As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of our lives over a year ago, the sudden upheaval and economic fissures left many individuals without employment, fearful, and struggling to make light of this new reality. Lockdown and mandated quarantine forced communities to look inward and into new methods of coming together and providing support.
Capturing the Moment – Stories from a Pandemic is the recent initiative by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to support artists in the Portland Metro area during this unprecedented time. The initiative’s open call invited artists of color to submit emerging work in all mediums that reflected their response to the crises unraveling and deepening in their communities. Eligible work needed to be created in the present moment and capture a creative response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The program was made possible by funding from the federal CARES (Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act.
RACC’s Public Art Team invited four Black community curators who represented a range of experience, and who identified as Black, Indigenous or artists of color to review submissions. The curators chosen were Christine Miller, Bobby Fouther, Ambush, and Stacey Drake Edwards. As artists themselves working and surviving during the pandemic they approached their curatorial process with a consideration of RACC’s guidelines as well as with an intimate understanding of the truths felt by the artists submitting. The work from the final artists chosen for this initiative also encapsulated the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial justice, and the urgent socio-political environment; limiting the artists to addressing only the state of emergency brought on by the virus would have only perpetuated a historic dismissal of otherness.
The curatorial team had short of one month to review the flood of 80+ submissions. Announced in October of 2020, the curators met in the month of November, and announced the 34 artists selected for this exhibition on December 7, 2020. This first installment of seven projects debuted in April of 2021 and specifically centers the voices of seven Asian American artists in Portland. This article will introduce some of these selections. The artists all reimagine traditional narratives while deemphasizing identity trauma that might typically accompany such deep storytelling. A commonality amongst the works presented is the choice to document this time of uncertainty and change through video.
Fourth generation Japanese-American artist Michelle Fujii memorializes this moment of loss and hope with her video performance Sayonara Mata Ashita. The piece is communal and evocative, melding the voices and experiences of fifty two individual performers to present a powerful, unified song. The title of the piece translates to “Goodbye, Until Tomorrow;” the performance takes on a hopeful tone. Fujii centers her work on the traditional Japanese art forms of taiko, meaning drums, and folk dance, and this particular adaptation evokes a tenderness that feels exclusive and resonant for such a tight-knit community.
Fujii’s video features Unit Souzou, the artist’s chosen taiko-family community. The word “souzo” has no direct translation in English but the term refers to creation and a spirit of imagination, the force by which new ideas are born into the world. In composing this piece of music Fujii demonstrates an insistence in creating and claiming her own identity story, as well as molding a moment of overwhelming communion. She writes of the experience in seeing this project come to life, “…this song was written with the hope that the narrative of this time is not of more othering, but of more togetherness.” The song is a movement towards uplifting joy. As the lyrics in the fourth verse read, “You are not alone / Everyone is here / Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and many days after.”
Orient Oregon‘ is the 37-minute film by artist Julian Saporiti and No-No Boy Project in collaboration with community group Portland Taiko. The film presents to viewers an almost ethereal rendering of the often invisible story of early Japanese American immigrants, composed against the backdrop of last year’s most grueling scenes. High-resolution clips of a growing garden morph into early black and white Japanese-American home movies into downtown Portland engulfed in tear gas. Saporiti does not shy from confronting the racist history of Oregon and the roots that still influence today’s historical events. Very adeptly, this positioning also gleans a sobering glimpse into a community that has provided a backbone for our state’s development. For example, an image of straight-faced Native children in Forest Grove in 1882, the so-dubbed Indian Training (read a: Western Assimilation) School, is paralleled with Portland in 2020, where the camera follows a group of White supremacists marching across the Hawthorne Bridge. Both scenes, in strikingly different manners, seem to highlight a fervor to stamp out difference and diversity with unbridled and often hateful zeal. The original songs that loop in the video are sweetly serene and haunting, they set a tone for both the rare historical footage and the contemporary recordings that command our full attention.
Two other artists using film narrative and original sound to reveal a deeper significance are Ashley Mellinger and May Maylisa Cat. Mellinger’s short, Vent, portrays a fast-paced narrative on the theme of “Going Viral.” A cheeky play on words, the work was filmed to capture the chilling effects of isolation and viral misinformation. Farang Kee-Nok (Bird Sh!t Foreigner) by multimedia artist Cat is meant to “touch on the hypocrisy of expats who fetishize the cultures of the countries they move to.” Based on actual comments left by an expat on an online article about anti-blackness in Thailand, the artist uses exaggerated humor to drive the narrative in place. With a tool called Automated Dialog Replacement, Cat renders the sound of the couple talking over dinner dissonant and monotonous. With this oversimplified and “absurdist” lens, where both characters are played by a heavily caricatured Cat, the artist further stokes the inflated parody.
Other projects selected for this round included a series of paintings by Valerie Yeo, janessa bautista’s two-dimensional works, and “memoir comics” by Somya Singh. Yeo channels the ardent power of water as an agent of change in “Waves”, the crest of a wave containing both the power to heal and destroy. In Tea Ceremony, bautista imbues mundane objects with weighted and healing vibration that honor her Filipina ancestry. Singh’s almost confessional comics promote healing, simulating challenging situations in an attempt to reconcile internal duress.
The frustrating reality of the pandemic is that certain difficult moments – isolation, loss, political dissonance – are felt by all and a shared sorrow becomes an unlikely bonding force. This context becomes one manner of beginning to reconcile the unprecedented and powerful circumstances of the last year and a half.
The CARES Act, which aimed to alleviate economic burdens brought about by the virus, extended the City of Portland’s 2020 schedule for stipend distribution. The decision to announce the selected artists in December of 2020 was a further calculated measure, ensuring that funds would be accessible and funneled directly towards the artists and their creative output. In a fortuitous timing confluence, the urgency to fulfill the fund disbursement deadline met an urgent desire to highlight artists in the Portland metro area who were part of the larger reckoning on what it meant to be living, working, and existing during a pandemic and a cultural revolution.
Christine Miller, one of the four curators, tells me that what made most, if not all, of the submissions stand out is that the entries felt as if they were made from the heart; they placed an emotional emphasis on relating with the work (in terms of racial justice, mental health, community) instead of producing work for profit. Miller recounts, “I thought it was incredible to see how people dug into themselves and their experiences and used this [submission] as an outlet or homage.”
It was unequivocally feared that the financial burden from the ever-worsening pandemic might prove insurmountable for Portlander artists and creatives alike as more workplaces shuttered, some never to open again. The bridge between artistic output and economic stability is not at all times wholly dependable, and the pandemic threatened to unsettle that precarious balance even further. While this funding initiative did not resolve the deeply rooted disparity felt by artists of color in the community, it can be considered a step towards reparation.
In thinking long-term, Communications Manager Heather Kent at RACC tells me they are hoping to produce some events related to this collection and in partnership with the curators. In its title as a new public art collection, many of the 2-D and a few 3-D artworks from Capturing the Moment are being accepted into the RACC collection and will become part of its permanent portable collection.
For the time being, the project lives in its entirety in digital format on the RACC website, their social media platforms and on the City of Portland communication channels. Stories will be pulsed out periodically through RACC’s monthly newsletter, highlighting at times a single artist or another grouping of artists. The rollout for the remaining 27artists has a flexible trajectory and no set calendar. As for a time wherein we have come out on the other side of this health crisis, the Regional Arts and Culture Council intends to come together and put on a live exhibition with the artists from this project. We look forward to seeing that come to fruition.
On May 3rd, RACC announced the eighth artist to have been chosen for Capturing the Moment. Terrance Burton is writer, poet, multimedia artist and educator whose work seeks to uplift his voice and inspire others to use their voices as vehicles for expression.