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LOS ANGELES — When it comes to finding unique artist opportunities, a residency with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) might not be the first thing a visual artist imagines.
In its first-ever, year-long artist residency program, the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) wanted to invite an artist to create projects that would support the organization’s work. There was no requirement in terms of medium — the artist could create anything from a mural to special-edition prints, or help the organization design table installations for events. The SoCal-based artist would start their work in October of 2019 and receive a $15,000 honorarium for the year-long residency.
Formulating the Request for Qualifications and the structure of the program took some help. Ana Iwataki, curator and consultant on behalf of LeBasse Projects, says that the ACLU got in touch to discuss how this initiative could “create an ongoing relationship” between the artist and organization. Iwataki explained over the phone that this meant establishing flexibility on both sides: the artist would need to adapt to the organization, and the ACLU would have to introduce the artist to its teams and current issues.
In May 2020, the ACLU SoCal published a press release announcing artist and educator Audrey Chan as the first-ever artist-in-residence (the organization waited to make this announcement so they could highlight the work she’d already completed). Over the phone, Chan — who learned about the opportunity through a DM — described the residency as a chance to “be really involved in the urgent issues of this moment with a team [whose] boots are on the ground.”
As a Chinese-American person who grew up in the Midwest, Chan saw the need for representation and “became kind of obsessed” with her family’s history — particularly her father’s experiences in communist China and her grandmother’s stories. Chan started to see the intertwined nature of her own background and the civil rights movements led by other underrepresented groups; highlighting these communities plays an important role in her work.
As part of the residency, Chan completed a series of images outlining people’s rights in the face of “deceptive tactics used by federal immigration authorities.” The ICE Not Welcome campaign kicked off in April — when lockdown was already in effect — with outlined action items and printable door hangers, posters, and coloring sheets. The campaign is a part of the ACLU’s larger Know Your Rights efforts, which cover topics like disability rights and prisoners’ rights.
The ACLU of California (which includes Northern California, San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Southern California) also recently launched a series of campaigns focused on vulnerable populations affected by the virus. They call for “a moratorium to stop all transfers to immigration authorities and halt expansion of immigration detention facilities,” as well as the depopulation of jails, detention centers, prisons, and juvenile facilities.
The ACLU SoCal paired these calls for actions with a video series called “ON THE LINE: COVID Conversations,” which Chan contributed to as part of her residency. As a workaround for ACLU SoCal staff being unable to speak with people in person, Chan drew portraits to accompany pre-recorded interviews conducted by attorneys, advocates, and organizers. They spoke with people like Joyce Van Nortrick, a resident at an Orange County homeless shelter; Sofia Bahena, a newly released person, previously in a detention center; and Oscar Holguin, a person in Riverside county jail (also recently released). Based on the interviews and photographs — some provided by the interviewees, others from news coverage — Chan illustrated the interviewees, giving a face to the names and voices telling their stories.
“Especially with the portraits of people who were recently released from ICE detention, I really appreciated that the portraits that I was provided were showing them as they want to be seen,” said Chan. “Moments when they’re with their family or a selfie they took of themselves. Because when there are news stories about ICE detention, people are shown in the midst of their oppression.”
“Being able to spend time with their eye shape and making sure the curve of their mouth really shows their personality was a formal consideration but with the intent of showing this as a person in their full humanity,” said Chan.
In May, during Asian Pacific Heritage Month, Chan began a series of portraits of Asian American and Pacific Islander civil rights leaders and activists, like Yuri Kochiyama, Wong Kim Ark, and High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo — which Chan shared on her Instagram. She is also currently researching the origins of the ACLU SoCal, in advance of its centennial coming up in 2023. (It all began in 1923, when Upton Sinclair was arrested for publicly reading the First Amendment in defense of striking longshoremen in San Pedro.) As with much of her work, Chan is tracing this history to the present, reflecting on how, in 2019, José Bello was arrested after reading a poem at a public forum criticizing ICE. The ACLU filed a court petition to fight the arrest.
This project is forthcoming at the time of writing, making Chan’s residency an ever-evolving project. Iwataki says the ACLU SoCal residency was created “as a pilot project with the intention to continue.” The team will glean learnings from Chan’s time and projects. In Iwataki’s words, “this is definitely just a beginning of how art is going to be a part of the ACLU SoCal.”