California African American Museum
(September 15, 2017–February 25, 2018)
Chinese American Museum
(September 15, 2017–March 11, 2018)
The Caribbean is a complex and vibrant region overlaid with multiple histories. Part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, Circles and Circuits I & II: Chinese Caribbean Art is a two-part exhibition on view at the California African American Museum (CAAM) and Chinese American Museum (CAM) that explores this specific and much overlooked component of the region’s collective identity. As such, there are myriad connections between the two locations, as notions of place, time and memory pervade each, layered with the inherent complexities of the diaspora.
Although the exhibition thematically begins with the modernist explorations of Chinese Caribbean artists of the early 20th century, the legacy of the region’s multiple diasporas reach far deeper. The main gallery of Circles and Circuits I at CAAM, focuses on didactics which provide the historic context of a region largely shaped by the African presence, as millions of slaves were brought to the region over the course of three centuries. Chinese immigration to the Caribbean islands came in the post-Emancipation period, first as indentured laborers in the early 1800s, later followed by waves of immigration prompted by economic difficulties in China after the Opium War (1839-1842) and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the United States.
Against this troubled backdrop, the story of the artistic legacy of the Chinese diaspora unfolds. In the main body of the exhibition at CAAM, simplified, geometrically rendered figures delineated with bold outlines and richly saturated colors broadcast the influences of early 20th-century European modernism. The exhibition provides an avenue to explore the impact of historic influences within the Society of Trinidad Independents (1929-38), the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago (1943-today) and the later influx of Surrealism found in the writings of André Breton and the Afro-Cuban-influenced abstractions of Wifredo Lam—whose father was a Chinese immigrant to Cuba.
A striking series by Flora Fong, who adopts the palm tree as a key motif, embodies her diverse heritage. For Fong, also of paternal Chinese descent, the palm might be seen to replace the emblematic pine, a symbol of endurance in Chinese art, while her bold use of color seemingly opposes such influence. Additionally, Fong shapes her trees based on the Chinese character for “person,” as she casts the motif into multiple roles: a protective arch around a golden-clad Virgen de la Caridad (2014), energetic figures framing an iconic coffee percolator (perhaps wound up by the caffeine of the region’s major export), withstanding hurricane winds in La Vida en al Campo es Dura (Noche) (2015) before succumbing to similar forces in Temporada Ciclónica (2009), rendered in a circular fashion to evoke the cyclical nature of life.
The story of the diaspora is multi-generational. Traveling to Circles and Circuits II: Contemporary Chinese American Art at CAM, the view is more intimate in scale and varied in artistic medium, moving from the modern into the pluralistic contemporary epoch. The air of experimentation is palpable, divided thematically with mixed-media and found-object installations, digital photography and video supplementing the more traditional mediums. Yet despite the broadening of media, parallel quests in subject persist.
The power of memories, both personal and communal, shapes the first grouping of works, focused on the subject of the body. A series of paintings by Liang Domínguez Fong, daughter of Flora Fong, dominate the room with their portrayal of the female body alternately as a life-giving vehicle, a protective force and as a divine presence in the celestial Protector de la travesía (2012). Nearby, Margaret Chen’s Ovoid/O void (2003) suggests the complexities of familial legacies through the tangled web of a womb–like installation.
The exhibition concludes with “Engaged Landscape,” connecting the past and present with a subject prevalent in Chinese art for over a millennium. Following the Literati ideal of “landscape as self-portrait,” the natural world acts as symbols for human qualities that speak more for the artist than the objects they represent. These are not specific places, but imaginary worlds, vivid in the artists’ minds. In two photographs from a larger series titled The Five Earth Touchings, Yoland Skeete superimposes self-portraits in which she dons the facial markings or attire of her ancestors over images of the landscape, a field of sugarcane signifying the brutal history of slavery. Yet Skeete also provides the touchstone, referencing Buddha’s own call for help at his moment of enlightenment, in the artist’s search for connection, peace and transcendence.