For much of his life, Larry Li knew about the significance of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, but he didn’t realize how much it personally affected his family until recently.
The Chinese American artist spoke with an old family friend earlier this year, who told Li to “ask your ma about 1989.” He learned that the family friend, aptly named Mr. Ma, rescued Li’s uncle during the protests, at a time when his mother was unsure of his whereabouts.
This revelation inspired Li to create the art on display at an exhibition he titled Ask Your Ma About ‘89, currently at the Residency Art Gallery in Inglewood through January 20, 2024. It features 13 of his works, and it explores how generational trauma affects Chinese American families through the lens of the Tiananmen Square protests.
“There’s a sense of cultural amnesia when it comes to my cultural heritage, and I think that’s the thing with the immigrant experience. It’s a lifelong endeavor to unravel that amnesia,” Li says.
While Li was born in America nine years after the Tiananmen Square protests, his works often reference that event. He sees parallels between the tumultuous time for Chinese students in 1989 and the mass protests in America in 2020.
“ really triggered me to look back at my parents’ generation, at a time when they were close to my age, and how similar events affected them,” Li says.
But the political nature of his art elicits complicated reactions, even from Li’s own family. He describes their reaction to the exhibit as “awkward,” even though his works were directly inspired by their lived experiences.
For Li, this awkwardness sits at the core of his artistry. Ask Your Ma About ‘89 expresses an open mindset that Li now invites, “embracing the messiness that comes with the yearning desire to understand one’s inherited histories.”