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Review by Elisa Rowe
Installation view, "Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times," Pao Arts Center, 2023. Courtesy of Pao Arts Center. Photo by Mel Taing.
“Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times” is a collection of print media made up of the illustrations and graphic designs of seven local artists, many of whom are community activists. On exhibit at the Pao Arts Center, the posters and cartoons, as well as one woven object—a sweater—are displayed on a single gallery wall. Pieces communicate COVID-19 information, document hate crimes and racism against the AAPI community, make a plea for softness, and require the viewer to imagine radical community care.
The work of artist, cultural worker, organizer, and sexual and reproductive health justice advocate payal kumar merges the traditional folk art of kumar’s parents’ villages in Bihar with the style of American traditional tattoos. The print Bite the Hand That Feeds You, (2021) one of their three works displayed, depicts a large snake biting a pale and shaded hand, whose drops of stark red blood draws the viewer in, then delivers its message in a bold and serifed font, similar to revolutionary block print: “Bite the Hand That Feeds You/ We Deserve More Than Scraps.” kumar was inspired by the wisdom of communities on the margins who have survived the apocalypses of racism and colonialism. “I was really thinking about how we could unearth and excavate a lot of our ancestral memories of collective care and survival and power,” they shared, “and put them into practice and alchemize mutual aid.”
payal kumar, bite the hand that feeds you, 2021. Watercolor, ink, acrylic, chai on cotton rag, 15″ x 15″. Photo courtesy of Pao Arts Center.
Some posters address radical community care and information access, such as Taiwanese American artist Shaina Lu’s illustrations in Safer Together, (2022) co-created with the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, which depicts a group of people, diverse in race and age, urging the viewer to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Illustrator, designer, and cartoonist Lillian Lee’s yellow, black, and white six-panel graphic 加油! Add Oil! Get the Booster! (2022) portrays a child encouraging their aunt to get the COVID-19 booster so they can dine with their family.
Yuko Okabe, an illustrator and cultural worker, offered a futuristic piece, Invest in Long-Term Care, (2021) which imagines care infused with joy. It depicts illustrations of elders in play, rest, and community, alongside their care workers in soft shades of green, yellow, pink, and purple. Three text bubbles read “Sustainable Staff to Patient Ratios,” “Higher Wages for Workers,” and “Care Before Profits.” The Asian American Comic Book: the Garment Worker’s Story (1991) by painter and public artist Wen-ti Tsen is another ode to the worker, but the black and white comic looks backwards in time to deindustrialization, examining another era of communal disruption.
Hoax Remedies (2020), a piece originally published in The Nation by illustrator, educator, cartoonist, and reportage artist Sanika Phawde uses morbid wit spouting from characters with large heads and exaggerated facial expressions to warn against false cures for COVID-19. “Arsenic. Technically,” reads one panel, “ingesting enough arsenic will prevent COVID-19, since dying will effectively prevent you from suffering from any illness.”
Installation view, “Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times,” Pao Arts Center, 2023. Courtesy of Pao Arts Center. Photo by Mel Taing.
Other pieces depict softness and focus on mental health, such as queer Indian-American artist Deborah Johnson’s posters. One of their two pieces in the exhibit, Let Your Body Soften, (2022) features a tan background with lush outlines of greenery framing the thin-lined tender phrase “It Is Okay/ If Resting/ Feels Hard/ Let Your/Body Know/ It Can Soften.” “When we are able to hold both the legitimacy of all that we are holding and practice rest with others,” Johnson shared, “I find that it makes all the difference in not only coping, but making sure we are living amidst the grief.”
Individually, the illustrations, comics, and designs take slices of cultural crises made deadly by ableism, capitalism, and white supremacy and tackle feelings of isolation and the lack of access to information. Collectively, there is a story of continued resistance, violence, grief, and healing.
“Call and Response: Illustration in Uncertain Times” is on view at Pao Arts Center until June 30, 2023.
Elisa Rowe is a writer, educator, and poet. They were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and raised in Boston. You can find more of their work at www.elisarowe.com.