SAN FRANCISCO — Artist Christy Chan started her project Dear America after a 21-year-old white man went to three massage parlors in Georgia in March and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Chan wanted to respond quickly, not doing the usual fundraising and grant writing she does for a project.
“The way I think of it is that white supremacy doesn’t operate on a grants cycle,” she said. “And sometimes neither can I.”
Chan worked with other Asian American artists to project large-scale images of their work on buildings around the Bay Area — some without permission.
A filmmaker and video artist, Chan says she likes to tell stories cinematically, and she finds it symbolic to project light into the darkness.
But there’s another reason she wants to have the images — which have text in English as well as in eight Asian languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Thai — on high-rise buildings. Being unafraid to claim room is important, especially now, and she wants the messages, which include “Dear America, Fix Your Racism,” “Stand with Filipino Americans,” and “Asian America is America,” as big as possible.
“There’s a false narrative that we need some kind of special permission granted by non-Asians,” she said. “This project is unapologetically taking up a lot of space and doing it in a way that’s raw and unfiltered.”
San Francisco artist Jenifer K. Wofford’s drawings of Filipina nurses and of the women enslaved and raped by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II are some of the images being projected onto buildings around the San Francisco Bay Area. Wofford said as soon as Chan asked her to be involved, she agreed.
“At first I just knew it was about Asian American visibility,” she said. “I thought, ‘Whatever this is, it’s Christy Chan and I’m in.’”
Like Chan, Wofford likes the idea of projecting huge images at night. “I think there’s just something about seeing something so large and aglow,” she said. “The light transforms how we receive images that are naturally framed by darkness, and they’re not competing with noises of the day. It’s like a bat signal. It’s why I go to the cinema instead of watching things at home.”
Many of the images have been thrown up on the walls without permission, including Cathy Lu’s “We Are One Family,” in Chinese, with three raised hands with long, red nails, and Chan’s “White Supremacy is the Original Cancel Culture,” in white block letters. But for the final event, on August 12, at the Montalvo Arts Center south of San Francisco, Chan worked with the leadership there to organize the event, which they see as a corrective to their history.
The center was the villa of James Duval Phelan, a San Francisco mayor and US Senator. Along with supporting the arts, Phelan supported anti-immigrant policies, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and he authored the essay “The Japanese Evil in California.”
Chan, who was previously an artist-in-residence at Montalvo, said the center wants to acknowledge that past. Having Asian languages projected on Phelan’s former home sends a powerful message, Chan thinks.
“The act speaks for itself about claiming space,” she said. “His time is up, and the people who are here now get to shift the narrative.”
Dear America will be at the Montalvo Arts Center (15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga, Calif.) on Thursday, August 12, 7:30–9:30pm.