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On Saturday afternoon, October 28, you could hear drums and singing walking up the stairs from the Grand Street subway stop. A couple blocks away, about 70 people gathered in front of James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location to “Say Goodbye to Omer Fast’s Racist Show.” Their grievances began with Cohan and Fast, quickly morphing into the larger issues of gentrification in marginalized communities — in New York specifically, but also in countless other cities the world over.
Fast’s exhibition, August, which opened in mid-September, was controversial not for the video work it contained, but rather for its questionable framing. The Berlin-based artist transformed the upscale art gallery into what he imagined the space looked like before the gallery moved in — a decrepit Chinese-owned business with a peeling awning, broken ATM, and metal folding chairs. (It’s worth mentioning that the space was previously used in 2015 by the Nicole Klagsburn gallery for a pop-up exhibition of Lee Quinones.)
A couple weeks ago, the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) arranged a protest, calling on James Cohan Gallery to remove the installation. The gallery responded by saying it supported its artists’ rights to free speech and opposed censorship. A few days later, Fast released a statement, explaining that his art was misunderstood, blaming protesters for their “vitriol and name-calling,” and stopping short of apologizing for offending Chinatown’s residents. (He wrote instead: “I’m truly sorry that some persons find the installation insensitive or offensive.”)
The last day before Fast’s exhibition came down, CAB was back, with support from several other grassroots organizations. When I walked up, protesters were singing, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” accompanied by drumbeats provided by members of Decolonize This Place. Chants like “Which side are you on?” and “Artwashing has got to go” followed in both English and Chinese.
Betty Yu, co-founder of CAB, was the first speaker, beginning with an acknowledgment that we were all “standing on Native land,” before launching into Fast and James Cohan Gallery for perpetuating “stereotypes of a dirty, putrid Chinatown ghetto.” She went on to point out that in the last 15 years, Chinatown has lost 30% of its Chinese population and 50% of its affordable housing.
Throughout the afternoon, time and again, speakers mentioned the encroachment of high-end art galleries and expensive bars and restaurants displacing long-term residents in the area. (”Gentrifiers go away, Chinatown is here to stay” was a particularly memorable chant.) After the protest, I talked to Emily, who recently moved to New York from Vancouver. In Vancouver, she took part in the Chinatown Action Group, and she said she saw a lot of similarities between these two Chinatowns thousands of miles away. She gave the example of developers and restaurants superficially referencing the Chinatown aesthetic by painting the walls red or planting bamboo. “This is a symbol of the larger issues of gentrification and violence,” she said. “New luxury condos seek to erase our culture.”
Connie Kang — who served as the English-to-Chinese interpreter for the entire protest — also saw this as about much more than just an offensive exhibition. “It’s not just an aesthetic conversation,” she said. “It’s an economic analysis of Chinatown.” Art galleries are generally hypocritical, she noted, claiming to serve local communities while selling expensive artwork to rich patrons that have nothing to do with those communities. “Everyone is complicit in gentrification. This is a wake-up call for the galleries to check themselves,” she said. “It feels inevitable, but there are always decisions you can make. Power is never as powerful as it wants to be. It’s just putting up a show.”
After Yu’s introduction, about a dozen other speakers took the megaphone. These included representatives from the Chinatown Tenants Union, Occupy Museums, the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network, the South Asia Solidarity Initiative, and Vancouver’s Chinatown Action Group. Mei Lum, the fifth-generation owner of the oldest business in Chinatown, spoke about the importance of protecting a unique community, while Anthony Rosado of Bushwick’s Mi Casa No Es Su Casa pointed out that galleries can leave the neighborhood, no problem, but local residents don’t have that luxury of choice.
Throughout the protest, which lasted about two hours, people snuck in and out of the gallery to catch a glimpse of Fast’s show before it closed. None of them seemed to acknowledge the protesters, except one man with long brown hair, who stood just inside the gallery with the door ajar, sticking his face out so he could hear the speeches. He later got on his bike and rode off. As for the gallerists and directors at James Cohan Gallery, they failed to respond to Hyperallergic’s emails.