A 1992 snapshot of a child in a ghost costume hangs all by itself in the rear gallery of multimedia artist Mimi Bai’s exhibition ”Hide and See” at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery. Titled “First Halloween,” it’s a photo of the artist, taken soon after her family immigrated from China to the United States.
The ghost costume was, in a way, apropos — it embodied a particular immigrant experience of being between worlds, and in some ways being invisible to the dominant culture.
In the show, curated by Amanda Contrada as part of the BCA’s “1:1 Exhibition Series,” Bai uses ghostly camouflage as a symbol for the hard work involved in not being a white American in white America. In prints, drawings, sculptures, and a film, she delves into the metaphor of the ghost to explore the psychological and spiritual tolls of assimilation and marginalization.
The central narrative of the exhibition plays out in a lush, wrenching short film Bai made with filmmaker Sam B. Jones, also called “Hide and See.” In it, one ghost, Orange, pursues another, White, through the forest. It’s in black and white except when shot from the ghosts’ perspectives; they see in color, as if only they can truly see each other, but the larger world cannot discern their nuances. Orange stands out in the woods, but White attempts to hide using camouflage and survival techniques known as bushcraft.
Bai made the evocative costumes out of netting, clay, and more. They are on display as sculptures: Orange, aggressive, suspended from the ceiling; and White, crouched closer to the floor. In the film, a relationship develops between hunter and prey. White is weighed down by clay bits; the more Orange sees White, the more Orange accumulates similar weight. Ultimately, they gaze across a brook at one another, and White removes some clay, revealing strands of orange. They are alike.
In the exhibition brochure, Bai lays out some personal and societal costs of assimilation: “Our diligence will only make us disappear,” she writes, quoting poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong’s book “Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition.” Just as important, she honors the labor and vulnerability involved in striving to be seen, safe, and settled.
MIMI BAI: HIDE AND SEE
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Feb. 18. https://bostonarts.org/experiences/exhibitions/mimi-bai-hide-and-see/
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.