Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and its latest show is in line with the goal of not only showcasing impeccably executed art but also serving as a conduit for enlightenment. “Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads” is the culmination of a decade of research by Lin. He spent countless hours going through archives and uncovering information concerning the contribution of Chinese migrants to the railroad infrastructure still in place today, as well as their expulsion from Tacoma in November 1885. The exhibition includes drawings, a 34-foot scroll, video and mixed-media paintings.
“I want people to think and look at the world differently, from an alternative point of view,” Lin said. “I want to change people’s minds one at a time. That’s the goal of my work.”
Visitors are first introduced to a series of drawings that highlight instances of violence against Chinese workers in the American West. The modern day site of the Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming in 1885 is among the incidents depicted. In September 1885 long-simmering tensions between White coal miners and Chinese migrants culminated into a savage attack. In Lin’s caption he notes “four mutilated Chinese bodies, 24 mutilated Chinese bodies, partial bodies, and many more bone fragments” are buried in an area that is now a baseball field for the Rock Springs School District.
The Alpha Opera House on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma is also highlighted. It was a gathering place for refined entertainment, but in 1885 the viewpoints espoused there were openly racist.
“The city, the mayor and vigilantes and other dignitaries incited anti-Chinese sentiment and executed ethnic cleansing,” said TAM Chief Curator Rock Huschka. “There’s just no other word for what they did. They forced all of the Chinese people out of the city and we’ve been grappling with that legacy ever since.”
About 200 people left town for Lakewood, Portland or San Francisco. Huschka said their property was confiscated and their houses were burned. In the show, Lin uses a map to mark all of the Chinese businesses except for doctor offices. The map also shows the route they followed out of Tacoma. The scroll is the artistic interpretation of the forced procession out of town. Lin compares the attitudes toward migrant workers back then to rhetoric being expressed today concerning our southern neighbors, DACA recipients and other immigrants.
“The travel ban actually was based on the Chinese Exclusion Act because that law was never declared unconstitutional,” Lin said. “We’re just the one step away to repeat our past.”
Highlighting history so that we can learn from it is personal for Lin. He was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China. He witnessed the effects of the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 and Tiananmen Square. He understands how a critical point of view can have deadly consequences.
“Culture will be destroyed and then people will be tortured and then property will be damaged then the society turned upside down,” said Lin. “That’s why I’m talking about it in my artwork. Be part of the conversation in making society better, open and inclusive.”
In “Chinaman’s Chance on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration,” Lin takes the audience to the historical moment in May 1869 when the eastbound tracks met with the westbound tracks in Utah. The moment is recreated every year and he was allowed to photograph it in 2015. Rather than focus on the people posing proudly in front of the train, Lin gives visitors the rear view; further reinforcing the workers who were not allowed to join the revelry despite their hard work.
A video of this re-enactment is projected against a wall and a ballast is in front of it. On the top layer of rocks the names of workers associated with the project are written on them.
“This name is one person who probably represented a team of about 30 so he was probably the foreman. The records are horribly incomplete,” said Huschka. “We don’t know who actually built the railroad. These 300 or so names are all that we have.”
Lin holds several art degrees and is currently a painting and drawing professor at the University of Washington. Prior to moving to Seattle in 2001 he lived in the Midwest. His work has appeared in museums across the United States, the United Kingdom and China. His work is critically acclaimed and internationally recognized.
A continuation of his narrative about Chinese migrants continues at Pioneer Square’s Prographica/KDR gallery. Lin produced several new works for the show “Zhi Lin: Confronting History | Retrieving Memory.” Gallery Codirector Eleana Del Rio says this body of work is a bit more subtle compared with those Lin has done in the past. As people view his drawings and video they stop and take time to observe what’s happening.
“He’s always been one to try and be as interactive with his work and engaging as possible,” del Rio said. “I think there’s something about Zhi’s work whether it’s the presentation, the subtlety, the softness, the tactileness of it, there’s something that really engages you and you can understand where he’s coming from no matter what your background is and I think that’s important.”
She considers his work to be a visual artifact that represents how he’s responding to the current political climate.
Both exhibitions center recognizing ignored events and his work is also a powerful reminder of the cyclical nature of oppression.
“As an educator I want to make my students aware, be critical,” Lin said. “We cannot take anything for granted. If we don’t pay attention to history we’re bound to repeat it.”
WHAT: “Zhi LIN: In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads”
WHEN: Runs until Feb. 18
WHERE: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave.
WHAT: “Zhi Lin: Confronting History | Retrieving Memory”
WHEN: Runs until Jan. 27
WHERE: Prographica/KDR, 313 Occidental Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge Facebook
Ebony Exposure: Al Smith’s documentary photography of Black life in Seattle on display at MOHAI
Breaking Boundaries: The many faces of artist Barry Johnson
Bellevue Arts Museum celebrates Pratt Fine Arts Center instructors
Wait, there's more. Check out the full January 17th issue.