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SANTA CRUZ — Over at our friendly neighborhood art museum, graphic novelist and intrepid world explorer Tessa Hulls has created a gallery-sized comic book. Her show, titled Guided by Ghosts at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), is a riot of images, texts, objects, and colors.
As with comics, Hulls refutes neat lines and white space. She crowds together her words and drawings to pack a gut punch of frenetic energy into every corner and around every curve. I couldn’t capture an image without the intrusion of another image or fragment. Everything in the exhibit, past and present, is connected.
In eerie phosphorescent lighting, Hulls has plastered a wall-to-wall timeline of Chinese immigration to the United States beginning in the 1500s. The timeline is a clever highlight reel documenting systemic racism in both English and Spanish, illustrated with meticulously rendered watercolors that punctuate the disturbing historical events. Hulls also constructed a color-coded key to organize the three main themes: aqua for “Monterey Bay Region,” maroon for “Tessa’s Story,” and corn yellow for “National/International.”
Hulls zooms in on the creation of Chinatowns, specifically in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Chinatowns act as living monuments to the fortitude and industriousness of Chinese immigrants. Scattered about are handmade remnants of agricultural workers: pottery encased in glass, a basket suspended near the ceiling. Hulls emphasizes that Chinatowns are the legacy of deeply embedded racism, rooted in local, state, and federal laws, then reinforced by Supreme Court rulings. White voters and politicians systematically restricted those with Chinese ancestry from home ownership and rentals beyond a few limited city blocks until they were forced to build Chinatowns.
Where it once had four Chinatowns, Santa Cruz now no longer has even one. While the last Santa Cruz Chinatown was flooded away by the San Lorenzo River in 1955, Hulls presents evidence via telegrams and news clippings of how greed and gentrification were as responsible as natural forces for destroying the Chinatowns. After arson destroyed one Chinatown, robber barons and policymakers prevented former inhabitants from rebuilding. Hulls’s work is relevant to contemporary urban displacement problems as Chinatowns shutter and recede in major cities across the country.
Halfway through the timeline, the artist inserts her own family’s immigration story from China to Hong Kong to the United States. In 1957, her grandmother, Sun Yi, a journalist and a single mother, fled from China to Hong Kong with her daughter, Hulls’s mother. In 1970, the artist’s mother left for the United States. Hulls reveals that at one point, her mother attended a boarding school for Eurasian children while her grandmother entered a Hong Kong psychiatric hospital. In contrast to the preceding bulk of cold facts and dense archival material, these comic panels are intimate and vulnerable.
Hulls uses the personal exploration of her family’s history to battle our larger historical amnesia. In a time of #BlackLivesMatter, as Latinx and Asian communities organize against mass deportations, Palestinian resistance surges, Indigenous communities fight for basic dignity and natural resources, and we mourn Muslims and Jews who’ve been murdered for their faith, Hulls’s show puts the puzzle piece of xenophobia against Chinese and Taiwanese Americans back on the board. We aren’t without clues as to how today’s state was shaped.
The final corner contains a replica of the artist’s desk and studio in Washington. An empty desk and chair welcomes visitors to sit and take the place of the artist. There’s even a customized “UNO”-like deck designed by the artist. Questions like, “How have your ancestors influenced you?” ask us to consider our unique family histories. With the placement of the game table near the center of the room, the artist and the MAH seems to be saying, “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”
Growing up, chatting with other comic fans about a favorite series or character often resulted in a hotly debated exegesis regarding the flaws and merits of a universe and its players. My friends and I found comfort in our knowledge of entire worlds. These days we turn on the news and feel simultaneously stuck in mud and tossed about in shock waves of violence, anger, and fear. The uncertainty undoes us.
In this version of our current reality, sometimes described as unbelievable, our society has much to learn from comics and graphic novels. Like most works of sequential art, Hulls stabilizes us with the clarity of an origin story: She places the long arm of white supremacy as the villain. Blurring the lines between artist and viewer, the artist contends that we’re all worthy of superhero status.
Guided by Ghosts asserts that we cannot embrace our identities without knowing our lineage. Hulls asks us to consider all the various superbeings — from immigrants to single mothers — that have existed throughout time, from their humble beginnings to their powerful reboots. Tracing out the racist foundations that still haunt us, Hulls hones in on the importance of situating our individual selves within a larger history of xenophobia. Those of us who cannot understand how things got so bad in the world today would do well to visit this exhibit.
Guided by Ghosts by Tessa Hulls continues at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (705 Front St, Santa Cruz) through June 23. The exhibition was curated by Whitney Ford-Terry.