Fruits of an Imagined Geography, a collaborative project by artists Monyee Chau and Nina Vichayapai, takes strawberry and durian as points of departure for conversations about exploitative labor systems, migration and activism. Installed in the Facebook office in Bellevue’s Spring District, this mural brims with bright, felt produce alongside graphics referencing the presence of immigrants and farmers. Playful yet discerning, this work speaks to the multiplicity of personal and social histories underlying the cultural relevance and ubiquity of fruits.
Fruits of an Imagined Geography is a project commissioned by the Meta Open Arts. Formerly known as Facebook Open Arts, Meta Open Arts aims to cultivate community via creativity and offers opportunities for local emerging and mid-career artists to advance their practices. Toward the end of 2020, curators and producers Tamar Benzikry and Lele Barnett were drawn to Chau’s community engagement and invited them to create a site-specific installation. Benzikry and Barnett endorsed an artist-forward approach in providing feedback throughout the process, often encouraging artists to push the parameters of their visions. Barring safety considerations, Chau possessed artistic freedom in their proposal and, recognizing an extended opportunity for collaboration, asked Vichayapai to join. Installed between March and June 2021, this project brings together Chau and Vichayapai’s commitments to illuminating histories from marginalized perspectives.
Chau and Vichayapai met while working at the Wing Luke Museum. They immediately forged a friendship based on shared experiences. Both lived minutes away from each other in Seattle, attending the same middle and high schools before pursuing careers in art. Their immigrant families have been part of the restaurant industry, fueling Chau and Vichayapai’s overlapping engagement with foodways.
Both artists have grappled with conceptualizing their existences in between spaces. A self-described Chinese born American, Chau grew up in their family’s restaurant in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. Their formative experiences guide their investigation in the relationships people have with Chinatowns in America as well as the food they would find in these neighborhoods.
Having emigrated from Thailand to the Pacific Northwest at a young age, Vichayapai also addresses questions of belonging: “Home has always been more than one place and a very abstract concept. I’ve always had to create these loose connections between where I currently am and these places that have defined my belonging and what the idea of home is.”
Consequently, Chau and Vichayapai have gravitated towards the potential of fruits to embody a complex web of social relations and recover the stories of immigrants, farmers, and activists.
Discussions regarding various fruits indigenous to non-Western regions and popular in the Western imagination serve as seeds of inspiration for the artists. Notably, the title of their piece is informed by the Saigoneer article, “A Tale of Two Fruits: The Colonial History of Durian and Mangosteen”, by Thi Nguyen, which examines postcolonial scholar Edward Said’s concept of imagined geographies in relation to fruits indigenous to the tropical islands of Asia. Nguyen also elaborates on the colonial mentalities perpetuating the exotization of Southeast Asian fruits and thereby, people of color.
Chau and Vichayapai delve into the origins and cultivation of migrant fruits such as mangoes, bananas and pineapples. They contemplate communities and geopolitics through the lens of these colonial commodities. “We often forget that the relationship we have with food is much more complicated. [Food has] a history with where it came from the land and into our hands and how we share it with our community. It has such an interesting life,” said Chau. Their work is a study of fruits as a metaphor for and a physical manifestation of diaspora.
This collaborative piece bears out an interplay of not only Chau and Vichayapai’s breadth of research but also their artistic strengths. Both artists have been deeply invested in public art, often favoring accessible media. In response to xenophobia exacerbated throughout the pandemic, Chau designed and distributed posters with a polemic declaration: “Chinatown, Filipinotown, Japantown, Little Saigon were all built on resilience. We will survive this, too.” Likewise, Vichayapai examined the migration of people and plants through Home Here (2020), a fabric garden reiterated as a bus billboard in the Henry Art Gallery’s 2021 public art exhibition Set in Motion.
Accordingly, the creative process involved an exchange of Chau and Vichayapai’s respective expertise in illustration and soft sculpture. Chau sketched and painted the graphic designs; Vichayapai sewed and stuffed the felt produce. Spanning seven walls, the intermingling of the media lends this piece great depth. The surface appeal of the mural is apparent in its bold colors and soft material, and the irresistible senses of play, comfort and sumptuousness welcome the viewers’ attention. The felt softens even the reputedly dangerous spikes of the durian sculpture, as if we may embrace these fruits. However, this labor-intensive, monumental mural elevates the values of handcraft and cuteness, which have been dismissed in the art world as “domestic” or “feminine.” Chau and Vichayapai adeptly weave together individual and collective experiences, prompting an open-ended dialogue between people and food.
The cornucopia of imagery holds space for the nuances of bitter and sweet stories. Seeing the papaya or watermelon on the mural may make our mouths water and our hearts ache. For many families, fruit signifies comfort inflected with nostalgia. We may recall our caregivers serving us cut fruit or eating raspberries off our fingertips as childhood treats. While bonding and creating art, Vichayapai often shared dishes from her family’s Thai restaurant with Chau; the belief that food can bring people together is embedded in both this work and their shared practices. The artists celebrate these rituals of generosity with tender care, even protecting the delicate pears with mesh nets.
The presentation of produce is similar to how we would find them at our tables or in grocery stores, but contend with farming tools, blue vinyl gloves and union logos. The packaging and display of unblemished fruits in the grocery aisles conceal the harsh working conditions of the agricultural industry. Farmworkers have had to confront the impacts of climate change, the pandemic and state violence. Chau and Vichayapai call attention to the farmers’ resistance to injustices and their hands in nurturing our land and bodies. Cognizant of the globalized nature of food, the artists seek to close the gap between people and give voice to those excluded from the dominant narrative.
Albeit broad in scope, this mural holds a mirror to the legacy of Bellevue, reflecting upon the cultural and political inequities that shape it. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Rooselvelt signed Executive Order No. 9066, which forcibly removed all Japanese Americans on the West Coast from their homes and business during World War II. The mass incarceration uprooted the 60 families (300 individuals) living and farming in Bellevue.
Connecting the past and present, Chau and Vichayapai place strawberries and barbed wires on the wall by the window overlooking the remnants of farmland. Among the strawberries, a banner declaring “NEVER AGAIN IS NOW” pays homage to artist Erin Shigaki and her mural at Bellevue College commemorating the Day of Remembrance for Japanese American incarceration. In response to the defacement and censorship of Shigaki’s work in 2020 at Bellevue College, communities of color organized to defend against the removal and rewriting of history. Bellevue is now a minority-majority city known for its wealth of tech companies and shopping centers, but the artists disrupt this sanctified image by recalling histories of colonial dominance, violence, and erasure.
Chau and Vichayapai examine the ways in which fruit encapsulates entangled histories and relationships. Fruits of an Imagined Geography addresses not only on personal memories anchored in food but also on issues of settler colonialism and racialized global capitalism. This visual and intellectual feast invites you to savor the sweetness and beauty of its offerings, make space at the table, and share our stories with each other.
Fruits of an Imagined Geography (2021) is by Monyee Chau and Nina Vichayapai, with support by Jaeeun Kim. Commissioned by Meta Open Arts, this permanent installation is located at the Facebook Office (1288 123rd Ave NE, Bellevue WA 98005). A project video is available: https://www.instagram.com/p/CXyvDHnhjSH. Following current public health directives, the Facebook Office will be open to employees beginning March 28, 2022 but remain closed to the public.