My mom pees in the shower, cuts in line, and greets my friends by saying they look extra fat. My mom dropped out of college, got divorced, and has worked the same low-wage job for twenty years. My mom will have lengthy conversations about my failures—I’m not a physics major, I’m too fat or skinny, I don’t moisturize enough—with my dentist while he’s scraping plaque off of my teeth with sharp objects. My mom has sent my dad to jail on false charges. My mom has slammed the door in my face and pushed me away—pushed everybody away—over and over and over again. It’s easy to dismiss her as cruel, stupid, rude, or a bad mother. It’s easy to go through life only looking at the surface of things. It’s easy to accept the most convenient explanations: the explanations that fit tidily into one’s worldview.
My mom was three when the Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966. Her mother and father were sent to separate labor camps, where they would perform demeaning physical labor in brutal conditions. There was widespread famine, and more than twenty million Chinese died of starvation. My mom recalls sneaking out of her commune in the middle of the night to dig up raw potatoes. She recalls children being trampled to death in a narrow staircase on the way to bed. Hers is a world where terrible events can enter one’s life at any instant. Hers is a world where being a girl means preparing for the likelihood of starvation, betrayal, and rape. She tells me that every single person in my life has the capacity to turn against me.
Looking at Chinese propaganda posters, it would seem that communist China was a paradise. Women smile serenely as they perform hard labor under a rainbow. Little girls with bows in their hair fill canteens while butterflies flutter around them. A happy, chubby boy holds his rifle while getting a haircut from a PLA soldier.
It’s difficult to reconcile the broad, positive narrative of these posters with the painful histories of the Cultural Revolution. By inserting my own black-and-white image into these bright scenes, I aim to integrate the specific, personal experiences of my family into this generic lexicon, and capture it in a singular canvas, so unlike a mass-produced poster. I draw on the posters’ iconography of agricultural bounty and Maoist utopia—the bright, false propaganda of an oppressive regime. I recreate this visual language in my paintings, accentuating their surrealism to question their effect. Propaganda is effective because people don’t look closely enough. Through strange juxtapositions and manipulations of scale, I want to invite active viewing. Whereas the posters told people what to see, I want to change the way they look. Even when I explicitly subvert the posters’ optimism, I don’t articulate a clear message. In my self-portrait with a rooster, one of my hands is missing, in reference to the many people who cut off their own limbs to escape excruciating agricultural labor. But you don’t need this historical context for this image make you feel uneasy. Instead of an answer, the empty sleeve is a question mark.
Like propaganda posters, there’s nothing subtle about my paintings—nor should there be.
At first glance, they seem absurd. In western culture, Mao has assumed kitsch status, and the atrocities of 20th-century Chinese history can seem like gaudy farce. My paintings invert this trend, rendering surreal details and gag jokes on a grand scale, in authoritative oils. But irony is never my end goal. Chinese visual culture is hilarious, just like my mom is actually funny. Humor allows me to grab your attention, to make you feel something, to relate. In my paintings, laughter is a coping mechanism.
Propaganda posters dictate the way people should behave and what they should value. They hold immense power in shaping collective thinking, whether good or bad. Art holds this power as well. I believe in art with a sense of morality. I believe that art can save lives. Art gives meaning to experience. It provides a reason for darkness: a breakthrough is waiting on the other side of a breakdown. Making art is learning to fall laterally; it offers solutions, connectivity, and a place for what might otherwise tear us apart.