on restorative justice and dana schutz’s painting of emmett till

dana schutz’s painting of emmett till at the 2017 whitney biennial is the 2017 version of kelley walker’s paintings at the contemporary art museum of st louis is the 2016 version of kenneth goldsmith reading mike brown’s autopsy report is the 2015 version of joe scanlan’s performance as a fictional black woman donelle woolford in the 2014 whitney biennial. in other words, it is yet another white artist’s appropriation of a black body and black death, under the justification of white free speech.

the conversations around schutz’s painting are disappointingly familiar. in some regards, i truly feel i can add no more to the conversation about white free speech versus black death. (hint: white free speech is never the answer. here are some reads.) and then art historian melinda guillen posted this curious question: would intersectional woman of color feminism call for the destruction of the artwork? or, rephrased, how do we approach this offense by considering restorative, instead of punitive, justice? if that proposition makes people on both sides of the debate want to throw up, please bear with me as i navigate through the nausea.

as someone who has experienced sexual assault, who has both experienced and perpetrated domestic violence, and who believes deeply in a non-carceral future, i have spent a few years sitting with the question of restorative justice. i often still find myself at the uneasy crossroad between anger, accountability, and forgiveness. when stanford rapist brock turner was sentenced to a mere 6 months in prison and his supporters were calling the reduced sentence restorative justice, i wanted to throw up without knowing if i had the right to throw up. it was in that moment that this piece of writing clarified my understanding of restorative justice.

in sum, restorative justice is about the centering of the victim(s)’ suffering, creating shifts in elements of the victim(s)’ community that enabled the offense, and determining restitution for the perpetrator based on centering the victim(s). none of that happened when brock turner was sentenced to a trivial 6 months. indeed, the centering of turner and his feelings of hurt, shame, and remorse, is frightening similar to the centering of schutz’s good intentions and right to free speech.

when whiteness transgresses us, which is apparently still every single day, the path to resolution cannot center whiteness, the great transgressor. but it is also not enough to identify the guilty party and rest. non-carceral does not mean non-accountable; rather, it means looking for accountability on a systemic level. we must acknowledge our various roles in the system and use this moment to shift the bigger issues in our community that have led up to this point.

for example:

  • how could two asian-american curators make this anti-black oversight, which debuted the same month that a korean storeowner assaulted a black woman? (by the way, my offer to come collect asian nonsense still stands, as long as i am provided with a direct connection to the source of the nonsense)
  • how are we still defending white free speech in 2017, after the election of a billionaire who used his “free speech” to encourage white supremacist violence against women, immigrants, and people of color?
  • why are art schools, art classes, art books, art galleries, art shows, art funding, art markets, art fairs, art museums, art nonprofits, art spaces, everything related to art pretty much, still disproportionately white?

schutz’s painting is representation of violence—just not the violence she intends to portray. it is a representation of the violence that black and people of color encounter daily as cultural workers. undoing that violence may include destroying the painting, but the call for transformative change also goes much, much deeper.

photo credit: Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, SCOTT W. H. YOUNG (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

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the strange orientalism of ai wei wei

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Photo: Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei, at Brooklyn Museum, ELLEN QBERTPLAYA

my parents think ai wei wei’s father, ai qing, writes bad poetry. my parents also think donald trump will save the u.s. economy, so their opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

still, there’s something refreshing about hearing a chinese person’s opinion on chinese art. i don’t hear that often living in the united states. instead i hear opinions from people who have never set foot in asia, not only about ai wei wei, but about the legacy of communism and about tibet’s right to be free.

i want to clarify that i’m not denying the trauma of Maoism which i still feel in my body to this day, and i’m not denying that china has committed severe human rights abuses in tibet. there’s this metaphor that i use to explain gayatri spivak’s argument in “can the subaltern speak?”, which is that when your mother tells you to finish your food because there’s a starving child in africa, your mother doesn’t actually care about the child in africa in this situation, even though their starvation is real. the african child is the subaltern through which another power justifies its regime of domination. so is the tibetan monk. and perhaps, so is ai wei wei.

when ai wei wei was imprisoned by the chinese government in 2011, i remember many US-based artists showing up in protest for ai wei wei’s freedom. but how many of those artists in that same breath wore clothes that were made in china? documented their protest on iphones made in chinese factories with abysmal working conditions? and how many of those artists are conscious of the hong kong umbrella revolution*, and the jailing of chinese feminists?

in a recent exchange with tania bruguera at the brooklyn museum, ai wei wei was invited to discourse on his work regarding freedom and dissidence. but freedom for whom? dissidence against whom? i often wonder if ai wei wei would be considered such a champion of freedom if legacies of orientalism and fear mongering against communism did not paint china as one of the ultimate representations of unfreedom. i also wonder if dissidence is acceptable and glamorized only when it is a dissidence towards a “foreign” government and not a current global superpower whose quest for empire has decimated the lives of millions. certainly i don’t claim that the chinese government is blameless, just as i don’t claim that there are no starving children in africa. but in the context of ai wei wei and western art, the china being evoked for brooklyn audiences is a western imaginary rather than my diasporic reality.

i used to joke that the US-based ‘free tibet’ movement was analogous to a minority group of chinese citizens raising awareness in asia about freeing native americans from US occupation. but it seems like the chickens have come home to roost as the UN sends an investigation into human rights abuses against indigenous water protectors at standing rock. in a country where 1 million black people are incarcerated, water protectors are brutalized and held in dog kennels, and the current presidential election makes me seriously consider what life would be like if i repatriated to the homeland, i’m not comfortable with saying that we are freer here, then we are anywhere else.

*though hong kong’s colonized road to democracy is another complicated subject.

Los Angeles, I Ache: June 6, 2016

Despite being away from Los Angeles, there are still moments where I feel the sensations passing through collective body of my communities back home. It’s like how a spider senses an insect landing on a nether portion of its web – apt since most of these waves are transmitted through social networks. Usually I don’t sense the joy, but I do sense very deeply when my community aches, and I ache right back.

Here are some things that I’ve been aching about this week:

Shooting at UCLA – I worked at UCLA, knew people who graduated from UCLA. Despite the broken nature of the UC system and higher education, I still consider UCLA one of the defining institutions when it comes to generating discourse on art and activism in Los Angeles. In this case I watched as my friends were on lockdown for hours.

PSSST gallery opening in Boyle Heights

This has been breaking my heart for weeks. PSSST actually approached one of my collaborations earlier in the year for a short summer residency and I was immediately suspect, as it was a white-owned gallery operation in a historically Japanese and Chicano neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is incredibly well organized, with long histories of cultural organizations and community spaces, and I found it really suspect that none of the prominent cultural workers from Boyle Heights had said anything about this space or were involved. Researching their website, I became conflicted because queer, femme bodied, and PoC artists/curators who I respect a lot and in some cases have personal relationships with were on their board. We ended up turning down the offer. Fast forward a few months, and PSSST is at the center of anti-gentrification protests in Boyle Heights. It has been breaking my heart to watch from afar how responses to these protests have split the art community, and moreover, split the community of radically-minded artists and artists of color. In this case, it seemed like their board of well respected queer, femme bodied, and PoC artists/curators worked to deter the conversation about gentrification and raise doubts about the legitimacy of the protestors. I myself feel really conflicted about this as I am from outside the community and now literally live thousands of miles away, so in a sense I can’t speak to what is truly happening inside Boyle Heights. But I can say that has been personally devastating to see people within my (former?) community exhibit racist and institutionalized behavior that privileges the concerns of the art community over the concerns of residents who have lived and cherished their neighborhood for years. I hope that choosing between the art community and a community on the verge of displacement is not a choice we ever have to make, that as artists we always understand that our solidarity is always with those who are most structurally disempowered – especially if we contribute to that disempowerment.

#BLMLA organizer Jasmine Richards convicted of felony lynching

13305181_10154826220643906_1751655282651861749_oTwo years later, a jury without a single black person and an Asian judge and Chinese prosecutor convicted #BlackLivesMatter organizer Jasmine Richards of felony lynching – an absurd charge that completely perverts the original intention of the law. I remember the day of the protest actually. I don’t think I went but it was in my consciousness. I also remember seeing Jasmine in Power: From The Mouths of the Occupied, a play by #BLM co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors at Highways Performance Art space at the 18th Street Arts Center complex in Santa Monica. The play was a collection of dramatized monologues about each participant’s experience with police and state sanctioned violence. Jasmine’s story was one of the most intense stories of the night. I held it in me, I admired her resilience, and I understood her leadership and passion. I ache now because the person who I saw perform that night is not a person who should be in jail. Because of that work, I understand her actions to free a fellow protestor (the definition of “lynching”) to be one of compassion and justice, and I continued to be floored by her strength while understanding that in this world, none of us should be obligated to be that strong.

At the same time, this event really underscores the need to do the work to heal anti-blackness in Asian communities. I think it’s time to acknowledge the structural origins of Asian anti-blackness instead to pointing to any one Asian ally as an example of #NotAllAsians. Until we acknowledge it, we can’t truly dismantle it. As someone who has been divorced from my country of origin for myriad, complex reasons, I am still working through how to begin this work in my own community which I do not consider community (once again, myriad and complex reasons). This is something that I will write more about at a later date.

These are the actions that #BlackLivesMatter is urging people to take:

SIGN THE PETITION: http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/freejasmine-no-jail-time-black-lives-matter-activist-accused-lynching/?sp_ref=203026269.176.169279.e.535244.5&referring_akid=.2244075.bWCrFT&source=em_sp

You can ALSO can help by:

1. SHARE! SHARE! SHARE! We need as many people talking about this as possible. Please share as widely as you can! #FREEJASMINE #BLMDENA #BLACKLIVESMATTER

2. Pack the courtroom for her sentencing hearing:

Tuesday, 06/07/2016 at 8:00 AM, Pasadena Courthouse – 300 E. Walnut, Pasadena, CA.

3. Donate to Jasmine’s legal defense and/or books at www.crowdrise.com/blmla(Note“Jasmine” in your comments.)

4. Use your voicetalents and resources to elevate Jasmine’s case and cause.