How did you come to the conceptualization of this exhibition?
›Más Allá, el Mar Canta‹ represents a novel exploration within my practice, one rooted in a longstanding motif. A primary concern of my work is to question the impact coloniality has had on the molecular dimension of our bodies and the fabric of language. However, we know we cannot limit ourselves to a plain critique of coloniality. We ought to imagine the potentialities inscribed in the ruins of colonial history by asking what emerges from those ruins? Indigenous artistic practice has taught us that subjectivity at the juncture of ancestrality and our contemporary condition is both possible and necessary.
This exhibition raises these concerns by examining the Chinese diaspora in Central America and the Caribbean. The colonial configurations in the region are complex and with very diverse processes of racialization. Central America and the Caribbean are at the crossroads of the longstanding resistance of Indigenous people, diasporic cultures, slavery, non-colonial encounters and the atrocities of British, Spanish and French colonialism. ›Más Allá, el Mar Canta‹ traces the ›minor‹ stories of a major history. This is an exhibition about kinship, migration, and resilience.
»›Más Allá, el Mar Canta‹ traces the ›minor‹ stories of a major history. It is an exhibition about kinship, migration, and resilience.«
Could you tell me more about the selections of artists?
There are two methodological and conceptual axes contained: Diasporic cultures and labour. While the anchoring point remains the Chinese diaspora, the artists’ responses range from the autobiographical to the referential and from research-based practices to much more intuitive processes. When considering this project, I wanted to avoid a purely referential historical work, that is to say, history as archaeology, favoring a more intuitive and sensorial exhibition experience. For instance, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa is working on a commission that explores the history of Chinese tea in Guatemala through 18th-century German settlers. Andrea Chung presents us with an immersive installation of cyanotypes that utilize the lionfish as a metaphor to refer to histories of settler colonialism and invasive species in the Caribbean Sea. As for mediums, there are sonic installations and moving image, as with David Zink Yi, as well as the auto-ethnographic archival explorations of Colectivo Hapa and the iconic modernist paintings of Sybil Atteck, which I am particularly thrilled to include.
»I am less interested in particularities than in how specificities provide us with a window to sense the world.«
What is so particular about this history of Chinese immigration?
I am less interested in particularities than in how specificities provide us with a window to sense the world. To speak about that from within our Brown and Black bodies is of utter importance for our collective healing and for the reconstitution of a social fabric not endemic to colonial violence. When thinking about the relationship between specificity and the world, the Zapatistas beautifully say »por un mundo en donde quepan todos los mundos« (for a world where all worlds fit).
The Chinese diaspora in the region has had multiple trajectories. By the late 19th-century, thousands of Chinese workers had immigrated to the recently discovered gold mines in California. From there, many moved to Mexico and, at the turn of the 20th century, facing extreme exploitation, discrimination, poverty and the Mexican Revolution’s establishment of new migratory policies, Chinese workers continued south to Central America and the Caribbean where they met other independent workers. Chinese labor was instrumental in constructing the Panama Canal. Chinese workers also helped develop the logging industry in Belize and worked alongside African and Indigenous workers on CIA interventionist company UFCO’s (United Fruit Company) banana plantations in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
The project of modernity in the 20th century was only possible through colonial exploitation and cross-oceanic South-South diasporas. The Chinese diaspora had a profound impact on the cultural production of the 20th century in the region, with key figures such as the Afro-Chinese Cuban Wifredo Lam or the aforementioned Sybil Atteck, an Trinidadian of Chinese descent.
»Thinking through binaries obliterates the vibrant history of resistance and cross-cultural pollination that has existed for centuries in occupied ancestral territories.«
Could you point at some of the interracial encounters that worked as systems of resistance and forces of cross-cultural creation?
Tangential, beneath and above the violent colonial imposition of one universal system of knowledge, other forces have been acting, resisting, and creating. Thinking through binaries obliterates the vibrant history of resistance and cross-cultural pollination that has existed for centuries in occupied ancestral territories. The flip side of coloniality has been a rich encounter of non-Western cultures that not just survived but re-imagined the collective self under new circumstances. Resilience and imagination are the keystones of diasporic histories. Think, for example, of the Garifuna culture in Central America and the Caribbean, the Latinx in the US or of the Chinese diaspora. This is how we live and how we survive. This is how we become kin to one another.
Which artists in the exhibition explore how this specific migration has produced systems of kinship and ontologies of interracial intimacies?
I think we need to be careful about how we use concepts, and how those concepts inform an exhibition project. When I think of kinship and ontology I am proposing more than axiomatic ideas, places of contingency. I don’t think art illustrates concepts. In this case, I hope that the constellation of works in the exhibition call for a different approach to colonial history. There is a tendency to read those histories through hard-politics that move toward the obliteration of the intimate, the personal and the passionate, ignoring the systems of kinship and communality that made life possible in the first place. That is what I am trying to reflect on through this exhibition.
* With thanks to Sam Simon, the team of Times Art Center Berlin and especially to all artists participating in ›Más Allá, el Mar Canta‹ for their trust.
Will Fredo Furtado is an artist, writer and the deputy editor of ›Contemporary And‹.