I usually don’t tell people what my art means… it takes a lot of trust to let somebody into the motivation of some of my art. My art is not necessarily about skill (there are many more talented artists than I… I usually joke that I do modern abstract art because it requires less skill… it’s true.), but about catharsis, release and unburdening. They are prayers that I lay before the Lord. They are psalms in visual format… So it’s a little nerve-wrecking to let people into that space. But in the meantime, I allow people to see the final product, and I’m often interested in how the art affects them. Sometimes it shines new light on my work that I didn’t see before. I’m always fascinated at how interpretation transforms from individual to individual, and how it will affect my own interpretation, even though I myself am the creator of that piece…
…That being said, I have decided I should provide some interpretation to the last piece I painted. Here it is:
The Ferguson decision was made on Monday night. I made this painting on Wednesday night, after realizing how exhausted I was from the constant stream of news, to seeing communities in pain, to figuring out how to talk to my immediate friends and family about it all.
The initial connection to the shooting of Michael Brown is obvious. I used an acrylic gravel medium to make a pavement effect on the canvas. I spread it randomly, imperfectly, brokenly… because that was what I was seeing in the system that had perpetuated this all. I used a tar-gel solution to create the red stain on this broken pavement. This was the stain that was left by Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Dr… But it represents more- it’s the stain on the community that surrounded it. It’s the stain that was there before the bullets penetrated Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant… and many others. It’s the stain of fear. It’s the stain of oppression, of systemic bloodshed that has a 400+ year history. It’s the stain we keep trying to cover up, saying that it ended in the ’60’s with the civil rights movement. It’s the stain that one can hear screaming from the pavement, crying out for justice. It’s a scream that I have heard in the sigh of black students and leaders I have partnered with in ministry. It’s a scream I, as an Asian American, have agreed with but tried to silence because there was no context in my culture for anger and loud protest. It’s a scream, that although intense, I have recognized as an invitation to listen in partnered compassion instead of the comfortable saving face action of silence and ignorance.
And the torn canvas…
I was at a prayer vigil in Berkeley the night after the decision was announced not to try the officer in court. It was moving to be part of a community that mourned. At one point of the service, we spent 4 minutes and 32 seconds in silence as an act of reflection and lament for the 4 hours and 32 minutes that Michael Brown’s body was left out in the open on the street. After that, we were each given strips of cloth. As an act of lament at these events, following with the Jewish tradition of tearing your clothes when in mourning, we tore those strips of cloth as an act of lament. At first, it was silence again… but then one tear. Then another. Then the whole room was filled with the shredding of cloth. The sound was echoing off the walls of the church. Black, Asian, Latino, White… the sound was deafening. It reminded me of the prophet Joel’s cry, to “rend your hearts, not your clothing”… unlike Israel, the sound of tearing in that room was not a fake repentance. I heard beneath the shredding of the strips of cloth the sounds of people’s hearts tearing and rending before the Lord. We then, one by one, tied our torn strips to a wire-mesh cross in the front. It was beautiful:
As an Asian American, we have many positive parts of our culture… but often, the way we are taught to mourn is silence. It was moving to be invited into a more open type of lament. I am learning to openly lament- as an act of solidarity with others and as an act of bringing our sorrows before the Lord, to the cross where He defeated our sorrow.
Later that night, I was reading a post from one of my former students, Jon. In it, he wrote to his fellow black brothers and sisters:
In the midst of all of this I still remain hopeful. Some ask; will this be the event that begins to wake black America up? Others remain less than optimistic. To all of those who remain cynical, who have given in to hopelessness, who feel empty, who can not see an end, I URGE you, once again to examine history. History has shown time and time again that under the most grim circumstances, our people not only rise to the occasion, but create a path, an outline, a blueprint for the rest of us to follow. So instead of looking from a deficit, ask yourself, what will we create this time. #ferguson
The hope he had was inspiring- it was a call to face the reality of brokenness in the world around us, and in the midst of lament and mourning, to activate our imagination and creativity and continue to work as a people who declare and make the Kingdom of God a reality, despite the crap we see around us.
As I reflected on this, I remembered that it was not just an old testament practice to tear one’s clothing… it was a new testament thing as well. When Jesus, wrongfully accused by the majority and sentenced to death while innocent, was brutally killed by an oppressive occupying force that had created a system of fear and dominance over his people on a cross and breathed his last breath, it was recorded that the veil in the temple all of a sudden violently tore in two from the top to the bottom. On one level pointed to God Himself rending his garments in grief at the death of His son. We serve a God who also had his son unjustly killed. Other theologians, however, talk about how this simultaneously destroyed the barrier to the holy of holies- that out of this grief, God tore down the very thing that separated people from the presence of God. The greek word in the Mark account for tearing was only used once before- when the heavens tore open during Jesus’ baptism and a voice declared that this was His son, whom he loved. The tearing of the veil made the same sound as the presence of God tearing into our reality, a symbol of God’s presence released to be accessible for all.
As I tore the canvas of my painting and reflected on this, I prayed- Lord- make it so. Turn our mourning into a release of Your Spirit. Turn it into new expressions of Your kingdom, breaking through and tearing apart the unjust realities that we live in. Retrieve and reveal the created goodness in this world that has been so long twisted and torn up by both the systemic and personal sins of racism. We need your kingdom to tear into our reality, God. Only You, oh Lord can do this. Lord, have mercy.
Finally, this painting is my feeble attempt at remaining a person who pursues justice. In this transition here to the Bay Area, it’s been really easy to default into “it’s not around me, so I don’t have to care”, especially living in the middle of the Silicon Valley. My old allies and partners in the multiethnic journey are no longer near me, so there hasn’t been anyone to bother me to keep pressing in. The Lord has been repeatedly reminding me in the last several weeks that those excuses are not good enough. All that the Lord had taught me about what it meant to be a cross-cultural Asian American who cared for the issues of people who didn’t look like me during all those years working with my students at MiraCosta- they weren’t just for my first years on staff, but remain my calling as I continue in ministry. As I move into more management positions, I have already felt the temptation to remain distant to the things I once fought for.
This painting was a personal confession before the Lord. The tearing of the fabric was not just for the issues but was me rending my heart to the Lord- my personal expression, my heart, my inner being. It was me saying, “Lord- continue to break my heart for the things that break Your’s.” It was a prayer, asking the Lord to give me courage once again to seek out the cross cultural partnerships that keep me from being comfortable but reveal the full richness of the gospel. It was a prayer to the Lord, confessing my propensity towards using my privilege to hide from the brokenness around me, and to help me once again to be an agent of Kingdom reconciliation and healing that comes in the wake of the power of the Gospel. It’s a prayer, not only for the stains of blood on the pavement and the stains of racism… but for the stains of ignorance and fear on my own heart.
What can wash away our stains?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus…
Yes, I know- many of you don’t agree with me. The challenge of my piece is not to agree with me or the voices in defense of Michael Brown. It is this- sit and listen compassionately, not critically. Before you judge, lament with those who lament; listen to why they lament before you judge, and be open to what it might do to you…
…Still disagree after that? Fair… but please- Sit and listen first.