In Lucie Chan’s recent exhibition at Halifax’s Blue Building Gallery, hundreds of fragments—drawings, photographs, small objects, scraps of paper and more—were pinned to the walls, arranged on shelves and on the floor, coalescing into an enveloping installation that transformed the gallery into something more akin to a studio, a space where the work on view seems always contingent, always in flux and always open to reinterpretation.
The exhibition’s title references Adrian Piper’s 1975 work The Mythic Being: I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear, and, like Piper, Chan centres questions about how Blackness is perceived, by people of colour, certainly, but also by the dominant culture. In a community still too much defined by Whiteness, how does the Black experience surface so that everyone can see it? Can we (that is, the dominant culture) see it at all? As Chan asks in one of the three questions that make up her artist’s statement, “How close can we get to understanding the complexities of experiences that are different from our own?”
One way is to try to be immersed in it, to be enveloped in depictions of those different experiences. Here, Chan creates an environment within which even the implacable complacency of privilege is decentred, knocked awry and, as a result—perhaps—lies open to the complex possibilities of understanding difference.
“How are those who experience oppression remembered and interpreted?” Chan also asks, and her process often involves interviewing people and retelling their stories in her animations and sound works. “To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear” combines drawings, small sculptures and a sound element to tell the story of a young immigrant from Botswana, named Kotobe. The drawing features two seated figures, an older couple, the narrator’s parents perhaps, whose tears suggest the pain of separation. But there is other pain, as evidenced by Kotobe’s story, which tells of the recurring experience of being taken for a drug dealer by other young Black men. “You are haunted by these public encounters,” the narrator says, “because it is other Black people who can’t read you.” The casual racism of the dominant society, being targeted by the police, being exoticized—these, we are told, he had been forewarned about. But this feeling of being unrecognizable is haunting. “You finally found your way to Canada,” the narrative ends, “and now you are in every way lost.”
One side of the exhibition features works that depict the stories and experiences of people Chan has interviewed—To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear [Kotobe] and To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear [Alieyth]—as well as a large installation of portraits of Black cultural workers whom Chan knows or admires. This work, actually three works, features a list of freely brushed names flanked by loosely gridded portraits. “Buseje Bailey, Crystal Mowry, Curtis Talwst Santiago, Nick Cave” and many more names scroll down the wall. As viewers we are drawn to try to fix these names to the portraits, rendered in light ink washes. These three masses of drawings are linked by a pinned spray of small circular drawings on paper, floating over the wall and the other works. Some feature simple marks; others are more portraits; and some repeat names from the list, acting as labels, seemingly fixing identities.
None of Chan’s 14 works in this exhibition are isolated as individual focal points but rather merge, flowing across and up the walls. A map provided at the exhibition’s entrance is the only clue to the fact that you are seeing individual works rather than one large installation. Like so much of Chan’s work, they can either stand alone or together, and each takes on a new character with every new installation.
The sense of flux and mutability in this exhibition does make you think of an artist’s studio, and Chan is most certainly using the gallery less as a fixed space to display settled objects than as a container for distinctly unsettled collections. But it also has the sense of a sketchbook, especially as the works on the walls blend together, themes repeating with subtle changes across their expanse. Collaged photographs, cut-up drawings, coloured scraps, shelves holding small objects, all merge into a graphically dense experiential space.
One wall is dominated by a large assembly of works featuring crumpled drawings, scraps of other drawings and photographic images, including Black schoolchildren meditating. There are also images of the candies now known as “licorice babies.” A reproduction of an advertisement from the 1950s makes clear the racist origin of these common treats and an installation on the floor and several of the shelves built into some of the works on the wall feature examples of these candies, bought by Chan in Halifax as she was installing the exhibition. Another Chan question: “How do we carry forward these questions in relation to identity and commodity?”
Racist images persist, of course, and for the dominant culture it is too easy to think that such traces have lost their power to cause pain (and, of course, they were never aimed at “us,” so were not seen as hurtful). Conveying that hurt, surfacing what has been buried under complacent notions that times have changed, is the achievement of this beautiful, painful, stark and generous work. “How are those who experience oppression remembered and interpreted?” Chan asks. There is no single answer, of course, and in “To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear,” Lucie Chan provides many, immersing her viewers in the voices, images and pain of others. Empathy is the path to real change, and as Maya Angelou said, it takes courage to show it. “To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear” is both empathetic and courageous, an important and necessary project. How close can we get to understanding the experiences of others? Can we get close enough? This exhibition makes such closeness feel possible, if we have the courage. ❚
“To Be Free, Everything You Most Hate and Fear” was exhibited at The Blue Building Gallery, Halifax, from July 15, 2022, to September 10, 2022.
Ray Cronin is a Nova Scotia-based writer and curator. He is the author of 12 books of non-fiction, and the editor- in-chief of Billie: Visual Culture Atlantic.