A set of new exhibits at Pao Arts Center offers a chance to reflect on the pandemic and look toward the future of Boston’s Chinatown.
“Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times” features illustrations and zines by Asian artists that explore the collective and personal challenges of the pandemic. “Workers Statues in Chinatown by Wen-ti Tsen” features clay models of the Cambridge-based artist’s statues of working class immigrants, which will be permanently installed in Chinatown in the next few years. Both exhibits will run through June 30.
“There’s amazing illustration work coming out of our AAPI creative community that are really responding to a variety of issues and crises in the pandemic in very inventive and nuanced ways,” Leslie Anne Condon, Pao Arts Center’s visual arts program manager and “Call and Response” curator, said.
Tsen serves as a link between the two exhibits. When entering Pao Arts Center, a visitor immediately sees Tsen’s clay models in the lobby, with photos on the wall behind them that show what the statues might look like in Chinatown, although the physical locations are still undecided. For the project, which has received $1 million in funding from the City of Boston, Tsen will create a laundryman, garment worker, restaurant worker, and a grandmother with a child. The statues will be life-size and cast into bronze.
“The workers statues [are] the ultimate celebration or tribute to people who spend their lives working in America,” Tsen said.
The clay models are a way for Tsen to receive feedback and for Chinatown residents to get a sense of what’s coming to their neighborhood. “By exposing it to the community, people will feel that they are also always a part of it,” Tsen said.
The “Call and Response” exhibit starts to the right of the sculptures, with an excerpt from “The Asian American Comic Book,” which was published by Asian American Resource Workshop in the early ‘90s and illustrated by Tsen.
Tsen and Asian American Resource Workshop, a nonprofit that serves Greater Boston, created four stories about different Asian experiences. The story on display is the book’s fourth, and it’s about a middle-aged Chinese woman who is a garment worker in Boston’s Chinatown — a figure similar to one of Tsen’s forthcoming statues.
The creation of the book was motivated by a desire to give visibility to Asian people, especially those whose experiences are not well-known. The visual style, which Tsen described as cinematic, helped communicate complex struggles.
“Visual drawings come across easier,” Tsen said.
This idea of complexity contained within simplicity is what “Call and Response” is all about. Tsen’s comic was included to tie the exhibit to a longer history of Asian American illustration artwork, said Condon.
Condon focused on illustration as a medium because of its ability to make information digestible, which proves useful in the context of emergency. The exhibit captures how Asian artists responded to or processed the difficulties of the pandemic through illustration.
“The artwork itself feels really immediate,” Condon said. “There’s a draft component, meaning it doesn’t have to be this refined, polished idea, it can be messy.”
The exhibit features six local artists besides Tsen, whose work on display varies widely in form, artistic style, and messaging, but all connect to the pandemic. The pieces hang on a wall in a gallery wing around the corner from Tsen’s comic book excerpt and, from left to right, thematically flow from public health communication to personal pieces to political commentary to expressions of community and care.
The exhibit demonstrates how illustrations serve multiple functions, from the practical to the narrative, and are urgent reflections of the reality in which they were made. There are informational graphics about vaccination and masking by Shaina Lu and Lillian Lee, which were commissioned by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Then there are pieces like “Living Here on Borrowed Time” by Sanika Phawde, a comic about the compounding uncertainties of being an immigrant on a temporary visa during the pandemic.
“Some of the people are really responding to the emotional challenges of this time,” Condon said.
Other illustrations touch upon anti-Asian hate, feelings of anger and alienation, or the need for community support. Condon said that the exhibit doesn’t specifically comment on these issues, rather acknowledging the breadth of struggles of living through the pandemic.
“The power of the exhibition, the power of art itself, is just allowing us to affirm our experiences, whether the most difficult, the most joyous,” Condon said.
“Call and Response” also includes a zine library of works from the public, submitted through a call the organization posted on social media and curated by Pao Arts Center interns. Zines from 10 artists, including three groups, made during the pandemic are on display for visitors to read. They also encompass a range of emotions and styles, from pocket-sized meditations on self-love to college organizations’ magazines of essays and poetry.
Condon included the zines because of the medium’s history as an accessible art form and method of activism. Since zines, and illustrations more broadly, are often made quickly and engage with current events, they speak to the political climate.
“Even the work that doesn’t seem overtly political, there is a political and social gesture in making a zine,” she said.
Condon said she hopes that “Call and Response” inspires people to think about the underlying meanings contained within straightforward formats like illustrated posters and that the exhibit creates an opportunity to think about the difficulties of the pandemic.
“[If] someone comes into the space and they feel like they’re able to be with their feelings...that’s one of the things that would be an achievement for me,” Condon said.
“Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times” and “Workers Statues in Chinatown by Wen-ti Tsen,” on display through June 30, Pao Arts Center, 99 Albany St. Free. paoartscenter.org
Abigail Lee can be reached at email@example.com.