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Artist Omer Fast Compares Protesters to Alt-Right, Chinatown Art Brigade Responds

The artist released a statement after Sunday’s protests, and the protesters have responded.

Chinatown Art Brigade and allies pasting up the protest placard with their letter to the gallery and artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

After Sunday’s protests at James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown, artist Omer Fast released a statement comparing the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and their activist allies to “right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built.”

According to the protesters, Sunday’s rally came after CAB received no response to their letter to the gallery and artist. The artist has declined to speak directly to the protesters or the media. He released a statement through his gallery yesterday.

Fast writes:

The actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.

The Chinese have been part of the US for centuries and their presence in Chinatown specifically dates to the late 19th century at the very least, so it’s not clear what exactly the artist sees as “foreign.”

The artist is “surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling” without citing specific terms, but then compares the mostly Asian-American protesters to white supremacists by writing, “I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.”

He also adds: “A group of protestors hanged a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing ‘a non-US and non-New York artist.’” The artist understands it as a form of xenophobia. It appears the artist may be referring to the original letter that was enlarged and taped to the front of the gallery.

Alicia Grullon, who was a speaker representing Mothers on the Move (MOM) at Sunday’s protest, was disappointed by the artist’s response.

“Since Fast completely missed the point of Sunday’s protest, here’s perhaps a critique he might understand,” she wrote to Hyperallergic in a long email reflecting on Fast’s video piece also on display at the James Cohan Gallery. The video is inspired by the life of August Sander, the German photographer. She believes Sander’s work may touch on a few things that Fast may be missing.

“As noted on the Tate Museum’s website, ‘Five Things to Know About August Sander‘:  ‘Sander once said ‘The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.’ He believed that, through photography, he could reveal the characteristic traits of people. He used these images to tell each person’s story; their profession, politics, social situation and background.’

“Beyond superficial observation, the depth of Sanders’s relationship is in the exchange occurring in the lens — the comfort in the space allowing what needs to be said about a very specific place and time. This level of connection is one for which many documentary photographers aim. If Omer Fast (and on that note the curatorial team at James Cohan as well) had dedicated research, thought, and care in understanding Sanders’s portraits as testaments of successful relationships between artist and subject, Fast’s rather empty installation of a Chinatown shop before gentrification, as noted in his artist statement, could have been avoided. Yet perhaps the installation is a portrait of Fast — shallow and blinded by the colonized gaze.”

Today, CAB released an extensive statement in response to Omer Fast, and it is published at the bottom of this post in full. CAB suggests there may be a contradiction in the gallery claiming both censorship and that “our protest was exactly what their artist intended.”

They wrote that they “are not interested in responding to these comments by the gallery or engaging in any future dialogue with the artist and his apologists.”

And they explained that “We prefer to speak about who we are, our work and about the community that the artist and gallery felt free to ‘transform’ and appropriate.”

Both statements are reproduced below.

This is the artist’s statement, posted on the James Cohan Gallery website, in full:

OMER FAST STATEMENT, 10-18-2017:

As part of my first exhibition at James Cohan’s Chinatown gallery, I decided to transform the facade and interior in a symbolic and temporary act of erasure. I wanted to erase the passage of time and to recreate what the space looked like before the gallery moved in almost two years ago. The tall glass facade and white-cube interior would disappear and the space would lose its more recent identity as an upscale gallery. The back spaces, where the gallery’s business takes place, were left untouched. No one working there was asked to perform or do anything different. As such, there was nothing radically transformative about this intervention since it was neither disruptive nor permanent. I’m aware how superficial such a formal transformation might seem, but I was precisely interested in this conflict between appearance and essence.

As a teenage immigrant to the United States and a naturalized American, I’ve long felt the tension between appearance and essence. I know many first- and second-generation immigrants experience the same challenge: how to reconcile a foreign identity with a local one, how to connect old and new, outward facade and inner space. In the case of the intervention at James Cohan, the actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.

I’m not surprised there have been critical reactions. I completely understand people’s need to push back. We all have unseemly baggage, racist and otherwise, that needs to be sorted through. We all overstep bounds and must shine a light on our darker hypocrisies, myself included. For good and for bad, artists do this in public. But I am surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling. A group of protestors hanged a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing “a non-US and non-New York artist.” I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.

This doesn’t mean that displacement and gentrification are not happening, nor that artists and galleries do not contribute to these processes, nor that I’m somehow magically free from prejudiced thinking and above all that. I’m truly sorry that some persons find the installation insensitive or offensive. The point of this work was never to insult or incite but to talk about identity and immigrant experience – my immigrant experience – warts and all, in its complexity and in its contradictions, pitting essence against appearance. For what it’s worth, I think this is what this work does. I’ve asked the gallery not to take down the protesters’ posters. I disagree with their statements about me and my work but I think they’re important to consider as part of a larger picture.

This is the complete statement by the Chinatown Art Brigade:

October 19, 2017

The Chinatown Art Brigade is not surprised that James Cohan gallery’s immediate reaction to Sunday’s organized action would be to cry censorship, and also simultaneously claim that our protest was exactly what their artist intended. In an attempt to avert any substantive dialogue, both the gallery and artist have chosen to ignore our concerns and assert that they are the victims in a debate about artistic freedom. For this reason, we are not interested in responding to these comments by the gallery or engaging in any future dialogue with the artist and his apologists.

We prefer to speak about who we are, our work and about the community that the artist and gallery felt free to ‘transform’ and appropriate.

The Chinatown Art Brigade is a cultural collective of artists and activists with roots in Chinatown and New York City. Our members have lived, worked and organized in this neighborhood for several decades. Our work is driven by a deep love for our community and the fundamental belief that fighting against racial and economic inequity is central to our cultural and art making process. The Brigade has partnered with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, a 30-year old grassroots Pan-Asian organization. CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU) has fought for tenant’s rights in Lower Manhattan for over 10 years. CAAAV’s offices are located only 4 blocks from James Cohan gallery. By partnering with CAAAV’s CTU, we are working to amplify awareness of the life-threatening issues of displacement that long-time tenants and residents of Chinatown are now facing.

In the last fifteen years, Chinatown and the Lower East Side have lost more than 50% of affordable housing units, a loss of 15,000 affordable homes. Developers and landlords have made many of these into market rate and luxury units through predatory tactics such as forced evictions, cheap buyouts, illegal construction and harassment. At the same time the Chinese population of Chinatown has decreased more than 30% and these residents have been replaced by higher-income, predominantly white gentrifiers.

Galleries and luxury condos have a direct hand in raising rents and displacing low income rent-subsidized tenants. More than 130 galleries have opened in Chinatown in the last ten years, replacing small businesses and organizations that have served the Chinatown community for generations. Before James Cohan gallery moved into its space at 291 Grand St, it was HK Manpolo Market, a local supermarket that served the needs of Chinatown’s low-income immigrant tenants.

These days, real estate developers and landlords are likely to keep storefronts unoccupied for months on end, waiting to rent to the next gallery, hipster bar or high-end restaurant that comes along. Some landlords will now only rent exclusively to galleries. These spaces are often the Trojan horses needed to raise the value of property and neighborhood. With over 80% of the people in Chinatown renting, not owning, their apartments, the rise of luxury housing and galleries is fueling a housing crisis in the neighborhood. This displacement crisis is happening in communities of color across the city.

The faceless immigrants the artist claims to identify with, who live and work in the neighborhood, are actually families and residents who are deeply offended by this depiction of the community as derelict and foreign. The people who showed up to protest this installation care about the Chinatown community — its rich history, its culture and the traditions that are an integral part of our quality of life. Our lives and livelihoods are facing erasure because of galleries like James Cohan and artists who believe that their privilege and entitlement gives them the right to occupy the spaces we call home.

Gentrification is not inevitable, and gentrifying businesses can choose not to degrade and insult Chinatown residents, but instead take action to support the grassroots organizing that is helping to keep families in their homes. One way a gentrifier can step up is by supporting the Chinatown Working Group community-led rezoning plan that has been nearly ten years in the making. This community plan will provide concrete protections for existing low-income residents by limiting and regulating the type of development that can happen in the neighborhood, and various other protective measures.

By celebrating resilience and resistance, we believe that the Chinatown Art Brigade is just one of many new and powerful organizing models for change. Our creative process is women-led, community driven and guided by the core belief that self-determination should be a leading principle in our work. Our close collaborations with grassroots organizations bring us closer to understanding the ways in which art and culture can have a significant and lasting impact on the communities in which we live.

As Asian Americans, we have been the targets of policy decisions — from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Executive Order 9066 — that were designed to deny us citizenship and discriminate against us on the basis of race. We believe we have a responsibility to show the world that we will not let America’s racist history repeat itself. Our goal is to show, through actions and protests, that Chinatown and Asians in America stand united with all groups who are on the front lines fighting for their civil and human rights.

We would like to conclude by expressing our deep appreciation for the many groups and individuals who have offered us solidarity and emotional support. We are all dedicated to elevating the struggles of low-income communities of color in this country and around the world. We will move forward, united in solidarity, as we continue this crucial work that binds all of our struggles together.

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