A lot of Hung Liu’s art starts with an old, black and white photograph from China. Most of the subjects in the photos are anonymous.
"You don’t know anything about this person," says the Chinese-American artist from Oakland. The anonymity, she explains, gives her the freedom to take something specific and universalize it. "I will never know her name, but her image will be enshrined, in a way."
Take one photo of an old woman cooking on a big stove that became the inspiration for Luzao (Stove), pictured above. "Definitely, she’s not cooking for herself," Liu says. "Reminds me a little of my grandma. She made shoes, but she cooked every day, day in, day out."
The image of the woman is laid over an old map, to suggest she’s cooking for the world. Geese and fish fly by, and an old scholar waits in the corner for his dinner. Liu chuckles, looking at him. He's every arrogant, effete intellectual humbled by the rumble in his belly. "Without women cooking, nothing can exist," she says.
The paintings, prints and tapestries of We Who Work, now showing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, are both dreamy and provocative, surreal yet grounded in Liu's respect for hard labor.
The idea is to make the invisible visible: “The people who actually work in the field, on the street, in the back of the kitchen," Liu says. "They need to be returned to their dignity, to be honored," adding with a wry smile, "maybe more important than rich and famous people."
"All work is beautiful, in its own way," says curator Nora Grant, adding that Liu "animates and enlarges" the struggle of the lives she depicts, "creating a new kind of truth."
If that's the intended effect, it worked for those I talked to visiting the exhibition. Cynthia Begin of Santa Cruz describes Liu's work as "Profound. I see pain and perseverance, and humanity’s ability to move out of that and create beauty. That’s what she’s [Liu's] doing."
An immigrant "like so many immigrants."
Born in China in 1948, Liu grew up during Chairman Mao's regime. During the Cultural Revolution, she worked in rice fields for four years. She immigrated to California in 1984 to study at UC San Diego.
Now a celebrated artist, her works have been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.
We Who Work is not Liu's first foray into political communication through art, but she feels a heightened sense of urgency in this political moment, when the Trump Administration is cracking down on a variety of immigrants.
"I’m an immigrant," says Liu, who's an American citizen now. "I’m part of the country, like so many immigrants from all over the world. We made [the U.S.] home."
Liu says she feels responsible as an American citizen to use her tools as an artist to influence the political discussion over the value of immigrant labor. "Labor issues overall is human issues, especially in this time."
Physical labor doesn’t just happen overseas.
The museum has paired Liu’s work with photographs of working people from Santa Cruz County, along with a table full of their tools, and statistics explaining who they are and how they’re treated -- and mistreated -- by employers.
"The numbers tell a certain story, but images of workers move people, humanizing this kind of invisible work," McKay says. "People see that this is our community."
The truth of that statement is not just limited to the artifacts on the walls and tables. Some of those visiting the exhibition can attest to life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
UC Santa Cruz sociology student Danielle Spahr has worked in restaurants where she’s been denied her legally mandated rest breaks, one of the hardships detailed on the walls in the museum. Staring at the statistic that 50 percent of working people surveyed have been denied their rest breaks, she nods her head. "Unfortunately, that’s how it is right now."
'We Who Work' runs through Sunday, June 25. More info here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.