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Racism and Immigrants, Then and Now

With the provocative title, "In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads", the Tacoma Art Museum features a major exhibition by UW professor of painting and drawing, Zhi Lin, this summer (June 27 – February 18, 2018). First trained in China, then in London and the US, Lin works in multiple styles and media as he addresses a history that is crucial for us to understand today.

Chinese migrants, originally drawn to the US by tales of gold, built the railroads from California to Utah. For many years, Lin has researched the lost history and unacknowledged lives of these workers in archives and photographs, then traveled to specific locations, including Northern California’s Donner Pass (where 1,200 Chinese died): “I descended deep valleys and icy tunnels, crossed rivers and streams, climbed snow hills, cliffs and summits, walked on flat-burned campgrounds and along railroad tracks and paid tributes to Chinese graveyards. I made a special trip … facing the winter elements.” His delicate watercolors of these sites ironically adopt the romantic approach to landscape practiced in Europe, at the same time that Chinese workers died in the Western landscape. But the subtle drawings are only one aspect of this major exhibition.

The famous 1869 “golden spike” photograph by Andrew Russell marking the completion of the railroad from West to East, excluded Chinese workers. A film, “Chinaman’s Chance,” draws from the reenactment of that photograph (every weekend in the summer!) at the Golden Spike National Historic Site that perpetuates that exclusion. “Chinaman’s Chance” emphasizes marginalization by its viewpoint from behind the trains and often from under piles of railroad ballasts (rocks) like the tombstones of the Chinese workers. The artist wrote in red the few names of Chinese workers that he found in railroad pay records, but he believes even those names, supposedly of leaders of groups of workers, were actually made up nicknames. The installation will include 5 tons of actual rock ballasts.

Zhi Lin, “Chinaman’s Chance on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration 12:30PM May 10th 1869” video sound installation 2013-14

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 triggered vigilantes to expel the Chinese from communities in the Northwest and California, from Tacoma in 1885, Seattle in 1886 and from hundreds of other towns where racists burned entire neighborhoods and even massacred hundreds of people.

To honor these nightmarish tragedies, Lin turned to abstract painting with titles like Bloody Summer, Cape Horn, California, 1865, Building of the Central Pacific by Chinese Workers. He anchored the abstractions with found objects and shapes as references to the vanished workers.

And finally, for this exhibition, Zhi Lin turns to Tacoma itself. He is creating a long handscroll, in a traditional Chinese style, based again on meticulous research, that juxtaposes today’s Pacific Avenue with the period of the Chinese expulsion.

Don’t miss this major exhibition!

Also this summer in Tacoma, on the theme of immigration and racism, is an exhibition that I am curating “Immigration: Hopes Realized, Dreams Derailed (June 30 – August 17, 2017) at the Spaceworks Gallery. The exhibition features twenty artists working in painting, printmaking, collage, sculpture, posters, poetry, texts, and even lace who pointedly explore racism today, an atmosphere rapidly becoming as violent as what the Chinese experienced in the nineteenth century. I am hoping to have a march to the Detention Center on July 20 after a special musical/spoken word program by a former detainee. (950 Pacific Ave Gallery Hours: Monday – Friday 1pm – 5pm (Third Thursday 1pm – 9pm)

Of course, you will hear about the thrilling blockbuster exhibition “Infinity Mirrors” at the Seattle Art Museum (June 30–September 10, 2017). It features the work of the famous Yayoi Kusama. She grew up in Japan during World War II and joined the experimental artist-run New York scene in the late 1950s. Since then, she has become legendary for her innovative materials and eccentric aesthetics. The exhibition surveys her career from its earliest days to the present, but the thrill of the exhibition will be her stunning and disorienting Mirror Rooms.

In case you are in the International District this summer, here are two crucial exhibitions at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience that I will write more about in the fall.

“Teardrops that Wound: the Absurdity of War” May 12, 2017 through May 20, 2018.

I find a provocative relationship between Kusama’s mirror rooms that immerse us in abstract light and reflections and the art in “Teardrops that Wound” that explores the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To give just three examples, the installations include Hiroshima-native, Yukiyo Kawano’s life-sized replica of “Little Boy,” made from kimono silk from survivors sewed with strands of her own hair, Phong and Sarah Nguyen’s “Break Into Blossom” a fabricated “bomb” covered with moss and flowers, and Patrick Nagatani’s staged photographs of the radioactivity that lurks under the surface of the West (and so timely with the leaking of storage at Hanford). As the curator SuJ’n Chon stated at the opening, unfortunately the threat of nuclear war is with us right now, it is no longer an historical memory.

Year of Remembrance Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner (February 17, 2017 – February 11, 2018) features poems by Lawrence Matsuda and Roger Shimomura’s pop/caustic imagery. It marks the 75th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s infamous 1942 Executive Order 9066 that led to the detention of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans. This small mixed media directly connects then and now, ending with references to current efforts to ban Muslims.

Finally, on a different theme, go to see “EMERGENCE First Nation Legendary & Emerging Artists” at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art May 26th, 2017 –September 4th, 2017 features the next generation of First Nations artists and their famous mentors. Pay attention to the days the museum is open and plan ahead on the ferry. You can reserve it now if you take a car, but you can also leave your car in Anacortes and walk up the hill to the museum. Thursday to Monday: 11:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.

~Susan Noyes Platt,

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