Soul Mining: The influence of Asian culture and labor in Latin America.
Curated by Julio Cesar Morales and Xiaoyu Weng
September 23 - December 30, 2017
When the United States signed into federal law the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigration was suspended. The formerly welcomed Chinese laborers were expelled and began moving south into Mexico and Latin America. It is said that the original fence along the southern border was built not to keep the Mexicans out but rather to detour Chinese immigrants from re-entering the United States. The narrative in the exhibition reflects a complex history of forced migration tied deeply to a web of social, political and economic issues. Forced migration is a general term that refers to the movements of displaced people due to natural, environmental and man-made disasters, such as hurricanes, infectious disease outbreak, civil strife and international wars.
At the same time, immigration – in particular, involuntary displacement – is not an objectified fact or a disembodied phenomenon but an intimate and personal experience in flesh and blood. Featuring artworks by artists from Latin America, the United States and Asia, Soul Mining looks at the influences of Asian culture and the history of labor in the Americas. By focusing on the “body and soul” of the stories, the aftermath and the current social conditions, the works explore the possibility of transforming the estranged “otherness” into a familiar collective experience. The result reveals a process that privileges artistic imagination over political statement.
The narrative of the exhibition begins with a self-portrait by Suwon Lee, which features the artist herself, the daughter of Asian immigrants, sitting among a group of Venezuelans in a commuter bus. The exhibition ends with a self-portrait by Mimian Hsu that captures the artist in traditional Costa Rican attire, posing in front of a Chinese restaurant called La Gran China (the Great China). The image makes a connection to Brandon Som’s poem Chino: “Where I’m the only chino. How might I see through my family’s eyes — an owl’s eyes in ojos and one in its lid turned sideways.” Here, the personal and the social, the everyday and the historical overlap, interweave and interpenetrate to explore where the singular becomes plural.
—Julio César Morales, curator ASU Art Museum and Xiaoyu Weng, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Guggenheim Museum, New York
Suwon Lee (b. in Venezuela)
San Ruperto, 2004
Archival pigment print
12 x 16 in (30 x 40 cm)
Taken with a point-and-shoot camera, San Ruperto features an ordinary scene of the interior of a bus and its passengers. The 'San Ruperto' bus is a vintage model that has long gone out of circulation but was solely used by working-class people to commute in Venezuela. On the bus, the workers, the mother holding her baby, the contemplative senior rider and the artist herself — the daughter of immigrants — all share a temporary transit space despite their different identities and cultural backgrounds.
For Suwon Lee, this image is a self-portrait of her experience as an immigrant from Asia growing up in Venezuela who constantly wonders how she fits in or stands out in a foreign society. It fulfills her curiosity of seeing herself from an outside perspective. More importantly, it is also a metaphor for the stories of many immigrants whose anxiety and fear of alienation and strangeness are not only a social phenomenon but also very real human experiences.
Richard Lou (b. 1959)
Born in San Diego, California, raised in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico; lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee
Border Door, 1988
Permanent pigment photographs, 37 x 27 in. and 9 x 11 in.
Photo credit James Elliott
In the late 1980s, there were areas of the border fence along Tijuana and San Diego that had holes and rust, with some sections completely missing. This disrepair gave birth to border vigilantes, such as Muriel Watson, a conservative San Diego citizen who created Light Up The Border. The action asked other citizens to take their cars to the San Ysidro/U.S. border and shine their headlights onto Tijuana and border crossers. Starting with a couple of cars, the event grew into hundreds, and a counter protest, led by artists, took shape on the opposite side of the border. In Tijuana people used mirrors to reflect the spotlights back to San Diego, placing national attention on immigration.
These actions led to the creation of the second border fence in the early 2000s, made from left-over landing strips from the Vietnam war and first Iraq war. Richard Lou’s iconic Border Door was meant to reflect the cultural realities that appear between the U.S./Mexico border. Originally asked by Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) to develop an artwork, Lou, who is half-Chinese and half-Mexican, took to the border to create the door that only opened on the Mexican side, as he explains, “a symbolic portal inviting immigrants to cross ‘with dignity.’ When Mexican migrant workers cross, they are forced to do it in a humiliating manner.” The project lasted two days before U.S. Border Patrol agents dismantled the site-specific installation. Nevertheless, to this day the work is one of the most important artworks ever created in the U.S./Mexico border region.
Mimian Hsu (Costa Rica)
La Gran China (The Great China), 2005
The photograph captures the artist, Mimian Hsu, in traditional Costa Rican attire, posing in front of a Chinese restaurant called La Gran China (the Great China). “The Great China” is often a ubiquitous name for small Chinese businesses outside of China. In this context, the phrase can be read as a pun because in Spanish “China” is also the term for Chinese women: thus, the artist assumes multiple roles: La Gran China, the great Chinese woman, as well as, a visual representation of Chinese restaurants, Chinese cuisine, Chinese people and even Chinese culture.
The self-portrait suddenly turns into a snapshot of a cultural body — the individual becomes an abstract notion of identities. In addition, her Chinese-ness is made more complex by the Latin American location. This hybridity implies a transformation of subject and context, questioning the boundaries and definitions of nationality, tradition and values.
Hung Liu (USA/China)
Resident Alien, 1988
Hung Liu is an important figure in contemporary art whose work reflects both Chinese and American cultures, specifically investigating gender and identity issues. Liu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and was forced to work in the fields until she was finally allowed to study traditional Chinese art practices, such as ceramics, painting and calligraphy.
In 1984, she left China to attend the University of California, San Diego where she began to expand her artistic practice and reflect on her experience in China. In 1988, she began a new body of work that focused on the history of Chinese immigration during the gold rush in California. Further research led her to the break-through exhibition, Resident Alien, in which she explored both her interests in Gold Rush immigration and her own cultural identity. The large-scale painting, sharing the same title, marks her first self-portrait using her own immigration card coupled with a series of innuendos. One reads “Fortune Cookie,” a name given to Chinese prostitutes that were imported from China during the Gold Rush era. Another is the date of birth on the card is noted as “020784,” the date when Liu became a legal U.S. resident; perhaps a date that can be read as her re-birth into the new and complex society she found herself in.
Brandon Som (b. 1975)
Born in Phoenix, Arizona; lives and works in San Diego, California
Poem in vinyl set in Adobe Garamond Pro, dimensions variable
Brandon Som utilizes “images that play with sound,” such as the phonetics of sounds from indiscernible languages to create his works. He creates ambient and distinctive poetry drawn from site-specific experiences, such as hearing in a language he does not speak.
This work references a poem, by famed Chinese poet Li Po, which was tagged on a wall by an immigrant on San Francisco’s Angel Island. It also references the failure of language to express the human condition.
Influenced by the migration of his own grandfather from China as a “paper son,” one who had already established U.S. citizenship, the story was fabricated in order to be allowed into the country, bypassing the Chinese Exclusion Act. In his poignant and powerful poem Chino, one can feel an awareness and coming of age of ones’ own identity in regards to acceptance, one of the primal needs for immigrants. Som asks, “How can we fit in without losing our identity and heritage?”
Sergio de La Torre (USA/Mexico)
This is not in Spanish
“The Chinese had been invisible for many years,” Tijuana-born artist Sergio de La Torre mentions when asked about his project. This is not in Spanish includes a neon sign of the same title in Mandarin, with an architectural model of a building that housed Chinese residents and immigrants, all accompanied by three experimental videos. All the videos were shot on location in downtown Tijuana in a neighborhood that has a large Chinese community. The immigrants arrived to Tijuana and Mexicali in the mid-1800s and early 1900s after being expelled by the U.S. They worked as agricultural workers and later during Prohibition turned to informal economies with the construction of the famed Chinese tunnels in Mexicali.
In 2008, De la Torre started to collaborate with this community and wanted to tell the unknown history of the Chinese in Tijuana with Nuevo Dragon City, a video influenced by Luis Buñuel’s seminal 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, in which guests from a dinner party inexplicably are unable to leave the house, which leads to a series of surreal events. In Nuevo Dragon City, the Chinese/Mexican teenagers barricade themselves in an old furniture store perhaps as a personal protest related to discrimination, thus their actions represent a form of both protection and belonging. The subsequent videos, We the Dust and NOISE, were created as the artist mentions, as “feedback to his own attempt/failure to work with the Chinese immigrants in Tijuana.”