Artists riff on immigration themes with blend of history, humanity

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China Mary, Wyoming 2 by Hung Liu (courtesy the artist and Walter Maciel Gallery)

China Mary, Wyoming 2 by Hung Liu (courtesy the artist and Walter Maciel Gallery)

Meet “China Mary.” That wasn’t her real name, of course.

Like other Chinese women sold by their families to work as slaves or prostitutes in the United States back in the 19th century, she was renamed for the convenience of the Americans who employed them. This portrait is by the artist Hung Liu, who immigrated to California in the 80s.

View the complex issues of immigration through the artistic lens at an exhibition in its final days at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America, a gem of a cultural institution, housed in a former private mansion.

Rather than being political and ideological, “these artists actually bring the voices from personal memories,” said Yeonsoo Chee, assistant curator of the Museum.

The first gallery acknowledges the Chinese immigrants who streamed into the U.S. 150 years ago to help build the transcontinental railroad –only to be banned when the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882.

Alongside her stunning portraits, Liu’s installation of a mound of fortune cookies covering train tracks ironically riffs on the quest that brought hopeful workers in search of gold.

Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) by Hung Liu
Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) by Hung Liu

In an adjacent gallery, artist Tony de los Reyes’ vibrant “Border Theory” pieces inventively take a Google map and erase everything except the border, which is constructed with a metal wire. Vibrant colors emerge around this line of demarcation. For him, Chee says, border issues are “like a magnet–when the two sides have a common interest, they pull together. When they don’t, they repel.”

Border Theory (second compression/spectral flares) by Tony de los Reyes
Border Theory (second compression/spectral flares) by Tony de los Reyes

A fourth artist in the show, Margarita Cabrera of El Paso, creates soft sculptures of cactus made from border patrol uniforms. They’re sewn by immigrant workers now unemployed because of the US practice of outsourcing stitching work to other countries where labor is more cheaply available. These pieces, Chee says, underscore the complexity of labor dynamics.

cactus
Barrel Cactus #3 by Margarita Cabrero. Courtesy the West Collection

The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. 46 N. Los Robles Avenue.  On display through Sunday.