Vincent Price Art Museum
A photograph shows a young Chinese woman crouching next to a restaurant sign. Another one shows a different woman sitting on a bus, the only Chinese person among the other riders. These may be relatable images for anyone who has grown up as an immigrant in the United States and struggled to assimilate. Yet these photographs don’t take place in the U.S.
The first photo shows the artist Mimian Hsu in front of a sign that says “La Gran China,” wearing a flowing, off-the-shoulder Costa Rican dress. The other shows the artist Suwon Lee in her native Venezuela. These photos are part of the exhibit “Soul Mining,” which discusses the complex experiences of members of the Chinese diaspora in Latin America and their surprising connection to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the wall that runs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s this lesser-known history that inspired Julio César Morales to curate “Soul Mining,” which is showing at East Los Angeles College’s Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park until July 14. “Finding that the original border wall was meant to keep Chinese immigrants from returning to the United States after the Chinese Exclusion Act was really interesting to me,” he said.
As the curator of the Arizona State University Art Museum, Morales was already interested in organizing an exhibit about the border. After giving a talk at El Paso State University, he met a historian from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, who told him about the original inception of the border wall. Morales then saw this history mentioned at the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso.
Morales co-curated “Soul Mining” with Xiaoyu Weng, a curator of Chinese art at the Guggenheim in New York City. Opening at the ASU Art Museum in late 2017, the exhibit features artists from Latin America, China and the United States who use photography, video, audio, paintings and even poetry to explore the experience of Chinese immigration throughout the Americas, from the California Gold Rush to their migration to Tijuana and other Mexican border cities.
Monterey Park, with its large Asian and Latino populations, as well as its proximity to East L.A., was a natural place to exhibit “Soul Mining,” said Morales and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, the director of the Vincent Price Art Museum. “[We] wanted to draw attention to the Asian diaspora in Latin America and the things that are shared in terms of cultural experiences — histories of immigration that showcase the ebb and flow of communities, how they’re interwoven overtime,” said Tompkins Rivas.
The exhibit shows that interwovenness with pieces like the poem “Chino” by Brandon Som. In this poem, Som meditates on his Chinese-American and Mexican-American identity through the letter “I” and how it’s written, pronounced and given meaning in Chinese, Spanish and English.
In addition to her self-portrait on a Venezuelan bus, “Soul Mining” features Suwon Lee’s stone sculptures made out of the ashes of a mountain fire that she took from her hometown of Caracas, before fleeing from political unrest. Also on display is a portrait of Mimian Hsu’s grandfather, a student organizer in Taiwan who disappeared during the White Terror. For the exhibit’s Arizona State University opening, Hsu did a performance art piece where she projected his portrait onto her face, matching his features with hers, showing the shadow that his disappearance has cast over her own life.
“Soul Mining” references many facets of history that aren’t well known to the American public. A song produced by Sofia Córdova for her piece “side a/jibarita girl and side b/a arrastrá” references the “r” test that border patrol officers administered to people crossing the border. The point of this was to root out Chinese immigrants trying to enter the United States illegally. In the painting “Resident Alien,” Hung Liu recreates her own green card, replacing her name with the alias “Fortune Cookie,” a common term for the thousands of Chinese women sent to America to work as prostitutes in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush.
Morales was drawn to Liu’s painting precisely because it references her research into the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown. “One of the things that I’m really interested is artists that do their own research [and] don’t rely on other historical items that have already been written or [are] on the books,” he said. “They themselves become researchers and they go out and they find things that may not have been known.”
One featured artist, Ranu Mukherjee, had not heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act until she took a group of her students to a cave in Nevada City, Calif. “We were looking at this cave and someone started talking about how this cave was created by a hydraulic mining blast,” she said. “And then we find all these remnants of like opium tins and stuff and someone started talking about the Chinese miners and the Exclusion Act and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, back up.’”
This prompted Mukherjee to create a project that told the story of the Chinese laborers who came to California during the Gold Rush. The project consists of video installations and three groups of paintings, each delineated by a color that corresponds to a mineral important in gold mining and Chinese culture. The paintings themselves feature images alluding to documentary research that Mukherjee did on the Chinese and their role in the Gold Rush. She also incorporated fantastical animals from an ancient Chinese text called Classic of Mountains and Seas, in order to comment on the mythology surrounding gold in Chinese culture and their search for it in northern California.
Mukherjee said that she started her project when anti-immigrant sentiment started creeping back into the mainstream. The uncertain future of immigrants also motivated Morales and Tompkins Rivas to bring “Soul Mining” to audiences in Arizona and Monterey Park, with Tompkins Rivas thinking about ELAC’s undocumented population in particular.
“We hope that people, especially young people that are struggling with uncertainties relative to their status can think about this as a place to have a conversation, a safe space, to open up and think about it in a broader historical sense,” she said.
“Soul Mining” forces visitors to consider the fact that many different immigrant groups have faced persecution, no matter what their ethnic background. Nowhere is that more obvious than in photographs of artist Richard Lou installing a door near Tijuana International Airport, to protest U.S. immigration policy. Lou was raised on both sides of the border by a Chinese father and Mexican mother. This installation, from 1988, is still relevant today.
“I hope that people would learn that this kind of xenophobia that we’re experiencing now is something that we’ve gone through repeatedly, and it’s always painful,” said Tompkins Rivas. “We should learn from these experiences and the racist past, because it finds its moments of resurgence.”
“Soul Mining” runs through July 14 at the Vincent Price Art Museum. For more information, visit the exhibit’s webpage here.