On Sunday, October 15, dozens of protesters from the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and other local art and anti-gentrification activist groups converged on James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location to object to what they are calling “racist art.” The allegation comes after Omer Fast’s new exhibition, August, constructed a caricature of a derelict Chinatown business that visitors walk through to see the artist’s video work in the backroom. In a letter they sent to the gallery roughly a week ago, CAB called the exhibition a “racist aggression towards the community of Chinatown,” and added “this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.” CAB is a cultural collective that “recognizes the power of art to advance social justice.”
Protesters started their action at roughly 3pm EST in the gallery’s front room that included a broken air conditioner, folding chairs, a half-filled soda refrigerator, Chinese paper lanterns, vinyl tiles, a glass display case with cheap phone cases, two dirty-looking AtMs, cardboard boxes, and other objects that convey a sense of the space being a run-down Chinese-owned business.
Betty Yu, one of the co-founders of CAB, started the protest in the gallery first speaking in Cantonese to her fellow protesters, she then switching to English to address the larger crowd. “We are here today to call out the James Cohan Gallery and its racist show and treating Chinatown like poverty porn, and we are not … Omer Fast is not, doesn’t live here, doesn’t live in New York, and he comes in here and calls it a gesture to our community … this fake fabrication, spends tens of thousands of dollars to make this fake fabrication, it is usually a white box and this is how you treat us?” Yu continued as the audience recorded her words with cameras and smartphones. “This is how you depict Chinatown garbage? Linoleum floors all taped up with duct tape? Selling cell phones? Fan that is broken, chairs that are broken? Plastic bags that are attached to the door? … This is what you think of us?”
Another protester mentioned how the shop was formerly a small food market that served the local community and is now an art gallery that serves a global elite disconnected from most of the inhabitants. The group read CAB’s complete statement, which was on display as a protest placard.
Protesters outside held a larger yellow banner that said “Racism Disguised as Art” in three languages (English, Mandarin, and Spanish) and other signs, including “Chinatown Lives Are Not Poverty Porn” and “Displace Racist Art! Not Chinatown Tenants!” One of the most popular slogans being chanted by protesters was, “Omer Fast, Your Art Is Trash!” riffing off what protesters see as the artist’s own attitude towards Chinatown residents.
All the protesters then moved to the sidewalk in front of the gallery; four speakers from various organizations — CAAV (a Chinatown tenants’ group), Decolonize This Place, Art Against Displacement (AAD), and Mothers on the Move (MOM) — spoke with the aid of Chinese-English translators to ensure neighborhood residents would understand what was going on.
Hyperallergic asked various Chinese speakers at the protest to decipher the fake awning and many said the language was mangled but appeared to say “Fashion Art Center,” and that some local Chinese residents had been confused by the sign. “It’s like really fucked up broken Chinese. Clearly someone who is not fluent in Chinese wrote that,” Yu explained when Hyperallergic asked her about the sign.
Speaking in Chinese at the protest, the CAAV representative, who identified herself as Mrs. Chen, said, “This is racist and we must resist,” to the applause of those on the street. Alicia Grullón of MOM made the most impassioned speech as she held up her copy of Edward Said’s well-known post-colonial theoretical text, Orientalism, and said, “I brought this because it appears that the [James] Cohan Gallery and Omer Fast missed that class.”
She continued, speaking in a manner that sounded like the declaration of a manifesto:
You will not use art to erase us. You will not use art to displace us. You will not use art to profit off our backs. You will not use art to shape us in what you want us to appear. Find another connection to the rest of the world. Find something else to make you legitimate. Find another way to be political and hip. We will not be the bridge to your riches and success. We will not be the bridge to your humanness. Forget it. Stretch or drown, evolve or go extinct.
One bystander who stopped to watch the protest with his girlfriend was artist Fulathela. After the protest ended, I asked him for his impression of the event. “The action was beautiful and people were rebelling back against racism,” he told Hyperallergic. “As you can see, it’s not one race but as you can see it was beautiful to see people getting together as humans, not as one thing but it’s about people being people for what is right and what’s wrong.” He said he didn’t know about the issue before and was in the neighborhood to see another gallery show. “I definitely will not be setting foot in there, because I can’t support that, I will not feed the beast, so no way,” he added.
Margaret Lee, who is a co-founder of the 47 Canal gallery, which is located directly above the James Cohan Gallery, was one of the speakers at the rally. Lee identified herself as a member of AAD, which started, according to her explanation, after CAB held her and her gallery accountable for their role in Chinatown. She said she was educated about the protests during the “Chinatown Is Not for Sale” panel at Artists Space last year and now fully supports the efforts to fight gentrification.
“This panel was last year and it was the first time it really hit me that I was unaware of the situation in Chinatown even though I had a business in Chinatown for years, and that my neighbors were suffering. All I could do was apologize and promise that I would become more active in this community and try to become a positive force,” she said. Rallying her fellow artists and art business owners, Lee formed AAD to help educate people in the art world about issues of gentrification.
“Being held accountable by the Chinatown Art Brigade gave me the opportunity to give back and I’ve never been happier. I want everyone to know, that when you’re held accountable you should say ‘thank you.’ It’s a gift to be held accountable as it will help you connect to your neighbors and become a solid human being. This is not a punishment, this is a teachable moment and we need to take this opportunity to come together and do better.” She applauded CAB and Danielle Wu, who wrote about the issue in Hyperallergic, because, she explained: “For being brave enough to talk about this issue publicly so that us Asian American don’t have to suffer alone. So, let’s all say, ‘Thank you!’”
Hyperallergic reached out to James Cohan Gallery for comment and received the following statement via email:
We support the right of free speech by the protesters to Omer Fast’s exhibition at the gallery. We also support our artist’s right to free expression and oppose censorship.
—James Cohan Gallery.
Betty Yu doesn’t call the request censorship, and offered this answer for those who find their action divisive. “Other people have actually confronted Omer Fast and this gallery and said, have you spoken to anyone in the community? Any Chinatown residents, any community groups, anyone in the community? And they said no because this is Omer Fast’s show that he fabricated thousands of miles away in Berlin. I would say that this is not divisive actually at all because what it’s doing is centering the experiences and stories of people in Chinatown who are literally saying that this is an insult to them.
“We have folks in Chinatown Art Brigade and in CAAAV who have lived here for generations … [they] say that this is an insult to the community. What we’re saying is that we’re not trying to be divisive. In fact, we’re just trying to actually use this as a moment to teach this gallery and the artist that this is insulting to our community, that you’re equating our community to poverty porn, and it’s not. We want this to be a teaching moment … For us, literally, we’re not trying to be divisive. We’re actually saying that if you and other galleries and other gentrifiers want to be on the right side of things, if you want to make a gesture, as you say to the community, then this is not the right gesture to make. This is an insult. This is an insulting gesture to make to our community.”
I asked Yu what she would say to the artist if he was at the protest. She replied: “The first thing you should have done is research, on-the-ground research. Who did you talk to in the community? Did you talk to community groups? Did you talk to residents? Longtime residents? Newcomer immigrants in this community? Do you know that this is a community that has been thriving for over 100 years and why? I would say that if you did that, and you showed them your plans for the layout of this exhibit, they would absolutely put a screeching halt, no, stop to it because it is so insulting.
“Moreover, I would say again to him … that if he really wants to give some kind of gesture to the community through this prefab, pre-gentrification installation, that his money is better spent toward the community, donating it to community groups that are doing this. As an artist that’s being represented by James Cohan Gallery, demand that James Cohan Gallery and other galleries actually do the right thing and try to support policies that would protect Chinatown, policies like the Chinatown Working Group plan. There’s a plan right now in the works that will protect residents and businesses and longtime tenants. If he really wanted to make that gesture, that’s what he would do, and he would put James Cohan Gallery on the spot and other folks and say that they should do the same thing since he’s such a well-known artist and has such clout. That’s what I would say.”
A few passersby, all of whom appeared to be white, English-speaking men, yelled disparaging remarks at protesters and a number of gallery visitors crossed the protest line with no attention paid to the protests. One couple even pushed a protester (the aftermath of which can be seen in the image above) out of the doorway in front of the gallery door to exit.
The gallery declined Hyperallergic’s request to speak to the artist for comment on the protest.