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The Evolution of Protest Art

Photo credit: Jenna Hanchard

April 12, 2019

Last week Vietnamese-American artist Trinh Mai visited UW for a residency as a Walker Ames scholar.  While at UW, Mai participated in a number of events, including collaborative arts projects with students and community members.  Notably, she held a writing workshop at the Mt. Baker Community Center where residents, most of whom had come to the U.S. decades ago as refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam–escaping war and a genocidal regime–took part in Mai’ s current project, “That We Should Be Heirs.”  The project centers around a call Mai has issued for handwritten letters from refugees, immigrants, and their families about their experiences of forced migration and relocation to this country.  Mai collects these letters and rolls them into small scrolls bound with silk thread which then become integral components of art installations currently on display in Seattle and the San Diego Art Institute.  You can view the Seattle installation at UW’s Gould Gallery through May 3rd.

Mai conceived of the idea as a response to the xenophobia that refugees too often meet with upon arrival in a new country, epitomized in the U.S. at the present moment by the Trump administration and its incessant fomenting of hate and fear.  While Mai’s approach would not be understood as traditional protest art, it lies within an emerging movement that offers a counterpoint to state-supported racism and violence, exemplified by the power of the collective.

The failure of coherence around a particular voice that thwarted the Occupy Movement has found traction in collective movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too.  Similarly, Mai’ s work calls for multiple voices and speaks to a diversity of viewers. She reports that viewers from a multiplicity of ethnic and national backgrounds have been moved to tell her their stories upon seeing the exhibit.  Immigrants can relate to the histories whether originating from Southeast Asia, Africa, or Europe.  In his New York Times article, Holland Carter describes “a time in the past when the nation was in danger of losing its soul, and American artists — some, anyway — were trying to save theirs by denouncing what they viewed as a racist war.”  The administration’s policy of child separation vividly depicted by photographs of young children put in cages in detention facilities along the border strikes many as irrefutable evidence that the nation is again losing its soul.  Perhaps rather than seeing a dearth of protest art, we should understand appeals to respond through collective acts that reject the rhetoric of hate and reframe prevailing narratives as a method of protest plus community-building project.