ODE TO MY BURNING FAMILY – Artwork by Jess X Chen
(See the image in much higher resolution at http://www.jessxchen.com/)
I re-purpose the familiar red imagery of China’s Cultural Revolution propaganda to create something that speaks more truth to violence rather than the false utopia it represented. I see the Cultural Revolution as a forest fire that spread across China from 1966-1976. It clear-cut millions of family trees, including my own, through utopian propaganda & violent class struggle instigated by the government. This is the last family dinner. Though sixty years later, my motherland still burns from the phantom pain, we must remember the fierce resilience amongst each family that tried to hold themselves together amidst the blaze.
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“The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am. The black mother in each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams – I feel therefore I can be free…”
– Audre Lorde (1932-1992, Carribean-American poet)
After the cultural revolution, my parents immigrated from mainland China to Canada. A few years after I was born in 1992, they soon divorced. The day my parents split was the day I developed a severe stutter that left me too ashamed to speak. In my silence, I discovered that I could express through painting, film and poetry what my voice could not. Through years of struggling to direct and perform my own work, I have since adapted to my stutter and sharpened my voice.
Art for me always begins from a place of healing from seemingly impossible odds. In the same way a community of young protesters erupts in China in response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre and a national movement erupts in the America after a string of police killings of black people – my paintings are borne as a tender monument to those lives lost. The paint stroke lies upon the white page, the same way a body lies upon a die-in protest. A community of strokes may begin to reclaim the voices to the dead or displaced. The act of cutting the blank page, is an act of unearthing buried histories beneath a white-washed landscape. In that sense, my work serves the purpose of re-writing and commemorialization. Through paintings paired with poetry, I strive to memorialize those who lost their lives in the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square protesters, the honeybees suffering from colony collapse disorder, and the Earth driven by us to the edge of ecological armageddon. In all of those instances, I strive to represent not the violence that happened to those voices, but rather the tender and undefeatable spirits they embody and still continue to radiate through time. I hope to draw a line between how humanity’s imperialistic attitude of exploiting those of an “othered” race, gender, or species — is directly linked to our Earth’s ecological collapse.
Like my voice, an immigrant’s life and language is broken. The white mans’ words alone cannot repair the crevices. So from the lands left behind, I unbury the lineage of voices before me, and facilitate the intersection of poetry, painting and film to conceive a new language toward environmental, feminist, and racial justice.
Together we may reclaim histories beyond possibility, and address trauma with grace.
“Don’t / be afraid / to be this illuminated / to be so bright / & empty / the bullets pass / right through / you / thinking they have reached / the sky…”
– Ocean Vuong, (1987- onwards, Vietnamese-American poet)