Weekender: With his residency, artist Wen-ti Tsen reaches past the center

The Tufts Art Gallery's new exhibition, 'Home Town: Re-presenting Boston's Chinatown as Place of People - Now and Then,' features Tsen's real-size cutout figures derived from archival photos on street corners and public square in Chinatown. (Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily)

The Tufts University Art Gallery opened its new exhibition, “Home Town: Re-presenting Boston’s Chinatown as Place of People – Now and Then,” on Oct. 2 with works by Wen-ti Tsen.

The artist — who was born in China, grew up in Europe and later moved to the United States — is the artist-in-residence for this semester through the Nat and Martha Knaster Visiting Artist grant. Tsen has worked with the Center for the Humanities at Tufts and the Consortium of Programs in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora to exhibit his large-scale mural “Pilgrim Father/Illegal Son” and life-size cutouts of former residents of Chinatown.

On Monday, Tsen addressed the Tufts community in the Alumnae Lounge, giving a lecture entitled “Art and Immigration: One Artist / Several Paths.”

The issue of undocumented Chinese immigrants is a major preoccupation of Tsen’s work and a theme that he highlights in his mural piece. The series of pictures provides a dichotomy, contrasting the journey to the United States of a modern-day Chinese man fictitiously named Tieshan with that of William Bradford, a 17th-century pilgrim who traveled to New England.

Tsen sheds light on the poor living conditions of many undocumented immigrants using the medium of photography. The artist cites photography’s objectivity and “coldness” as a reason for his choice of medium for this particular series. The series depicts the basement in which Tieshan lives in the South Shore of Massachusetts, with a collage of a stylized human figure drawn in pencil to conceal Tieshan’s identity.

“Painting doesn’t do it,” Tsen said in an interview with the Daily. “Painting is one person’s opinion. Photography can document a guy’s home. If I had made a painting, people would have thought that this was a picturesque, romanticized view of poverty. This is documenting who he is and that he has nowhere to go.”

Erin Berja, a sophomore who attended Tsen’s lecture and subsequent reception at the art gallery, thought the juxtaposition of Tieshan and Bradford was especially powerful.

“Why is the present-day Chinese laborer shunned and maltreated for moving to a country that’s not ‘his,’ while the ancient English settler is continuously venerated and considered heroic by history for doing the same thing?” Berja asked.

In other projects, however, Tsen has used painting to visually express the marginalization of racial and immigrant minorities on American soil. He is particularly fascinated by the concepts of “center” and “margin,” which, in his paintings, translate both in a literal and figurative sense.

“Center is [what was] created by the English settlers to start with,” Tsen said. “We pick up everything from the point of view of the center, so everyone who is not part of that center gets ignored.”

The strong perspective in Tsen’s paintings conveys his concern with many immigrants falling to the sides of society, while people focus on the center of the picture. This center usually corresponds with the narrative of mainstream American society, which excludes people like the artist himself. In his lecture, Tsen described the unusual position of immigrants, who are spectators of political events in the United States but are frequently afraid to speak up about their situations. Tsen acknowledged the strong political nature of his work, which he conciliates with strenuous activism.

“What I would like [out of my residency] is to get more and more people involved in this cause, let them know that they have the ability and the agency to change our society,” Tsen said.

The Chinese-American artist also recognizes that the contribution of younger generations is fundamental to bring about palpable social change.

“[Activism] is important, especially for younger people,” Tsen said. “You cannot just go to college; you have to be an activist. Activism is the engagement with society and what will change it.”

Tsen also called for action against the sociopolitical establishment.

“We cannot just allow things already in place to take over,” Tsen said.

Although the work on show in the Remis Sculpture Court is clearly connected to the artist’s Chinese heritage and his relationship with Chinatown in Boston, Tsen believes most of his work “is actually not related to Chinatown.” He did, however, emphasize his connection with the neighborhood, with which he strongly associates himself. At the same time, he does not sound as enthusiastic about the rest of Boston.

“I have a relationship with Chinatown as a community but not so much with the city of Boston,” Tsen said. “I kind of landed here more or less accidentally just because of family members here, and then I started to settle here. It’s a decent city.”

Tsen’s identification with the Chinatown neighborhood inspired one of his most celebrated works, which gave the exhibition at the Tufts Art Gallery its name. “Home Town: Re-presenting Boston’s Chinatown as Place of People – Now and Then” is made up of several cutout pictures of historical photos of former Chinatown inhabitants. This piece shows Tsen’s concern with the issue of gentrification, a pressing issue in the neighborhood. Many people who once resided in Chinatown have been displaced and can no longer afford to live there.

Tsen does not think this phenomenon is inherently bad but believes urban planners and local governments should be more wary of the consequences of their actions.

“Gentrification [occurs] because of a change in culture, which is not bad in itself,” Tsen said. “People used to live in the suburbs and spend a lot of money commuting [to the city], and the new generations know that that’s not ecological or viable. I have actually witnessed a lot of cities that are much more livable thanks to gentrification, like Dallas. Moving into the city and reclaiming it makes a lot of sense, but it has to happen with a lot of consideration of what people are disrupting.”

Tsen also linked the problem of gentrification in Chinatown to the displacement of people of color and low-income families who had lived in neighborhoods bordering college campuses for a long time, but who now have been forced to move out due to rising demand for housing.

“Colleges too … are becoming bigger and more important,” Tsen said. “Local people living there inevitably cannot afford older property. To a certain degree, it is better to sell the property than to stay. It is an economic problem that is hard to solve.”

He also believes that people should be making an active effort to counter such trends and defend local businesses.

“The residents [of a certain neighborhood] have to put some kind of control so that local businesses can stay,” Tsen said. “We have to defend our bookstores, cafés and restaurants.”

“Home Town: Re-presenting Boston’s Chinatown as Place of People – Now and Then” will be on show at the Tufts Art Gallery until Nov. 30.

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