Christy Chan, whose artwork was censored by the City of Richmond: 'The question of who gets to have a voice is essentially the battleground of our culture.' (Graham Holoch/KQED)
In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot?,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.
For Richmond-based artist Christy Chan, this fraught political moment is no surprise. The rampant racism, xenophobia and structural inequities that have become impossible to ignore signify less of a left turn and more of a continuation down the path the United States began to forge more than 400 years ago.
“This is a moment that’s been a long time coming,” Chan tells me. “We have never been post-racial.”
That much became clear to Chan as a young girl growing up in Virginia in a family of Chinese immigrants and experiencing what she calls “everyday Southern white supremacy, racism and the KKK.” It’s an experience that has influenced her work as an artist; multimedia pieces that fluctuate between video, performance and storytelling to explore race, power and connection.
As we near Election Day, Chan spoke with me about the impacts of white supremacy, the need to cultivate collective empathy, and the power of art to parse complicated issues beyond binary thinking. —Montse Reyes
As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in America today?
All the things that are bubbling up are things that were bubbling far before Trump. And the stakes are very high, but I try to remind myself that these have always been the stakes, especially with racial justice. It’s just that we’re talking about it differently and we have someone in the presidency who is openly racist. But he’s not new. He’s, from my perspective, a natural creation of our system in our culture.
But we’re also in a unicorn moment, because this is a moment where we can collectively say “No, I don’t want this for us.” It’s a moment of reckoning. It’s not comfortable. This election is going to be an even more telling moment of who do we choose? Who do we want to be?
We need leadership that recognizes that the U.S. is an apartheid system that is structured to harm Black Americans. If a leader cannot recognize this basic fact, they cannot take steps to change it.
One of the conversations circling around this election is white supremacy, often framed as if the last four years alone have led to a resurgence in white supremacy. But given your research into white supremacist activity and your personal experience with racism in varying forms since childhood, how do you respond when folks contextualize it in this way? How do you interpret and process that?
I don’t know that I’m interpreting it that differently than I did prior to the past four years. What I am interpreting and questioning differently is the public response to the white supremacy. It’s amazing to see an intersectional movement coming together to take an anti-racist stance.
What concerns me about the current movement is that our capitalistic system is based on white supremacy and exploitation, and I don’t hear many white Americans—white liberals who are supposedly part of the movement—questioning how they participate in white supremacy. I only hear people saying that it’s somebody else. And if it’s always somebody else, then who is it?
It’s not just the KKK that created white supremacy, white supremacy created the KKK. America created the KKK. So I would like to see, not just as an artist but as a citizen, the conversations in this movement go deeper, take on more intimacy, and take on more listening.
Let’s assume Joe Biden is elected. That means we’ve only solved one of the 5,000 problems that affect racial equality in this country, right? I think this can be a really beautiful movement. But the participation needs to happen on a really meaningful level, beyond the symbolic.
Last year, your public art piece Inside Out was censored by the City of Richmond because some of the submissions were critical of Trump and his policies. Right now, we’re talking a lot about how people are trying to make their voices heard, whether it’s through voting, social media or protests. How can art provide an outlet for that expression and either allow folks to make their voices heard or bring the conversation to the forefront?
The question of who gets to have a voice is essentially the battleground of our culture. Not just in art, but in general. One of the reasons I chose to illuminate the censorship in my project last year was that I wanted to communicate that the narrative was incomplete. There is a tradition in American culture of only giving certain voices control of the narrative, even when the narrative is about people of color. When the censorship happened, even if I was not able to project the perspectives of people of color, I just wanted to project the fact that they were being omitted.
Making art, participating in art projects and being a citizen—they all require patience and advocacy. As an artist, I want to believe that art has the capacity to invite people to become more engaged. I think art can’t necessarily solve problems, but it can help create meaning around those shared problems that we have. Art projects and looking at art can provide psychological space for people to re-examine their belief systems, and sometimes to feel like they’re less alone.
Art can potentially be an outlet for the public, but we need institutions to be more courageous, and fund and show more works by artists of color who are addressing critical issues on race, class and inequality. We need institutions to take risks and to curate from a position of respect and familiarity with subjects such as racism. To that end, more museums, film festivals and art commissions need to have people of color in positions of power. Otherwise the artists who are being curated are doing the heavy lifting of providing education on diversity whilst also trying to create meaningful art. That’s too many hats.
It’s 2020, and I want to see true commitment from major institutions that opening conversations on racial inequality is a priority. How can anyone with power be witnessing the potential for change right now and not participate in a meaningful way? If someone doesn’t want to use that power for that purpose, then they need to make room for someone who does.
A lot of your work seems to be about exploring dialogue, relationships and connection across some element of difference. Right now, there is a lot of emphasis on dialogue and finding ways to connect as things get more divisive. In your art, what is the unique value in that for you, and is there ever a limit?
For sure. I don’t believe in neutrality. I don’t believe in unconditional unity. I think one of the things that’s happened is sometimes there’s a false equivalency between what is said on the left and the right. If part of the debate from the extreme right is that many of us are not human beings, they don’t get to debate that.
A lot of my art is about connection, but I’m more interested in people who are underrepresented having a chance to be seen and heard. I’m not necessarily trying to amplify the voices of the oppressor or the oppressors.
I find it to be a transformative process, simply to be the narrator of one’s own story. That’s one of the reasons I’ve done projects that have a lot of community engagement, because when people get to narrate their own stories, that’s subverting power in a way. It’s narrative justice. Before I was a practicing artist, reading the works of artists and writers of color and seeing the artworks of visual artists of color showed [me] that there was a way forward.
Art makes it more interesting, more poetic, more cathartic, more communal to talk about the awful things. Art doesn’t play by the rules of the Electoral College, of whiteness, of gender, of heteronormativity. Making art is a messy process, and being a citizen is also a messy process. They both require magical thinking, and so many of the systems in our culture are set up as binary, with no room for the people in between.
What is your relationship to voting? What does it mean to you?
Voting is about having a voice. I’m Chinese American. I vote with the awareness that I’m a member of a minority group that has been traditionally assigned silence and passivity by white America. This stereotype and misuse of Asian Americans as a political wedge perpetuates a model minority myth that goes back to the 1870s, when Southern plantation owners were documented as strategizing that Black, Chinese and Native American people needed to be kept apart so that their common interests for human rights would not be united.
To put it simply, it’s a white script and white fantasy that Asian American voters don’t also have a dog in this fight. I don’t accept invisibility, because it dehumanizes Asian Americans, it dehumanizes my own family, and only serves the interest of white supremacy.
My relationship to voting is that it’s a responsibility. I see my act of voting as hiring someone to unfuck the future, and that person better be up for the job. There are people who died for our right to vote knowing that they might not ever vote themselves. So we’re never just voting for ourselves.
After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?
For the Bay Area, I feel like California takes the lead on so many things, like emissions, climate change and gay marriage. I’d love to see the Bay Area take the lead on reparations, because like every other state in this country, there’s been theft of land and redlining. Present-day Marin County has some of the most discriminatory, aggressive and racist policies against fair housing and transportation. And that’s not being addressed.
I would love to see structural equality replace structural inequality. We need to cultivate empathy. If you care about someone, then their problems are legitimate. Their problems are your problems. And right now, I think what’s hard to watch is this attitude that is so prevalent in our culture that as long as it’s not your problem, you don’t have to care.
Our culture and society were founded on independence and rebelling against authority. And those are perfectly fine, but we’re missing the fundamentals of interdependence. The ideals America was culturally founded on don’t work anymore.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Christy Chan here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.