

My work is not, on the surface, what I think you might think of as “Activist” work. What does align my practice with “activist intentions” is the subject matter of my work, which focuses squarely on underrepresented if not invisible histories – specifically Asian American history and representations of mixed race individuals in the United States.

Just down the hall in DePaul’s Center for Intercultural Programs you can see my 2006 Loving series, which was inspired by the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that overturned this nation’s last anti-miscegenation law. The Loving series consists of nine life-sized charcoal portraits of “mixed-race” friends and acquaintances and one self-portrait. We are all rainbow children of the civil rights movement and members of the post-1967 biracial baby boom. Through the process of drawing and subtle gestures in the sitters’ poses, I wanted to capture a sense of community, the ability to connect with others and the distances between each of us.

(what follows here in my talk are excerpts, in part, from a chapter of a forthcoming book I'm working on with Wei Ming Dariotis titled "War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art")
As an artist, I began to find that it was exasperating to have to tell my whole life story before the viewer could get the nuances of my cultural signifiers. Art can speak for itself but it helps to have a critical discourse between the artwork and artists and the audience – whether that audience is the marketplace, critics, academia or other artists.

American art and cultural critic Dave Hickey visited DePaul last spring and in his talk “on Art and Democracy”[i] he argued,
…works of art have no intrinsic value….all the value of a work of art is invested into it from without. Works of art are elected. And just like our senators, they have no virtue beyond their being elected for us to particularly like them. They aren’t the truth. They are just who got elected. …[The arts] have no stable function. The function of all of these practices shifts and they function in culture as a wild card in the sense that what art, literature, music, dance and theater do is what we need done at that moment.

Like Hickey, I believe that the arts can be a “wild card” and can play a crucial role in envisioning, forming and reflecting (and disrupting) our communities…I need Art to restore what the Culture Wars and rigid multicultural identity politics of the 1990s rendered mute and ineffectual. I need Art to talk about issues of identity, race and ethnicity in a nuanced and non-essentialized way. One of the jobs of Art is to raise questions and complicate things rather than provide us with succinct and tidy answers

This messy mission, this “wild card” agenda frames my work as an academic, curator, writer, and community organizer and activist and my practice as an artist. I’ve developed and teach classes at DePaul on “Asian American Arts & Culture” and “Mixed Race Art and Identity”; I serve on the board of MAVIN, “the nation's leading organization that helps build healthier communities by raising awareness about the experiences of mixed heritage people and families.”; I’m in the middle of co-curating an exhibition and writing a book called War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art; and next month at DePaul (Nov 5-6, 2010) you can join us for a national conference I’m co-organizing titled, “Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies.”

Individual identity, while interesting and important, can easily fall into the realm of mere identity politics and is limited in its power to affect social change, write history, or demand representation. If this is about getting elected, we need constituents.  Perhaps my Evangelical Christian childhood years conditioned me towards a collectivized search for meaning. Art can be our wild card to get done what we need done at this moment. From the physical nature and objectness of painting, drawing, sculpture to the ephemeral and sometimes virtual nature of video, film or performance, Art's ability to recall the past, reflect the present and imagine the future equips us with the perfect tool to present our multifacited hybrid selves. Beyond an academic dissection of words, intentions, and an analysis of political shortcomings in this country, I believe that we need community. For it is through community that we can begin to answer primary questions of origin and purpose, or as the famous/infamous post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin asked - Where Do WE Come From? What Are WE? Where Are WE Going?
My glib comments aside, a very real question of what should be done next with these stories still lies on the table. What can and should art do? If you want to get involved or have some ideas for the Iraq History Project, contact Chuck Tucker, Executive Director, International Human Rights Law Institute.

[i] Hickey, Dave. “Art and Democracy.” DePaul Humanities Center. DePaul University Chicago, IL. 21 May 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for coming to Falling Petals! We are definitely looking to give the performance another life in 2011.