Artists Protest Museum of Chinese in America's "Complicity with Mass Incarceration"
By Judy Chiu
Asian American artists Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem have rescinded their permission for New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) to display or reproduce their photo series Documenting Persistence in Oakland’s Chinatown (2020) in any capacity. The work, currently a part of MOCA’s collection, was slated for inclusion in the group exhibition “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism,” which opened today. In withdrawing their permission, the artists are protesting the museum’s recent acceptance of a USD 35-million concession from New York City, which has plans to construct a 29-story detention center in Chinatown, near MOCA. The museum will put the funds toward securing a permanent venue and a new performing art space.
Chin and Liem wrote to the leaders of MOCA on July 12, arguing that the museum’s welcoming of the government funds signaled its “complicity with mass incarceration—which disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people.” They also cited concerns about the role of Jonathan Chu, a co-chair of the MOCA board of directors, in the gentrification of Chinatown. According to the artists, Chu, a luxury real-estate developer, closed “the two first and only unionized restaurants in Chinatown.” These actions are “contrary to the expressions of solidarity between the Asian American and Black communities against police violence and gentrification highlighted in our work,” they write.
On March 5, in protest of the same issues, 19 out of 33 members of the artist collective Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network withdrew their participation in the survey “Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990–2001,” which led to the cancellation of the exhibition. In their letter, Chin and Liem also criticized MOCA’s lack of disclosure and dialogue with the groups, including Godzilla and the Chinatown Art Brigade, that have criticized the new jail plan.
Chin and Liem are pressing MOCA to return the concession and remove Chu from the board. In response to their statement, MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach, said in an email to Hyperallergic, “MOCA has always been opponents of jail construction in Chinatown which we have made public, so it is unfortunate that the decision by these two artists to back out of MOCA’s new exhibit ‘Responses: Asian Americans Resisting the Tides of Racism’ has been guided by misinformation.”
“Responses” is MOCA’s first show since January 2020. It looks back on the history of anti-Asian racism in the United States. According to Hyperallergic and Bloomberg, protestors gathered outside the museum during the show’s preview, chanting slogans like “Boycott MOCA.”