The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor

The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor

“The groups’ action has been carefully organized, effectively executed and persistent, as any protest that’s going to work must be.” — Holland Cotter, art critic, The New York Times

On Saadiyat Island, just off the coast of Abu Dhabi, branches of iconic cultural institutions, including the Louvre, the Guggenheim, the British Museum and New York University, are taking shape to the designs of architects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster. In this way, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeks to burnish its reputation as a sophisticated destination for wealthy visitors and residents.

Beneath the glossy veneer of the Saadiyat real estate plan, however, lies a tawdry reality. Those laboring on the construction sites are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in sub-standard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings, and deportation.

For five years, the Gulf Labor Coalition, a cosmopolitan group of artists and writers, has been pressuring Saadiyat’s Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections. Gulf Labor has coordinated a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and pioneered innovative direct action that has involved several spectacular museum occupations. As part of a year-long initiative, an array of artists, writers, and activists submitted a work, a text, or an action. Contextualized by essays that trace how Gulf Labor has evolved, their contributions are reproduced in this book. The result is a compelling chronicle of a campaign at the forefront of a new wave of world-wide cultural activism.

Godzilla 15th Anniversary

Godzilla 15th Anniversary

Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network 1990–2001 is a comprehensive anthology of writings, art projects, publications, correspondence, organizational documents, and other archival ephemera from the trailblazing Asian artist collective. Edited by curator Howie Chen, this publication includes full essays and contextual material detailing the critical genealogies embodied by the group as well as its wide-ranging activities.

The collective known as Godzilla: Asian American Art Network was formed in 1990 to support the production of critical discourse around Asian American art and increase the visibility of Asian American artists, curators, and writers, who were negotiating a historically exclusionary society and art world. Founded by Ken Chu, Bing Lee, and Margo Machida, Godzilla produced exhibitions, publications, and community collaborations that sought to stimulate social change through art and advocacy. For more than a decade, the diasporic group, having grown from a local organization into a nationwide network, confronted institutional racism, Western imperialism, anti-Asian violence, the AIDS crisis, and representations of Asian sexuality and gender, among other urgent issues.

Godzilla created a social space for diasporic Asian artists and art professionals, including members Tomie Arai, Karin Higa, Byron Kim, Paul Pfeiffer, Eugenie Tsai, Alice Yang, Lynne Yamamoto, among others.  Envisioning a lateral and porous network, Godzilla was independently run by successive steering committees that included Diyan Achjadi, Tomie Arai, Todd Ayoung, Monica Chau, Debi-Ray Chaudhuri, China Blue, Allan deSouza, Skowmon Hastanan, Arlan Huang, Michi Itami, Jenni Kim, Franky Kong, Jeanette Louie, Yong Soon Min, Helen Oji, Sanda Zan Oo, Athena Robles, Carol Sun, Eugenie Tsai, Lynne Yamamoto, Rubina Yeh, and Charles Yuen.

552 Pages
9 x 12 inches
Edition of 2500
November 2021
ISBN: 9781736534625

Editor: Howie Chen
Designer: Ella
Managing Editor: James Hoff

Art & … Being In Solidarity

Art & … Being In Solidarity

Antonio Serna, Todd Ayoung, Aurora P. Robinson

Screening and Discussion at Triangle Arts, NYC

July 28 at 7pm

Triangle, New York hosts Antonio Serna of artists of color bloc and Todd Ayoung of Pratt Social Practice, to facilitate a debriefing discussion along with Aurora P. Robinson from Black Lives Matter (Pratt). The discussion will be centered around a screening of Flag Wars (2007), a film by Linda Goode Bryant & Laura Poitras; it documents the gentrification of a community in Columbus, Ohio and raises issues concerning intersectionality. This event follows the Brooklyn Community Forum on Anti-Gentrification and Displacement slated for July 24, 2016 at the Brooklyn Museum.

The Brooklyn Community Forum is the result of successful protests, negotiations, and combined efforts of a wide network of black-led anti-gentrification groups, indigenous groups, and various artists/activist and allies. Serna and Ayoung have participated in this dialogue in effort to ensure the program gave voice to those most affected by gentrification. They also host one of the forum workshops titled, “How Can Cultural Institutions Support Communities?”

Protests began November 17, 2015 when the Brooklyn Museum hosted the 6th Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit. The event was seen as an unabashed and non-nuanced conference on modes and strategies for the continued gentrification of the borough. Further, it occurred between the exhibitions “Crossing Brooklyn”, a survey of artists living and working in the borough, and “Agitprop!”,  an exhibition addressing the intersection of art and activism. The discussion at Triangle will make space for a layered, structural look at how various groups negotiated with the museum and what “being in solidarity” entails in a time of intersectional activism and rapid displacement of communities of color. The event is meant as an opportunity to consider how the energy catalyzed by the events at the Brooklyn Museum can move forward from here.

Antonio Serna isAlum of Triangle’s Residency Program (2015) as part of the Artists and Workers of Color Initiative. Serna is an artist working in New York with both a collective and studio based practice. He is currently working on Documents of Resistance: Artists of Color Protest (1960-2016). Additionally he is a member of artists of color bloc an cultural worker advocate group focusing on artists of color, and Arts & Labor’s Alternative Economies Working Group, an Occupy Wall Street activist group which organized “What Do We Do Now?”, the first alternatives economies fair and resource guide for artists in NYC. Through these and other autonomous collectives he promotes self-organized cultural events, research, education, and artist-as-activist interventions.

Todd Ayoung, born in Trinidad and Tobago, W.I., is a visual artist and adjunct professor at Pratt Institute and Parsons, New School. He has exhibited and lectured throughout the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. Some of Ayoung’s intellectual, political, activist pursues and artworks have been published in The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, Third Text, Bomb Magazine, Shrifter, OCTOBER, Afterimage, Kyoto Journal, New Observations and Social Text. Ayoung is a founding member of the REPOhistory collective and Alien Abduction Collective. Currently he is involved with artists of color bloc and Pratt Social Practice Group.

Aurora P. Robinson is a Brooklyn resident and a member of Black Lives Matter Pratt; she is Pratt Alumni (MA Arch), and current Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) Faculty.

Unnamable Name

Unnamable Name

Many individuals historically have interfaced with the library as a source for further enlightenment, research, and information gathering. From Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and James Balwin to the Unabomber, the library has functioned as a place of the possible, and the impossible. The singularity of this possibility and impossibility is what I will prescribe as the unnamable name. It is potentially a politics leading many to revolution, or “terrorism”. Isn’t this why the library has become an ongoing battle ground for surveillance vs privacy issues, especially after 911? Artists were asked to create work for underused non -art spaces inside the Tompkins County Library in Ithaca New York. This unnamable art appeared as sightings, un-bindings, and unidentified objects located in the “gaps,” “voids,”and “empty” places between the categories of information and entertainment the typical library visitor is usually in search of. The artwork worked to address the persistence, repetition, and notion of the unnamable

An Interview with Todd Ayoung BOMB Magazine

An Interview with Todd Ayoung BOMB Magazine

Photo by Anita Morse

 By Curlee Raven Holton, 1992

Until last year, Todd Ayoung’s paintings were lush and colorful, a fantastic garden growing pink and blue plants and severed limbs, watched over by half faces, trodden by the bullet gray feet of Christ. This year, as part of the Whitney Independent program, his work is black and white. Card catalogues from libraries obscure engravings of American slave life, their dry, descriptive titles clarifying what is hidden. Todd Ayoung met Curlee Raven Holton when they were both fellows on an NEA Fellowship, and their ensuing collaboration led them to explore common ideas about art and disenfranchisement.

Curlee Raven Holton Todd, when we first met each other, you were showing me around New York City. Something you told me then, was that you carried an imaginary community with you as you traveled around the world, and that that community has traveled with you through your art work.

Todd Ayoung I originally came up with that idea from reading Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, where he describes imaginary geography. What that meant to me was that, as opposed to the West trying to impose a preconceived image of what the Orient is, or to construct the Orient … we have reached this imaginary state that the West has constructed, we’re living, as people of color, in an imaginary construction. And this “imaginary” community is real for the white communities … I use white community only in terms of an ideology; whiteness as an ideological state of mind, not a biological one. That’s a very important differentiation when you’re talking about white supremacy. The imaginary community is something that I feel I am reconstructing, I’m turning it around.

CRH When we jump into your work feet first—and your images are often just legs or just an arm—your work speaks of this imaginary community, touching and being a part of it. How has that philosophy evolved over the years?

TA I originally started to invent a landscape. I went to the traditional landscape: the sky, the atmosphere, the earth and a sense of gravity, being part of the whole system of the horizon. What I wanted to do was to invent this imaginary community, a kind of ecological space where I could live … symbolically.

CRH I noticed what seems to be foliage, a jungle environment, but not in tropical colors. It makes me think of being back in the Garden of Eden.

TA This imaginary geography is a kind of idealism, a Utopia. Trying to develop that is very important as a space of empowerment, but there’re a lot of limits to that vision because it has a nostalgia …

CRH … a romanticism to it.

TA For a place that does not exist.

CRH Are you creating a place for yourself or a place for the viewer?

TA In the first series, the “Race” paintings, I tried to construct a geography out of my own head. And it was for me. I was trying to stake out territory before I could affirm my subject.

CRH I found, as an African-American, that you were speaking to many issues that I was confronting: the issue of other, difference, the relationship to the world around you, and the way of insulating yourself with this imaginary world that you’re creating. Can you speak about the exhibit you had in Europe recently?

TA I had a show in Austria called A Tourist is an Ugly Being. The title comes from a Jamaica Kincaid book called A Small Place. She gives not only a description of an individual, but also created an ontological state. Tourism has now reached a historical point, where it is an ideology that has nothing to do with trying to find out about the other, how the other lives, as much as trying to affirm a dominant position over the other. So this work brings out what it means to be an intruder even in the most economic sense of just relaxing and getting some sun, it’s a major disruption, from colonialism to tourism. The pieces that I did recently, New World Plantation, had to do with the foreign policies of the United States, that try to bring back a sort of plantation system within dependent economies.

CRH You work with what are often called “marginalized” people, such as African-Americans and people of color. You do a lot of work with progressive organizations, like Repro-History, which attempts to discover and restore historical facts that have been dispossessed.

TA Or are absent.

CRH … or overlooked altogether. This is the repossession of art history. Is your connection to that also a desire to repossess Todd’s world? To go back and repossess a history that has a positive relationship to the rest of the world. Because being the “other” has negative aspects and feelings to it. I see this also in my own work. Recently, we worked on a large collaborative piece: a monoprint you titled, Coal Traces.

TA I like to collaborate because it helps me to get outside of myself. A lot of my work has to do with colonialism, or neocolonialism, and racism. In your work, you have articulated through a language you are constantly developing in your printmaking and your painting … you have a grasp of something that I’m still trying to get a hold of. Maybe your community is stronger. So I’m trying to hook into people’s communities. In a way, I’m a parasite. But I’m being a parasite to construct my community, which may be imaginary, which hopefully will become real. And the more I hook on to other people’s communities, communities of Asians and African-Americans, for my own sake and understanding, my community seems to have grown into a hybrid state.

CRH Let’s talk about the Race and Culture show. How do you fit into a context of shows that are defined as race and culture exhibits?

TA In multicultural shows, I always have a kind of caution, especially if it has to do with a person who’s not categorized as a minority, it makes me question it. Especially now, because it seems to be fairly trendy. There are a lot of exhibitions right now having to do with issues of race and culture. It becomes a commodity for a short period of time and there’s a turnover constantly. And so it relieves the responsibility, and puts a few stars into position, that they can use, and say, “Look, he or she (most likely it’s a he) has been showing and getting lots of money.” There’s also a codification of racial issues in this culture, a circulation of values, meaning that things go on a monthly basis, like Black History Month. So I’m suspicious, even though the gallery is made up of women who are concerned with these issues because they’re concerned with women’s issues and the larger context. For example, the presentation of the exhibit, like the announcement, that just divides up the space between black and white and presents race in culture, but does not name the participants, the subjects do not have any personality. By showing who these people are, you have a development of their work, of their personalities. Also you know that they are not in this just because it is hot at the moment, that this is something they are continuously doing. This seems symptomatic of the gallery situation, even though I know good intentions are involved, there is a certain oversight.

CRH Often artists of color are not only speaking of race and culture, but are speaking from a perspective of being a victim of such categories as well. If one’s work is only seen in that context, this construction is one of restriction, raising the question, is the phone ringing for an artist or for a black artist? As an African-American artist you often have to choose between this type of exposure or no exposure at all. How does the Race and Culture show contextualize your work and, most importantly, how does this contextualize you? You’re often included in African-American exhibitions of this kind, but you are not African-American.

TA It is true I am not a black artist, but I consider myself a black artist in the British context which is a different thing, because I come from a British colony. For Britain, if you are not white, you are black, so there’s a clear distinction and I like that, there’s a polarity. An opposition and a unity involved with deciding.

But the other aspect is the African diaspora, which is part of the Caribbean, where I grew up, my culture and my background. So most of my work is from an African point of view, even though I’m part Chinese and Indian. That plays a big part in my interest to gain a respect and a community among the black artists.

As an African-American within American culture, your position and community are more defined, while mine is defined by my being an immigrant, being of that artificial construction of the Caribbean. I’m curious about your audience.

CRH I evolved as an artist with an exclusively black audience. As well as communicating to this audience, I felt my role was to somehow serve that community with my creative talents. So early on, my work was celebrating what it meant to be an African-American. But as time went on, I began to realize there were other meanings, that I had to lift it up somehow, connect and relate to other audiences.

TA Did your community become larger, through your collaboration with me, as it relates to the diaspora?

CRH Our common experience was intriguing, this relationship to the Anglo-European world that is so consistent among people of color. There’s a bond, not always cultural, as in foods and language, but clearly, we are not white and not being white in this world is significant. That helped move my work to a larger context. Knowing that I am but a finger on the hand of this experience has made my work more confrontational. I’m returning to African icons or symbols, relating a contemporary cultural article like an afro-pick or a hot comb and placing it on the pedestal of Art. So what I do is take things associated with the African-American cultural experience and highlight them, re-contextualize them. That I think is the power of an artist. To speak the unspoken.

When it comes to white audiences, my effort is to speak of my experience as a person of color in our society and refer to the universal aspects of exclusion. I attempt to reveal my experience as an African-American as a metaphor for a much larger meaning.

Ayoung 01 Body

Todd Ayoung, from the New World Plantation series, 1991. Installation.

TA Not only how we are subjects of history but how we are subjugated by history.

CRH That’s why I think the works of African-American artists display such power and potency, part of that potency comes out of the pressure of that crucible of racism and exclusion. The work of David Hammons and Adrian Piper are two examples of this. Also, exclusion forges a different language, a different relationship to existence, different realities and, consequently, different methods of perception.

TA You have to open up and realize that you are a part of a human culture. That we have to go beyond racialization, yet retain our difference.

CRH Todd, your work seems to be postmodern; you utilize modern techniques to refer to historical issues of exploitation and images of slavery, and bring these issues into the modern discourse by your choices of subject and technique.

TA The piece that you are referring to speaks to a continuing language within the system. Even if the objective is to present slavery in an un-hypocritical way, there is a continuation in the language and the attitudes. In this case, in the way things are catalogued in our libraries, like “natural history-negroes,” that illustrate the whole ideology of the system. You didn’t ask me this question, but since I am not African-American, you could ask me how I could get lost in that process, because there are no images of me, except for a quotation that says, “When I was 14, living in LA, I tried to erase the color from my junior high school photo because I thought it was too dark.” Then I bring it up to the present situation: “Is the bombing of Iraq another form of erasure?”

CRH Does being marginalized or denied access offer you a new community?

TA The weight falls in different places, there’s a kind of movement. To some extent, I am gaining a community. I’m also engaging in a larger conversation, one of diverse views. Among the artists I am meeting, I find there are some like Leela Ramotar, Ayisha Abraham, Fred Wilson, Yong Soon Min, who are very important for my dialogue, my contexualization, my ability to have a “real” imaginary community.

CRH Do you think there is a Black aesthetic, an other aesthetic? Or is it placed on the work?

TA Up to date, we are the victims of our own aesthetics. But we can make use of what we have: reverse it, expand it, and legitimize it to where it becomes the master of that history. Not that we want to play a master-slave game, but we have to understand what takes place within that conversation as well as the dialectics involved in re-positioning and re-contextualizing ourselves. There is a big loss in creating a community as well being racialized, being called a person of color and having shows around it, and always worrying that tomorrow people won’t be interested in this subject anymore. That’s why we always have to change them.

CRH So maybe that’s the way to end this interview, to pose that question: What do these things really mean?

TA I can only go back to something that guides me in my work, and maybe in my life, a line in a book on James Baldwin called, Artist on Fire, where James Baldwin says that what he’s tried to do is pull the hanky completely out of his pocket. He’s tried to live, where he’s lived all of his life, as fully as he could. And my desire as an artist is to do the same. Not only with my living, but also with my work, to pull out as much of myself as I can possibly pull. That’s the most important thing an art-maker can do: pull themselves out, discover themselves, become who they already really are.

Curlee Raven Holton teaches studio art and African-American art history at Lafayette College. His writings on Afrocentrism in Contemporary Art are widely published. He is also a painter and printmaker.