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SF Youth Explore Themes of Home, Identity at Generation Chinatown Exhibition

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two young Asian-American women speak holding papers in front of an art exhibit opening,w ith a sign that reads 'Generation Chinatown presents RISE'
Generation Chinatown artist Jennifer (left) and Chinese Culture Center youth arts program coordinator Maya Faith Chan (right) speak at the opening reception for 'RISE' on June 9, 2023. (Kristie Song/KQED)

On a Friday evening, laughter and conversation fill the air as crowds wait in a narrow alleyway outside community art space 41 Ross. Fresh tamales are passed out as people eagerly line up to see the new exhibition inside — one that centers the passions, anxieties and explorations of seven San Francisco high school students.

RISE: A Youth Art Exhibition opened June 9 to an outpouring of support from community members. The event was the culminating showcase of the Chinese Culture Center’s inaugural youth residency, Generation Chinatown, a three-month program that provides its high school-age residents workshops, artist visits and tours across local arts organizations and spaces. The goal: to empower young artists to develop artmaking skills centered in community and social change, and to explore their art styles, backgrounds and identities.

pink artwork on a wall that reads 'I love being a nerd'
Generation Chinatown artist Fer’s ‘I Love Being a Nerd,’ a digital print series that documents their journey with self-acceptance. (Kristie Song/KQED)

Over the course of the residency, each artist considered various questions. What does it mean to be a young artist today? What is happening in their communities, and how can they spark change through artmaking? When do they feel most themselves in the artmaking process?

“I can act like myself in the space provided at [41 Ross],” said artist Fer, at the June 9 RISE opening reception. “I don’t have to pretend to be someone else just to be formal. It’s a space to escape from school, a space to flex my creative muscles.”

an attendee with black hair leans towards photographs posted on a pink wall
An attendee leans towards Generation Chinatown artist Eric Chen’s ‘Mailboxes,’ a mixed media and photo project about Chinatown SROs. (Kristie Song/KQED)

As attendees walk through the space, each corner feels like its own exhibit, its own intricate story. From subject matter to materials, the pieces are distinctly different from artist to artist — with each area offering a new mindscape to unpack. One resident threads together street photography to examine the compact sizes of mailboxes and SRO (single room occupancy) living spaces in Chinatown. Another draws upon Chinese mythology to superimpose past and present as they navigate their queer identity and ancestry.

Found objects are recycled into a layered, complex construction of a found home. Acrylic and glass beads are arranged to highlight women’s empowerment. A film flits across the back wall, with grainy footage shot on an old camera to mirror the bittersweet murkiness of nostalgia. As the artists play with memory and consider heavier issues of identity, immigration, race and more, the resulting visual representations are moving and personal. And they’re just the beginning.

newspapers and postcards and other art materials on a table against a pink wall
Generation Chinatown resident Sophia’s ‘Home’ features recycled materials to illustrate how homes can be built from anything. (Kristie Song/KQED)

“It’s always been about uplifting and supporting artists,” said Vida Kuang, Chinese Culture Center’s education director, at the June 9 opening reception. “[It’s about] believing in people’s potential to be creative and take creative action in their own neighborhoods.”

Generation Chinatown’s RISE exhibit is on view through Friday, June 23 at 41 Ross in San Francisco. Admission is free. More information here.

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