Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labour in racism and exploitation

I recently published one of my essays in Occasional Press, Emily Carr University’s research publication. Read the essay online.

Front cover of my essay, Free Art & Racism
Front cover of Occasional Papers

Free Art & Racism: Beyond artists’ pay is one of three essays that breaks down the problem of unpaid artists’ labour and what it tells us about our regard for labour on a structural and cultural level.

An Ethic is a Root

An Ethic is A Root is an exhibition that summarizes my spring semester work and first year of the MFA. It navigates the question of how we arrive at our ethics. What are the potential costs of our ethics? What are the gains of upholding them?

An Ethic is a Root, final exhibition of spring semester work.

An Ethic is A Root explores questions of ethics and equity. I use personal, lived experience as an entry point to engaging with systemic and socio-political issues. From my hand-carved woodblocks, I build tables and installations that become negotiation spaces for cultural authorship.

The central image in this series is a map of my migration route, from where I was born in Kansas City to each of my homes in the Midwest of the United States to my current home in Vancouver, British Columbia. This map becomes an infrastructure for a greater story of removal, diaspora, and rootedness.

On left: My Migration Route, woodblock print (fountain roll) on canvas of my migration, 20″ x 60″. On right: Iris Roots Clean the Water, woodblock print (two-layer) on canvas of iris overlaid on migration route, 20″ x 60″.

My mother still resides in my last childhood home in rural Kansas. It is an older house attached to a few acres of land. This land was once lush and green, full of fruit trees and a vibrant ecosystem. This same land now sits mostly barren. The trees are gone. The ponds are gone. Agricultural runoff and nearby development have made the soil poor. The land around my mother’s house regularly erodes and floods when it rains. Yet the iris flower continues to consistently grow here. Irises are known for growing in places with polluted water, effectively removing toxins and holding soil.

Two elongated tables stand at the center of this installation, framed on one side by an altar to my deceased father and on the other by a table of artist’s books addressed to my mother. Each table is its own structure, yet bears a cut edge that matches the other. One table is made from the two-sided woodblock that produced the prints. The other table bears no image of its own, but provides a surface for the residual wood shavings forming the characters of my name in Chinese. Repetition, reflection, and rumination are prominent in this work.

Prints reflected in mirrors.

Working through this methodology, I reflect on what it means to challenge cultural assimilation, in print, and as an Asian American and woman of colour who has also been made artificially rare in white dominant spaces. In printmaking, the strength of the technology is in its power to reproduce the same message. Yet this is seen as a weakness in the fine arts, a redundancy that makes prints lose value and exclusivity. How often are marginalized people made to feel like broken records, asking for the same, basic rights? How often are we made to feel that we have to compete against the few other BIPOC and femmes in institutions, as if we can’t be valuable if there’s more than one of us? Is what we are saying it truly redundant if we are still waiting for action and reconciliation?

Mirrors reveal woodblock of migration route on bottom of table.

There is power in the multiple and in the creation of new frameworks of comprehension. There is strength in our reflections and in pursuing legibility of lived experience. This work is for anyone who has ever doubted their strength against the odds that they face, yet has held on anyway, and found their conviction in the process.

Altar for my father.

Altar for my father, close-up.
Table of artist’s books, Dear Ma | Ethic.

Dear Ma | Ethic: an artist’s book

Front covers of artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic.

“Holding is not easy. Holding requires tension in one’s fingers, joints, body, and emotions. Every strain creates weakness.

“Water does not hold. It is held. Free from withholding, water’s power overcomes rock, fire, and most elements.

“Yet water cannot play its role without vessels and channels. Even this essential ingredient of life needs to be held.

“Water is a necessary life infrastructure. But when polluted with toxins, that which sustains us simultaneously poisons us.

“Colonization is like poison in the water.

“Is it possible to cleanse these currents?

“It is not easy to be a root. Roots hold earth together, resisting erosion. Roots channel sustenance into the body of the plant.

“A root is not as powerful as water. Nor does it need to be. It is a remarkable quality to be breakable, yet choose to hold ground.

“To be weaker than the dominant infrastructure and still hold on, to remove harm while providing nourishment.

“This is an ethic.”

­-poem from the artist’s book, Dear Ma | Ethic

Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Dear Ma, the side of the book that features a letter to my mother.
Interior pages of Ethic, the side of the book that features a poem on ethics.
Book coming unfolded, Ethic side.
Book coming unfolded, Dear Ma side.
Front and back cover of Dear Ma.

On diaspora

米 (mǐ) uncooked rice: symbol, woodcut print on muslin canvas on stretcher bars, 39.5 x 39.5 inches. Limited edition printed Dec 2021.

On diaspora.

When my Ma saw this woodcut, she said, “I can tell you were raised in the US. No one taught you how to write Chinese.” This print is a metaphor for diaspora, but even so her comment stung. It hearkened to times in my childhood when over something seemingly small, my parents would say, “You’re not Chinese.”

My mother was commenting on the style of my writing. Too straight. Too even. Ignorant of the fact that we should write our words from the perspective of the heavens. I *am* ignorant of the heavens–between having a dad who survived the Cultural Revolution and my own American assimilation, I am far removed from tradition.

I’ve heard other comments in [white] academia. That using Chinese made it inaccessible and not “universal” because they couldn’t read it. That my perfect lines couldn’t possibly be drawn by hand (they are). That my precision somehow makes information less believable, less human. Except precision is the tool of those who grow up in chaos, to steady an unstable environment. Precision is the tool of women, who cannot get away with sloppy craft like men can. Precision is an extraordinarily human trauma response.

When I showed this work to other Chinese Americans and diasporic Asians, we shared an immediate, cathartic understanding. As for my Ma, for the first time, she said, “Your dad and I thought it was better for you to assimilate. I’m thinking now we created a barrier for you to know an important part of yourself, a part that you need as an artist.” My handwriting created a bridge for my Ma and me to relate to each other.

There’s something refreshing about being wrong, in a system that demands women of color to be better in order to be equal. To be illegible to western society. Impious to filial duty. And from this, as a daughter of the diaspora, the chance to create a cultural perspective of the world that is my own.

Close-up of installation, It Takes Three Generations, from the 米 (mǐ) uncooked rice series.

Three Generations, artist’s book

Images of my artist’s book accompanying the installation, It Takes Three Generations, in the 米 mǐ | uncooked rice series.

Front cover of tri-fold menu
Back cover of tri-fold menu
Interior of menu, partially opened to reveal a dissection of the symbolic / systemic and the meaning of diaspora
Interior of menu, fully unfolded, to reveal a timeline of my family history told in food

It Takes Three Generations

It Takes Three Generations is the second iteration of my 米 mǐ | uncooked rice series.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice is an installation based on representational disparities in the US arts industry. mǐ is about unfolding the emotional and personal core for why this data matters, to reveal that underneath the numbers are people’s lives.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints

米 (mǐ) is the Chinese word for uncooked rice and other grains, a metaphor for that which could sustain us, but in its unprocessed form is indigestible.

I am a second generation Taiwanese and Chinese American and the benefactor of two generations of my family’s immigration to the United States. My family owned a takeout retaurant in Kansas City in the 1990s, and this restaurant became the economic vehicle by which we pulled ourselves out of poverty. The takeout table, specifically, was a space of formative learning for me: where I learned to draw, read, observe people, and engage with the public. My first job was counting change to empty the cash register at closing time. My first business was selling 50 cent tins of tiger balm to customers waiting for their orders.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation

There are layers of removal, of diaspora, that take place within 米 mǐ.

A drawing of a rice plant evolves into a pictograph before it becomes the modern Chinese character 米. Prints fade and language changes as we move farther from the source. Wood shavings form the English words, uncooked rice, the residue leftover from the carving and printing process.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of rice plant on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, woodblock print of 米 Chinese character for rice on muslin canvas, 39.5 x 39.5 inches

A woodblock creates the print on canvas and the refuse on the floor, and is itself destroyed in its original purpose as a printing tool when transformed into a functional table.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wood shavings spelling the words, uncooked rice

Data about who has representation in the art world unfolds to reveal personal stories that constitute the whole. A laminated placemat / menu displays US population percentages side-by-side with representation in US museums, galleries, and private art collections. Bowls on on table are either overflowing or under-filled, based on each population’s representation in the arts. For instance, while white men are 31% of the US (as represented by a 31 ounce bowl), their bowl overflows with 77% of the rice served on the table. Meanwhile, women of color collectively are less than half of one percent of US arts representation; their bowls contain only a couple grains of rice each.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of the bowls / rice, which correspond with US population / US arts representation
Bar graph of US Population versus representation in US museums, gallery, & private art collections: This was printed as a laminated placemat / menu on the table and on the wall by the waiting area

A final, tri-fold menu unfolds to reveal a personal timeline, my family story told via food as a political and socioeconomic indicator.

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, close-up of wall installation of graphs and artist’s books (takeout menus) accompanying the exhibition

The table is a place for gathering, and is also an altar to memory and grief. It feels necessary to have made space to remember and grieve what’s lost. For it is only after reckoning with how we got here that we can ask, what’s next for our future selves?

米 mǐ | uncooked rice, art installation full view of tables, wood shavings on floor, and woodblock prints
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, installation view in Michael O’Brien Exhibition Commons at Emily Carr University
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, front view of art installation
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, artist Jenie Gao sitting in the waiting area of the restaurant installation / exhibition
Photo credit Stefan Gibson
米 mǐ | uncooked rice, Jenie Gao and Maru Aponte seated at the table reading the takeout menus
Photo credit Stefan Gibson

米 (mǐ) | uncooked rice | US population vs US arts representation

Photos of the finished installation for 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The Chinese symbol carved on the woodblock table top is 米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice. The size of the bowls correlate with the size of different demographics of the US population according to the US Census. The rice correlates with each demographic’s representation in the US arts industry. A set of stacked, empty bowls represents data that has not been collected by the US Census or another comparable study.

米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
米 (mǐ) / uncooked rice, 39.5″ x 39.5″ carved woodblock table, Baltic birch plywood, ink, bowls, rice. Full shot, 3/4 view.
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Close-up of 米 (mǐ)
Full shot of 米 (mǐ), front view.

Photos by Sidi Chen

米 (mǐ) is the Chinese character for uncooked rice

Below is the concept sketch of my art installation, mǐ / uncooked rice.

I have collected a great deal of data on disparities over the years, and as I explore data visualizations in my work, I am contending with this tension: When people share data and statistics, their goal is to prompt some kind of emotional reaction. Surprise. Shock. Rage. A desire to take action. But the visual representations of data tend to be cold and analytical, even if they are beautifully designed. We seem to want numbers to be objective and unbiased, but they are not, and our use of them is highly subjective and biased. I am embarking on an investigation of how to depict data in a way that is emotional and personal, starting with my formative experiences growing up in my family’s Chinese takeout restaurant.

Concept sketch for mǐ / uncooked rice, an art installation.
mǐ / uncooked rice will physically illustrate the data contained in this chart of the US population versus representation of artists in US museums.

A note on using multiple languages: As an Asian American woman, daughter of immigrants who grew up in rural Kansas, former educator in the underfunded Milwaukee public school system, former project manager in the white male dominated industry of manufacturing, and artist-entrepreneur who communicates between the arts and clients in other industries, I am well accustomed to code switching.

This is the irony of cultural assimilation. I spoke exclusively in Chinese and some Taiwanese until I was 3-4 years old. When I started preschool at age 3, the other children made fun of how I spoke, so as soon as I started learning English, I told my parents I no longer wanted to speak Chinese at home. The pressure of cultural assimilation was for someone like me to speak exclusively in the English language. But the long-term reality of assimilation is that I will be translating between communication strategies for the rest of my life.

In the context of data visualization, I wonder, how will the way data is represented change how people perceive and interact with it? When it is propagandistic? When it is personal?

How many times will I have to translate this information before you, the viewer, believe what I am telling you?

Exploring Data Visualizations

On a broad level, I am investigating potential countermeasures to arts-based gentrification. Specifically, I am currently looking at representation and compensation of women of colour artists, one of the most excluded groups in the arts industry, and what their access to cultural and economic power entails for the future of the arts and city development.

Jenie Gao’s poster, Do women have to be white to get into the Met. Museum?, on arts representation in 2021, following up on the 1989 Guerrilla Girls poster
Jenie’s hand drawn bar graph of US population versus US museum representation. Click image to view larger.

I am working with drawings, prints, and data presentation. My material interests include:

  1. Reproducible, distributable items like postcards, prints, and maps / tools for guidance.
  2. Large-scale works like projections, installation, and billboards to take over public space.

I come from a strong technical background. I enjoy creating beautiful things and images as vehicles for emotion and action. I am pondering, how do I develop an aesthetic language for this work that feels genuine to me? I am referencing examples of how others have presented data, like W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America, and Susan Jahoda / BFAMFAPhD’s criticism of the academic-industrial complex, in which nothing can finally be paid off.

BFAMFAPhD’s installation, in which nothing can finally be paid off.
W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America

In her Art News article, What Can We Learn from Institutional Critique?, Aruna D’Souza writes, “Is the goal to make institutions ‘better,’ more responsive to social concern…models for a just society? Is the goal dismantling institutions in general? …Does institutional critique even have a politics and theory of change?” This quote articulates my concern—to what end is this for? My work can function across contexts, in the gallery or the community centre or public space, but long-term success relies on becoming a part of mainstream solutions. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, The Case for Reparations, was once criticized and is now discussed in the US Congress. To sustain, what was unrecognized must enter society’s framework of comprehension. So the ideal contexts for my art are those that enable it to connect with public awareness and lay the groundwork to connect with future policymaking.

How do I develop an aesthetic language to carry this information? How do I make room for personal exploration, particularly as an AAPI woman living in a majority Asian [diasporic] city for the first time? Coming from the US, what makes this work and research relevant in Canada? What funding and partnerships do I need to build to scale research efforts and grow this work?

Jenie’s hand drawn graphs of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual revenue versus expenses. Where does the money go, to what and to whom? Click image to view larger.

Final Notes

When I created the Instagram handle @paywomenofcolor, Instagram immediately flagged and deactivated the account before it ever went live. I submitted an appeal for Instagram to reactivate the account. Below are screenshots of the email Instagram sent me on how to appeal to have my account returned to me, a process that required me to literally dox myself and submit a mug shot. They never released the Instagram account.

The Starving Artist: A Poem

The Starving Artist tree poem is based on my recent essay series entitled Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labor in perpetuating racism and exploitation.

To create the poem, I searched for all instances of the term, “starving artist,” in my essay, and mapped the subsequent sentences and repeated phrases.

The Starving Artist: a poem by Jenie Gao. Click the image to enlarge.