Immediately inside the ice-cold, frosted glass door to the Wing Luke Museum is an altar lined by flickering votive candles. On it sits painted portraits, faces inspired by Byzantine icons, though these are not typical saints and angels. Among the egg tempera visages of young children of color, the boy in the middle looks familiar. His face is somber, surrounded by gold leaf and floating above a mob of protesters. The signs wielded by the mob below hit home: “I am Trayvon Martin.”
Jasmine Iona Brown painted this series over a year ago to memorialize children killed as a result of urban violence, genocide and hate crimes. Having lost two foster children to gun violence, Brown roots her work in activism. She honors these murdered children in a manner that is typically reserved for religious figures, framing their portraits with gold leaf and flowing arabesque patterns. The altar gives voice to those who can no longer speak, to share the story of their injustice.
Brown is one of 26 artists featured at the Wing Luke’s exhibit Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century. The exhibit features artists from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and works that convey a strongly stated purpose: “Being American means grappling with race.” Under My Skin begins this intricate conversation through art, exploring race, injustice, identity and healing.
Further into the gallery, is a large American flag. Upon close inspection, I find it isn’t a typical American flag, but one created from more than a thousand ceramic fortune cookies. These don’t hold a message in the contemporary sense of a fortune cookie. But the broader message within was one of authenticity: fortune cookies are iconic representations of Chinese culture, yet they’re an American construction. “A false icon,” according to Hong Kong-born creator Ling Chun. The piece, “American Born Chinese,” represents the consumption and regurgitation of other cultures in America. It’s not a flag that flows in the wind, but a fragile construct imbued with consumerism.
At the end of the exhibit is an installation with places to sit with comforting black, white, and multi-colored pillows of all races . Corkboard covers the walls, and attendees are invited to sit, share, reflect and respond. The corkboards are modeled after Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project, which originally began at the University of Michigan, was picked up by NPR and now lives on-line at www.theracecardproject.com. The installation invites museumgoers to “write down your thoughts about race in just six words” and post their card on the corkboard. It provides a safe, anonymous place for people to express their feelings about race distilled into a format reminiscent of a haiku. “I prefer to be color blind” reads one. “beautiful. denigrated. suffocating. ambiguous. tiring. helpful.” reads another.
Overall, Under My Skin presents accessible works that combine tales of tragedy and adversity, running the gamut of racial diversity and pushing viewers to question how race shapes identity in America. By allowing users to participate, the exhibit is a jumping-off point for growth, suggesting that, despite America’s past injustices, the concept of race is fluid and malleable.
Photo: “1969″ by Canh Nguyen.