‘Racist Art Has No Business Here’: Activists and Chinatown Residents Protest Omer Fast Show at James Cohan Gallery

Yesterday, the art collective Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) led a protest at James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space in New York, where the Berlin-based artist Omer Fast has transformed a ground-floor Grand Street facade and part of its interior into what a news release calls “the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic.” Members of CAB, as well as representatives from the groups Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and Decolonize This Place, occupied the inside of the gallery and taped a statement about the show to a pole near the building’s facade, arguing that the show perpetuates racist stereotypes about the local community.

Following an essay by Danielle Wu that appeared on Hyperallergic last week, Fast’s show at James Cohan Gallery has become the subject of criticism from writers and activists. In addition to August (2016), a 3-D video about the German photographer August Sander that appears in a back room, the show includes a “waiting room” that, according to the gallery’s release, returns the ground-floor Grand Street space to its pre-gentrified state. The space’s facade, which is usually made almost entirely of glass, has been covered in concrete, and the gallery’s floor has been ripped up and replaced with distressed tiling. A glass case bearing phone appears in lieu of an assistant’s desk; visitors are invited to watch Fast’s 2008 video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) on cheap-looking chairs. Chinese menus, graffiti, dents, and holes appear throughout the lobby area.

But Fast’s installation seems to bear little resemblance to the business that was previously located on the ground floor of 291 Grand Street: HK Manpolo Market, a grocery store that opened there in 2007 and closed in 2013, at which point James Cohan Gallery took over the space. A photograph from 2008 shows the store with a large red awning, and the initial New York Times report about the gallery’s second space refers to the previous tenant as a “fish market.” While the release describes Fast’s installation as “fictional,” it does not make clear that the installation is less an homage to the past business than a compilation of various objects that have been stereotypically associated with Chinatown and have little accuracy to the neighborhood.

Protestors occupying James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown space yesterday.

In a statement on October 2, CAB urged the gallery to close the show, writing, “This exhibition is a hostile act towards communities on the front lines fighting tenant harassment, cultural appropriation and erasure. The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown.”

Following the protests yesterday, ARTnews asked CAB for additional comments. “We would also like to add that we feel that it is not our job to tell the James Cohan Gallery what to do or how to respond,” the collective said in an email. “It’s on them to figure out how to respond appropriately to the Chinatown community that is deeply offended by their racist show.”

At yesterday’s action, members from the collective brought signs into the gallery and read their October 2 statement. One sign read DISPLACE RACIST ART NOT CHINATOWN TENANTS!; another said RACIST ART HAS NO BUSINESS HERE!. At one point, a group of protestors held a large yellow banner outside the gallery that read RACISM DISGUISED AS ART in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. Many signs bore the hashtags #RacistGallery and #ChinatownNot4Sale.

Fast’s show is scheduled to be on view at the gallery through October 29. “We support the right of free speech by the protesters to Omer Fast’s exhibition at the gallery,” the gallery said in an email. “We also support our artist’s right to free expression and oppose censorship.” Fast could not be reached for a comment.

Local activists remain concerned about the exhibition. “The James Cohan Gallery and artist Omer Fast shows complete disrespect to the Chinese community,” Chen Yo Chi, the staff organizer of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence’s Chinatown Tenants Union, said in a statement. “Working-class tenants in Chinatown continue to resist and thrive despite the forces of gentrification and displacement. This gallery has shown how out of touch it is with the realities of the Chinese people who live here with this culturally inappropriate display.”

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