Born in the USA
In the late 1970s-early ‘80s, the conception of a “melting pot” America (a melded, homogenous cultural ideal) gave way to “multicultural” America (a distinctly multifaceted cultural ideal). The concept of American “diversity” continues to evolve and is vividly exemplified by Andrea Chung, the woman and the artist.
Chung’s life and work is “multicultural” both in a national context (of Trinidadian and Jamaican descent, she was born in Newark, NJ, raised in Houston, TX, and now calls San Diego, CA “home”) and in international contexts as she explores the colonial and post-colonial experience of various peoples and their cultures in the Caribbean and African Diaspora. Such national-international extensions define American multiculturism in this global age.
Similarly, Rountree Art Consulting in Washington, DC, has a multicultural focus with both African American and international extensions. After a successful event in November 2013 for Paris, France-based visual artist Alexis Peskine, the Rountree Art Salon series presented Chung's print, sculpture and installation work in January 2014.
The salon series was created and is hosted at the home of Rountree Art Consulting’s principal, Schwanda Rountree, an attorney, art consultant, curator, collector and international traveler. Rountree had been following the career and exhibitions of Chung for several years.
Chung spoke about her May Day series of works with beautifully arranged compositions comprised of both archival and contemporary travelogue photographs. They have been cut out from the pages literally, leaving behind their individual silhouette. Some of these figures are the individuals that greet, serve, massage, entertain, and generally ensure the comfort and relaxation of the visiting guests at the myriad hotels and private residences on the islands. In addition "The Luxury" series of prints encompasses a debossing technique, removing distinct features but again their physical outlines remain, representing the countless tourist trade employees and local people who provide the produce, seafood, and other goods needed to promote and sustain this ever-important industry.
Another body of work that Chung discussed with the salon guests is her 2013 homage to Mauritian fisherman. She created small boats, or batos, molded out of raw sugar, reflecting on the former major export and dwindling trade of this Indian Ocean nation due to overfishing by foreign companies. An installation comprising several of these boats placed in water allowed to slowly dissolve became a time-based meditation on the flow of commerce and cultural practices. Chung says of this series of work: “After the abolition of slavery on the island of Mauritius, many newly freed slaves (also known as Creoles) became fishermen and subsequently established small fishing villages…rather than return to the cane fields to work for their former enslavers. Many of these fishing villages remain today and these fishing traditions have been passed down for generations.”
Reflecting on the stories told to her by elder family members while she was young, Chung went on to research the importation and migration patterns of West Africans, (East) Indians and Chinese (such as her grandfather) to the Caribbean. In graduate school she painted her grandfather and grandmother as visual testimony of her multicultural identity.
Chung’s work continues to be informed by the varied and, at times, tumultuous histories of the mother cultures in the Caribbean, particularly Jamaican. The indigenous Arawak, Taino and Carib peoples of the Caribbean were eventually killed off by diseases introduced by European colonizers and generations of harsh enslavement. West Africans were then imported to buffer the reduction in the work force. Though slavery officially ended in Jamaica in 1833, years after the emancipation proclamation in Haiti (1793), the white settlers still had a great need for cheap labor to sustain the booming sugar and coffee industries. First Indians then later Chinese, as well as other nationalities in lesser numbers, such as the Irish, were solicited as indentured servants. These diverse cultures have become enmeshed into the fabric of Caribbean life.
Mining archival collections for images of enslaved people Chung combines them with more contemporary photography taken from travel publications as source material for her artistic production. Interestingly, the documentary images she
often encounters are actually those of freed laborers presented as slaves because slavery predates the introduction of photography to the Caribbean. These black ‘actors’ become stand-ins on the pages chronicling the early history of the islands. When the prosperous sugar industry eventually collapsed, another economy emerged, tourism. Countries such as Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic which once benefited from stable agricultural and manufacturing industries, now found they could no longer sustain themselves in the global market. Tourism became the main industry for island nations. Advertising campaigns have for many years now marketed Jamaica, and other tropical climes, as exotic and idyllic retreats, particularly to the United States, Canada, and Europe. While studying the imagery found in the travelogues, Chung was struck by the stooped and subservient postures of the black figures presented: farmers, butlers, cooks, and maids. Chung wondered, what was actually being sold? Were blacks and their labor once again commodities to be purchased and temporarily enjoyed?
While participating in an arts residency at the Vermont Studio Center through the Joan Mitchell Fellowship, Chung is taking full advantage of the solitude to work on sketches for an extensive upcoming project. This summer, through a NLS Artist-in-Residence program in Kingston, Jamaica, she will be working with sociologist Alicia Bonaparte, Ph.D., of Pitzer College, brainstorming, as she says, for a collaborative project focused on late 19th century to present black midwives in the Caribbean and U.S. South. One of Chung’s grandmothers – a midwife – is the point of departure for this undertaking. She plans to create sculptural and installation work in concert with Bonaparte’s research on the discrediting and persecution of black midwives by traditional medical doctors. They both hope to interview and record the stories directly from former and current midwives during the residency. I will be following their progress and greatly anticipate their completed study and accompanying exhibition.
The Rountree Art Salon with Andrea Chung was attended by a mix of art students, collectors, curators, gallerists and museum professionals and generated a lively exchange.
Jarvis DuBois is a curator and art consultant based in Washington, DC.