LIMA, Peru — At first glance, there seems to be almost no text in 土生:回乡 Tǔshēng. Retornos al país del centro, an exhibition at Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC). As you walk in, the wall to the right lists the three featured artists — Héctor Chiang, Ana Chung, and Christi Zorrilla — and the titles of their pieces. And that’s it. The exhibition’s trilingual introduction (English, Spanish, Chinese) is out of view, printed on the other side of the panels that divide the room in two.
There is in fact a lot of text in this room — it’s just mostly inaccessible, in one way or another, to the museum’s average visitor. There are small phrases in Chinese seal script written on the hanging panels. In Chiang’s “PER+CHN,” labyrinthine lines etched into two large aluminum squares form the almost imperceptible words “秘鲁民族” (“Peruvian nation” in Chinese) and “CHINA.” An accordion-style photo book, part of Chiang’s other installation, is filled with braille and Chinese. Behind where the book is propped, a wall of windows is bisected by an LED strip; marching up that strip of light is a single line of tiny, tiny words.
The works themselves are accompanied by no wall text. In the absence of textual explanations, visitors feel distance, perhaps, or confusion, even alienation. This opacity is deliberate, said curator Marco Loo. “Chinese migrants arriving in the 19th century didn’t speak Spanish — had no knowledge of the language — and found themselves in an adverse environment,” he said. “I was interested in having people relive this a little […] get[ting] their bearings in a space that’s completely unfamiliar.”
This attention toward language is immediately clear in the exhibition title, 土生:回乡 Tǔshēng. Retornos al país del centro — the first part in Mandarin and the second in Spanish. “Tǔshēng,” the Mandarin pinyin for “土生” (“born here”), is the etymon of “tusán,” a Peruvian Spanish word that has come to encompass all people of Chinese descent — including the exhibition’s curator and three artists. “Retornos al país del centro” (“Returns to the center country” or to “the Middle Kingdom,” as the English version of the introductory text has it) is a nod to the literal translation of China’s name in Chinese, “中国,” which comprises the words “中” (“middle”) and “国” (“country”). The Chinese “回乡,” on the other hand, means “return home” or “return to one’s native place.” All this is intimately tied to the exhibition’s central question: What does a return — whether to the center or to “home” — look like for three artists who are many generations removed from that other place?
Peru is home to Latin America’s largest Chinese diasporic population. The first shipload of Chinese coolies arrived in Peru’s port city of Callao in October 1849, making this year the 170th anniversary. Though there had been Chinese in Peru since the arrival of the Spanish, after the abolition of slavery, Chinese laborers were imported large-scale to replace slaves on haciendas and guano islands. The great-grandfathers of Chung, Loo, and Zorrilla, and Chiang’s grandfather arrived in the first decades of the 20th century from different areas of Guangdong seeking economic opportunities. The vast majority of Chinese migrants to Peru during this period fit that profile: male and Hakka- or Cantonese-speaking from the coastal province also known as Canton.
The journey across the Pacific, which took 120 days by ship, is the subject of Zorrilla’s pieces. Her video “Recorridos” (Routes) and installation “Lazos” (Ties), a snarl of red sisal rope suspended from the ceiling, both trace seven or eight routes between the two shores. That the lines are routes is not stated explicitly in the exhibition — Zorrilla echoed Loo when she said, “What I often try to do is make the viewer experience a feeling. And in this case the feeling is, ‘I’m seeing a bunch of red rope, I don’t know, what is this?’ […] When they [Chinese migrants] came, they were here in a completely new culture, a completely new language — ‘What is this? I don’t understand you.’”
The ropes delineate various routes: from the stops the ship carrying her great-grandfather would have made in the 1910s (Guangdong, either Taiwan or the Philippines, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Lima), to the present-day paths of DHL shipping containers, to Zorrilla’s 2016 return flight itinerary when she traveled to Taiwan for an artist’s residency. The same kind of rope is still used on ships, said Zorrilla. Its redness is both a symbol of good fortune in Chinese tradition and the color of blood — as in blood ties and as in violence, of the sort many migrants suffered due to harsh working conditions and discrimination.
The migrant ships reemerge in Chung’s installation, titled “Ciento veinte” (One Hundred Twenty). At ground level, a small tank is filled with seawater, 200 plastic figurines, and a video of the naked artist curled into a fetal position. Suspended from the ceiling is another video that loops Chung leaping into the sea. For Chung, the leap into cold winter waters caused a sensation similar to “the vertigo felt by someone who leaves, who launches himself […] into infinity, into something transformative.”
Sometimes that leap led to death, as with the untold number of migrants who perished during the difficult voyage and had their bodies unloaded into the sea. Many times it led to new life: the migrant’s own in a new place, and that of the children born in that place. Chung’s Chinese great-grandfather left his family soon after her grandfather was born, and little is known about him. “His answer to that leap made it so that we came into existence,” Chung said.
The journey implied by Chiang’s pieces is more contemporary. “Senda & Poder” (Path & Power), a book and LED light installation, contains evidence of the artist’s return to his ancestors’ homeland. The book features black-and-white photos that Chiang took in China between 2006 and 2010, a period he spent completing a master’s degree in Chongqing. Its printed captions, in Chinese, are the 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching, the classical Chinese text by ancient philosopher Lao Tzu that Chiang first discover as a child, in his father’s library. The braille overlaid onto the photos is Chiang’s Spanish-language reinterpretation of the text. For sighted visitors who don’t read Chinese, accessing it requires looking into the strip of light that floats above the book, a y-axis to the book’s x-axis. The piece as a whole is a series of displacements: from the Spanish-language version of the Tao Te Ching that has been cut out of the book and pasted into the light, to the braille text of the millennia-old philosophical treatise that dislocates photos of life in contemporary China.
Loo and the artists have varied relationships with tusán identity. Loo was heavily involved with Lima’s Asociación Peruano China for many years and readily calls himself tusán. On the other end of the spectrum, Chung had never heard the word “tusán” until Loo put “tǔshēng” in the exhibition’s name.
Chiang, who has been exhibiting in spaces focused on the Chinese diaspora since 1999, would not call himself a “tusán artist.” His work engages with Chinese tradition not because he feels some “patriotic or ethnic fervor,” he said, but because he is interested in China’s cultural contributions.
Zorrilla hesitates to fully claim “tusán” for herself and feels little connection to the Chinese community in Lima — she doesn’t have a Chinese last name or access to the language, which she said many institutions seem to expect — but “I feel more than 25% Chinese, on the inside,” she said. During the two months she spent in Taiwan, “I expected to have intense culture shock. But no, I really didn’t, I really felt at home.” At the same time, she emphasized that hers is “a very mixed, multicultural family […] a mix of Chinese migrants to Peru and migrants from the Peruvian Andes to Lima.”
While the exhibition is rooted in the long history of migration in Peru, its vision is not merely historical. Opening the same night at MAC was another exhibition titled Crónicas migrantes, which gathers work by Peruvian and Venezuelan artists on the topic of migration. After Colombia, Peru is the country that has received the most Venezuelans during what has become one of the largest mass migrations in Latin American history. Xenophobia has risen in its wake. Recent polls show that 73% of Peruvians are opposed to Venezuelan migration into Peru.
For Loo, the parallels between reactions to the two migrations are hard to ignore. “To think that we already lived a similar process, and are having the same reaction 170 years later, on the cusp of our 200th anniversary as a republic — I think it’s very significant, and should make us think about how or how much we’ve progressed or regressed as a society,” he said. “History is unfortunately repeating itself in Peru, once again.”
土生:回乡 Tǔshēng. Retornos al país del centro continues at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Av. Almte. Miguel Grau 1511, Barranco, Peru) through October 27. The exhibition was curated by Marco Loo.