Joyce Yu-Jean Lee

Curator-in-Residence Joyce Yu-Jean Lee: Creating Art from Tragedy, Adversity, and Grief

This year for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), we’re proud to present the exhibition, SOFT SOLIDARITY (SoS): UNITING TO PROTECT, HEAL, AND EMPOWER, in partnership with the Asian American Arts Alliance. This group of six identifying women artists have been brought together to celebrate feminine strength through their shared love of contemporary art and traditional craft.

The curator of the exhibition is Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, experiential artist and and Assistant Professor of Art and Digital Media at Marist College. We had the chance to speak with Joyce about what made her decide to become an artist, her thought process behind the show, and what she finds inspiring.

Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Texas, north of Dallas, in a small suburb called Richardson. It was primarily a white neighborhood. There weren't a lot of Asians at my school. My parents were very active in the Taiwanese community, and my dad was one of the local community organizers and involved with the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce. I went to Chinese school and Chinese church every Sunday. Hence, I grew up with a lot of cultural pride, which might not be common for those who grew up in primarily white communities. Of course I got made fun of at school for being different looking, yet I managed to grow up with a deep pride in my family background.

Have you always been interested in art?

My family is very artistic. My mother does Chinese painting and calligraphy and my father has a degree in philosophy from Greece and the UK. I could always draw and my siblings could too. My brother now designs airplanes for Boeing, and my sister is an architect. My mother wanted my sister and me both to become teachers. We were against it at first, but now we're surprisingly both teachers! [Laughs] I teach art and digital media to college students. 

I actually decided to become an artist after 9/11. I never thought I would become an artist although I was always interested in art. As a child, I illustrated all the covers for the school phone books and T-shirts. I was voted most likely to be an artist in high school ... But an art career was never an option I nor my parents ever considered seriously.  

In college I was divided between wanting to feed my creative side and being practical so I ended up studying communication. My junior year I did an internship in fashion in New York City. Simultaneously, I interned for a Japanese American artist named Makoto Fujimura. I became mesmerized with the New York artists' life. 

After those internships, I went into my senior year confused and thought about changing my major. I was double majoring in psychology and communications. Then 9/11 happened. I remember vividly that I was in painting class. The teacher left, then came back pale in the face and said an airplane had flown into the Pentagon. A classmate started crying because her brother worked there.

Class was dismissed and I sort of wandered around, not sure what to do. I eventually checked my email and saw that my then boyfriend, who worked in World Trade Center 7, was okay. I had a lot of friends and family who worked on Wall Street. Most of my close friends and family were safe, but my classmate's father passed away. He was roommates with my boyfriend so they went to every triage center together, looking for his father. You can see Alex Chiang’s photographs and read about his life at the 9/11 Tribute Museum Memorial.

9/11 changed everything in terms of how I wanted to spend my future. I realized that if I can disappear tomorrow with no warning, I really need to believe in what I'm doing. After 9/11, I knew I had to be an artist. I didn't know how, but I was going to become one.

What did you do after college?

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, I moved to New York. I worked in advertising and took art classes while working my full-time job. Eventually I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art for graduate school. I was in my 30s, got my MFA degree, and went on to become an artist and professor.

Can you talk a little about your FIREWALL exhibition?

In 2011, I ran an artist residency program in Shanghai, China where about a dozen north American artists would visit different gallery and museum shows every week. They were learning about contemporary art.

Our local assistant, who was 24 years old at the time and a local photographer, died of suicide. From the outside, no one would have known anything was wrong with him, so it was shocking that he took his own life. It made me wonder what the factors were that could have led to this. He was a queer artist in the closet to his family. Although China is more open-minded now to gender issues, most families are still quite traditional. He had a dream of living in America where he could be freer.

These events inspired me to think about how a country with limited freedoms can affect people's identities, so I became interested in showing what a censored internet looks like. I created an art installation called FIREWALL, to show audiences what the internet looks like in China. Dan Phiffer, an artist and hacktivist, helped me write the code. We worked with Google and other organizations to collaboratively design a dual search engine between Google and Baidu [a popular search engine in China] to compare and contrast the Internet in China with other parts of the world.

The first FIREWALL exhibition was in 2016 in Chinatown, NYC. That was a life-changing experience. I was very naive when I created this project. Various human rights workers and journalists had warned me I might get in trouble, but I didn't believe them because I was not a famous artist.

One of our public FIREWALL roundtable discussions, “Networked Feminism,” was about how feminists use the internet in China to spread social movements. One of the participants was a partner of a corporate law firm in Guangzhou who also volunteered her time as a human rights lawyer. She worked for reproductive rights in China, often representing women who had botched abortions over the single child policy. At the time, she was the only lawyer in China who had successfully legislated two cases against the government and won. (Basically she found that local officials hadn't filled out the paperwork properly and so she won on technicalities.)

This lawyer was supposed to talk on this “Networked Feminism” panel for the FIREWALL exhibition. Then she got a call from the Chinese government that she couldn't speak at the event. After that, authorities requested she to quit her fellowship at Yale and never speak in public again about her human rights work. She didn't return to China and instead got asylum in the U.S. and has remained safely in New York.

It was unfortunate that Chinese officials used my art exhibition to target such human rights activists … although the experience taught me that art has the ability to be a voice for change.

How did you come up with the concept for the Pearl River exhibition?

The curatorial process was a slow percolation. I'm childhood friends with New Yorker cartoonist, Amy Hwang [a former Pearl River artist-in-residence]. I came to her opening at the gallery and she encouraged me to consider showing artwork here too and put me in touch with you all. This was before the pandemic. Then covid hit and anti-Asian violence erupted, and everyone was caught off guard.

During the pandemic, I became more active in an artist collective group called Asianish, which celebrates culture, talks about different racial issues, identity, and the Asian diaspora. When the violence started happening during the pandemic, we started meeting online about how to support Black Lives Matter and respond to the anti-Asian violence. Right after the Atlanta shootings, I thought it would be a timely opportunity to make a show supporting Asian women at Pearl River. 

How did you come up with the name, Soft Solidarity (SoS)?

The name comes from the idea of how to solidify our community and form allies with one another. Asians in America are such a disparate group, quite fractured and broad. In my research, I came upon the idea of soft solidarity. It's an urban sociological concept written about by a scholar named Mervyn Horgan. Soft solidarity is not a concrete allegiance. It's a loose sense of unification, usually informally negotiated in situ. I also was thinking about the political notion of soft power, about being diplomatic rather than aggressively carrying a big stick to reconcile conflict and woo opponents. Moreover, all these artists' works I selected are soft ... visually and in texture. Their shapes are organic and loose. So the show is about organic, genteel yet strong Asian solidarity in a time of trial.

Can you tell me a bit about the artists who will be showing in Soft Solidarity? What are their works like?

The artist aricoco was the first artist I curated into the show because she thinks about protection from the environment. She uses the metaphor of insect colonies, specifically matriarchal and cooperative communities like ants. How do workers and other members of a society divide labor and support the matriarch, and ultimately one another? aricoco creates textile-based protective gear and costumes for the queen and worker ant or bee. Her wearable sculpture is very timely with questions about how Asian Americans might protect one another from external aggression, and how we might cooperatively care for one another in a non-hierarchical way.

Lu Zhang is a ceramicist and her works focus on various body parts, like two hands checking a pulse, which can represent members of a community checking in on one another, making sure everyone is safe and thriving. Another sculpture is of an anonymous long black braid depicted from the backside so that you can't see the face or gender of the individual. That long braid resonates with how non-Asians may stereotype or objectify Asians ... ascribing both positive and negative connotations to Asian females, and to the historic queue from Chinese male hairstyles worn during the Qing dynasty. Lu is re-inventing traditional Chinese ceramics into contemporary functional objects too, centering female narratives with these objects.

Natalia Nakazawa's work centers on tapestries and watercolors of vessels, and wrestles with historic symbols and metaphors that represent colonization of Asia. What value has the west placed on Asian cultures, commodities and civilizations? She focuses on the silhouette of the vessel as a symbol for human life, specifically the female body. Porcelain was a large global trade along the Silk Road, and clay vessels also reference the idea of human flesh being created from and returning to dust. Her tapestry was woven in memoriam of the women’s lives lost in the Atlanta spa shootings.

I will exhibit a video installation in the Soho gallery entitled What It’s Like, What It Is, made in homage to the original 1991 video piece by Adrian Piper, a famous black female performance artist and philosopher. In her artwork, a black man recites out loud derogatory slurs and racial stereotypes against black men in America. In my version, I have collected racist words and phrases spoken against members of my Asian diaspora community, but I add a new twist, inviting contributors to speak positively about their racial identity and reframe how they would like to be recognized. My work aims to empower my neighbors in our community, to reclaim Asian American identity and celebrate our differences and diversity.

In the Chelsea Market space, Sui Park will present a suspended installation in the “nook.” Her geometric sculptures are like prickly thought bubbles or wiggling ideas of change. They represent all the ideas that we're wrestling with, and the potential evolution and transition that can emerge. Her zip-tie forms are whimsical and playful, but also prickly and threatening. Cute and playful but also powerfully dangerous and hostile.

Suejin Jo will exhibit a series of oil paintings. They're colorful abstracts that represent love and longing, as well as suffering and unknowing. They parallel the complicated emotions of many people during the covid pandemic. While it was a time of much loss, the pandemic was also a time of creativity and fruitfulness for her as an artist. It is hopeful to see something new and colorful being born during such a time.

What do you do for inspiration?

Nature has been a huge inspiration for me, especially during the last two years. During the pandemic, I biked everywhere since there were no cars on the streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I loved experiencing New York in that new way and I explored new neighborhoods I have previously not known.

I also love seeing what artwork other people are making. This inspiration doesn't necessarily have to be at a gallery ... Just walking along Fifth Avenue and seeing the window displays is stimulating and gets my mind going on design and experience. That's what I love about Pearl River Mart, actually. The store is so visually stimulating, with objects imported from all over the world. I love seeing beauty and innovation, whether in a product or in art.

Is there anything you're obsessed with now?

Curating this show and thinking about women's craft has led me down a path of discovery. I'm currently obsessed with stained glass. As a video artist who works often with video projection, I am interested in light and refraction. I took a class recently at Urban Glass so I am trying to figure out ways to incorporate stained glass into my sculptures. Stained glass is a fun technical process but also has a long meaningful history to visual language and narrative. I love the potential of taking this old medieval craft and making it anew.

SOFT SOLIDARITY: UNITED TO PROTECT, HEAL, AND EMPOWER is on view in Chelsea Market from May 14 through June 6, and the Pearl River SoHo gallery from May 18 through Aug. 28.

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