The exhibitions of Circles and Circuits bring into focus the circles created among artists and those around them, including peers, mentors, family, and others who have influenced their work. “Circuits” references the many paths, journeys, migrations, cross-connections, and flows of art, artists, and the Chinese diasporic communities they are a part of. Such circles and circuits are broad, ranging from the Asia/Pacific region to the Americas, to Africa, to the British Commonwealth nations and Europe. Importantly, the exhibition considers intersections of Asian and African diasporic migrations, Asian coolie labour in the Americas, enslavement of Africans in the Americas, and resistance. Circles and Circuits takes into account how personal relationships influence the artists and their practices, and how larger contexts of global migrations and historic legacies of cultural, political, and economic power also inform their work.
Circuits of mobility are important in terms of the exchange and encounter of ideas, people, images, multiracial and biracial identities, the influence of Afro-Asian interconnections, and the impact of the Second World War on the movement of people within the Caribbean and internationally. Circles and Circuits draws attention to the postwar period leading up to, during, and after Independence movements in the Caribbean in the 1960s. As these countries found their national voices, the impact of creating national identities on artists in the Caribbean is evident in their work and in the writings of their peers, both domestically and in diasporic art circuits abroad. Artists sought primordial “authenticity” and new and old iconographies of nation-building, which included looking to their indigenous and multi-ethnic histories: Amerindian and Taíno arts and cultures, festivals and dances such as Carnival, Hosay, congo, and bélé, as well as nature in relation to religion and everyday popular culture.
The Circles and Circuits exhibitions concentrate on the work of artists who are part of the Chinese Caribbean diaspora in North America, Cuba, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Panama. Larger immigrant populations and political, economic, and social-cultural conditions — including the development of national museums and art schools, as well as training abroad — spurred the formation of pipelines of thought and information with peers through major international hubs. These transnational circuits generated rich art practices during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the Chinese diasporic and Caribbean artistic communities.
During the past century, the Chinese Caribbean diaspora has travelled and resettled outside the Caribbean. Toronto and New York, for example, have notably large populations of Chinese Caribbean diasporic communities. Living and working in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, and the United States, each of the artists in Circles and Circuits is part of multiple circles and networks of communities and historic contextual influences, each with their own path to the work they create.
1. Transfinite Passage (1990, oil on board), by Trinidadian artist Patrick Warsing Chu Foon. Self-taught before he undertook studies at the University of the Americas in Mexico, Chu Foon may be best known for his large-scale public sculptures, but he devoted equal time and effort to his paintings
2. Woman with Chickens (1958, oil on board), by Trinidadian Carlisle Chang. In the early to mid 1950s, Chang studied in London and Italy and also spent a formative year in New York City. Like many Caribbean artists at that time, Chang sought to find the primordial in what he hoped would become a national art movement, before and after Independence
3. Carnaval Cucumbé (1996, three-plate etching and aquatint), by George Chung. Originally from Panama, Chung lost much of his work after he left Panama City in the 1980s for the United States. Now in his eighties, he harbours an immense body of seldom-seen work spanning several decades
4. Danza de la diosa Aguila y el diablito Abacua (1999, acrylic paint), by Cuban Pedro Eng Herrera. The self-taught artist’s work reflects his close relationship with Havana’s Chinatown, where he first worked as a labour organiser for restaurant workers, and later as the head of the Chinese militia during the Cuban Revolution
5. The Roach (2017, video timelapse, 2:11 mins), by Jaime Lee Loy. The Trinidadian artist’s installations explore the pain of abusive relationships through the use of everyday objects and flower petals. In her work for Circles and Circuits, Lee Loy created a video that allows the work to continuously decay. The process of time caught within the piece is an essential element that emphasises the delicacy of the organic petals and their slow withering
6. Throne for Gorilla Spirits (1993, chromogenic colour print with inscribed copper mat), by Albert Chong. Born in Jamaica, the artist moved to the United States with his family in 1977. His work draws on objects tied to his youth, including leftovers from food he consumed in Jamaica: coconut shells, eggs, and salted cod skins. His photographic work also reflects inspiration from Jamaican syncretic religions
7. Another Life (2017, cotton net, cane, screen printing ink, and sumi ink), by Trinidadian Kathryn Chan. This site-specific work, created for Circles and Circuits and installed in the atrium of the California African American Museum, calls attention to the human rights of women who have died due to domestic violence. Crafted from mosquito netting, the “wings” are an ethereal reminder of women trapped in violent domestic spaces
8. Finding Balance (2015, twenty-eight Polacolor Polaroid photographs on aluminium panels), by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, born in Matanzas, Cuba, and based in Massachusetts. In this large-scale mosaic, the artist dons a theatrical replica of a Chinese emperor’s robes. She also wears a birdcage on her head, symbolic of a Yoruba headdress. On her feet, though not visible in Finding Balance, are sandals purchased in Venice in the Piazza San Marco. The outfit echoes the presence of merchants from China, Africa, and Europe who historically exchanged wares at the piazza. The pink and blue pom-poms, also found in other work by Campos-Pons, act as counters for the imaginary miles covered by those travelling from Cuba to China, Africa, Europe, and beyond
9. Obeah Series #3 (c. 1990–91, archival inkjet print), by Trinidadian Susan Dayal. The artist creates corsets and costumes in her self-portraits, at times struggling against the wire as shown in her She Web series, and in others, such as in her Obeah series, carefully composing her own image through stylised poses, as if to accentuate the power of the artist over her own representation
Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art, curated by Alexandra Chang and Steven Wong, is an unprecedented pair of shows presenting rarely exhibited artworks and archival materials on Chinese Caribbean art from the start of the twentieth century to the present.
History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora runs from 15 September, 2017, to 25 February, 2018, at the California African American Museum. It traces the history of Chinese Caribbean art from the 1930s through the period of the region’s Independence movements, showcasing the contributions of artists such as Sybil Atteck of Trinidad and Tobago and Manuel Chong-Neto of Panama, and providing a new context for understanding the better-known work of artists such as Wifredo Lam of Cuba.
Simultaneously, Contemporary Chinese Caribbean Art is on display at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles through March 11, 2018, focusing on the work of contemporary artists.
Circles and Circuits is part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.
Tracing its own circuit, the exhibition will later travel in condensed form to venues in the Caribbean, accompanied by a catalogue published by Duke University Press.