On November 17, over 100 people were milling through the recently opened Spaceworks Gallery in downtown Tacoma. Considering Tacoma’s vibrant arts scene, this might not be an especially surprising sight.
But this event felt special. Many of the artists and viewers were young people of color—all there to support High Blood, the exhibit which runs through December 15, 2016. High Blood features (and is curated by) Seattle and Tacoma artists of color. It focuses on both the frustration and the knowledge that stem from experiences with the politics of race, gender, culture, and sexuality.
A standout feature of the exhibit is “The Red Chador: Threshold,” a video and mural installation by Tacoma’s Studio Revolt (Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano). Ali is a performance artist and writer, and Sugano is a filmmaker. Ali, a first-generation Muslim Khmer woman, wears a red chador (body-concealing garment), surrounded by American flags; Sugano and crew document reactions from passersby and audience. A still from a performance at the Smithsonian, “Threshold,” from a performance at the Smithsonian, is featured as a large window mural outside the gallery. It’s an arresting, provocative challenge to Islamophobia that’s sorely needed in our political climate.
Similarly, Alex Schelhammer’s sculpture, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” speaks forcefully to (and with) movements like Black Lives Matter. It features a mannequin torso with a hoodie, hands up, voting ballot in its pocket.
While viewers may (and should) feel challenged by parts of the exhibit, High Blood also encourages a range of emotions. Monica Mendoza-Castrejon’s painted explorations of identity, heritage, and culture welcome the viewer to the exhibit with radiant colors. Other highlights include Lauren Iida’s vibrant papercutaways with watercolor; Yoona Lee’s sparsely elegant “Self Portrait” “Survival Rate,” and “Elegy,” Satpreet Kahlon’s sculpture made with rice noodles and fishing line. Kenji Stoll and Saiyare Refaei’s spray painted mural, “Chow ‘Fun’” nudges the viewer to consider their place in cultural appropriation. Although written work (including poems by Tacoma poet laureate Cathy Nguyen) are also featured in the show, these are somewhat lost in the space.
I spoke with Clarissa Gines, co-curator of the show and co-founder of The CultureShock Collective with Rose Mathison. The CultureShock Collective is an exciting new venture meant to create exploration, collaboration, and community among artists of color in Tacoma’s arts community. Both Gines and Mathison are of Filipina descent, and bring their expertise from other art institutions (Gines is exhibit manager at Seattle’s ArtXchange Gallery, Mathison is visitor services lead at Tacoma Art Museum).
International Examiner (IE): When and how did the CultureShock collective start?
Clarissa Gines (CG): The CultureShock Collective (CSG) started in September 2015, and arose from conversations Rose and I had (and still have) about the lack of art exhibitions and events that featured artists of color. There is an obvious absence of diverse exhibitions that feature POC [people of color] and their various viewpoints and experiences. We noticed that there are a handful of amazing artists making fantastic work, but they don’t necessarily have the platform or resources to showcase their work. Our goal is to create that platform for artists to share their work with the community, and to build a bridge between 1) the artists and the community at-large, and 2) the different artists within Tacoma and Seattle. The CSC aims to create continuous visibility for these disenfranchised artists, to cultivate support and outreach for them within the arts community, and to use arts to spark engaging dialogue.
IE: Same question for the show High Blood—what was the starting point, what was your rationale in selecting artists/pieces?
CG: When we formed The CSC, we knew that we wanted to curate an exhibition that was a culmination of all the frustrations we face as two women of color. This exhibition is a reflection of our identities and our experiences, and ones that we’ve heard through various friends and people from the community—and a show that we hope would resonate with others and spark conversation.
Funny enough, the title came about during a conversation I had with my mother—we were chatting about something and she had said the phrase “high blood,” and it instantly clicked. The phrase, which is a Filipino slang term meaning “frustrated, stressed, angry,” was the perfect title for this show because it really encapsulates how we feel in this current socio-political climate.
We knew that this show was going to be curated by POC, have works by POC, and meant for the POC community. In selecting artists, we knew immediately that all the artists in the show had to come from a marginalized community (like ourselves). I’ve been following a few of the artists for some time (like Satpreet Kahlon, Yoona Lee, and Asia Tail), and wanted to find a way to work with them, so this show was a great opportunity to reach out. Initially, we only contacted 5-6 artists, but as word spread about the show, artists started reaching out to us asking to participate (which was amazing). It really proved to us that this exhibition is one that the community needed. We wanted strong works that made a statement, and resonated with us. The works in the show explore issues of intersectional identity and socio-political topics from the lens of a person of color. We hope that the inclusivity that we tried to achieve with this show is apparent!
IE: What is the most important thing (or things) that you have learned along the way?
CG: One interesting thing I’ve learned is that it’s really hard to find artists of color in Tacoma (and Seattle). There was a lot of searching online and asking various individuals in the community. There seems to be a disconnect between artists and art administrators/curators in Tacoma, and I’d like to see more of a relationship being built between the two.
Community is everything—having conversations with one another is so important. We learn how to tolerate and understand our unique experiences through dialogue. Without that interaction with diverse communities, we can’t progress and grow both as individuals and as a society.
IE: How does this show feel now in light of recent events?
CG: We knew this show was an important one to curate, and one that needed to be done. Now, post-election, the show couldn’t have been more timely—we couldn’t have planned it any better. I think it really drives the message home to a lot of folks that disenfranchised communities need to come together in solidarity even more so now, and that we can’t allow our petty differences to rip our communities apart. The show feels like an incubator for persistence, resilience and strength. Curating HIGH BLOOD was a huge step in creating visibility for these voices to be heard and their works to be seen, but the real work needs to continue even after the show ends in December. Now isn’t the time to be complacent, we need to continue to defend, organize, and mobilize our communities.
‘High Blood’ is located in Tacoma’s Spaceworks Gallery, 950 Pacific Avenue (entrance on 11th Street). Gallery hours are limited (Monday to Friday from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.). The exhibit runs through December 15, 2016.