Andrea Chung: “It’s very hard to just be seen as an artist” — Aurella Yussuf

Andrea Chung is an American visual artist whose work explores labour, migration and relationships between colonial histories and contemporary culture, particularly in island nations including Jamaica and Mauritius. Her work across media encompasses painting, photography, sculpture and installation, and considers the disconnections between the perception of ‘paradise’ locations and the reality of the postcolonial condition. Her most recent work Anthropocene is a series of large scale cyanotype prints of lionfish. The installation is a meditation on migration and human intervention into the natural world. Anthropocene is currently on display at the Royal West of England Academy as part of the exhibition Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora

Your most recent installation that I saw at Jamaican Pulse, is titled Anthropocene (a term that describes Earth’s most recent geologic time period and the ways in which human beings have altered and influenced climate and environment). Why did you choose this title?

I’ve been thinking about the amount of destruction human beings have been able to inflict not only on our environment but on each other. Human beings have really reshaped the world, in the sense of introducing invasive plants, animals, all kinds of things into new places, and that affects the land, it kills out other species. We’ve moved around so much that we’ve brought diseases where there aren’t usually diseases and the movement of human beings has really impacted the planet, both in positive and negative ways. I feel like it ties into how you can examine colonialism. It’s a horrible thing and the impacts of slavery are still very much present, but at the same time, had that not happened – which I’m not in any way advocating or thinking is a good thing – I wouldn’t be living where I’m living right now. I think that there’s not very much accountability for how humans have impacted the world. Think about how the need for fossil fuels has pretty much destroyed a big part of western Africa. Human beings are flawed creatures, and I think it’s really interesting that as a species we think that we’re more evolved than other animals. We kill for stupid reasons, we overindulge in things, things that are not necessary to survive. So I thought Anthropocene was an appropriate title. I listened to a BBC podcast in which a lot of scientists debate whether or not this is the era of the Anthropocene, and they try to figure out when it started. Those kinds of conversations are really interesting to me because you can’t really pinpoint any of that, it’s just this fluid thing.

In the installation, there’s a feeling of being submerged below the depths of the ocean. Quite a lot of your work references the sea, the vastness of it but also the details of what passes through it (for example, the site-specific installation Bain de Mer and your work about island life, whether in Jamaica or Mauritius). What draws you to this subject matter?

I think it’s because I’ve been making so much work about migration that I am really interested in the relationship of water to islands that have a historical relationship to colonialism. Most of the places that I look at and have experienced have a colonial history. Water connects us to these histories and the questions that they raise. I have travelled to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and I also reference the Caribbean where my family is from.  I try to understand how someone with the last name Chung ended up in Jamaica. Why would you leave your country at seventeen years old, and come to a place where you don’t know the language? You don’t know anyone whatsoever. You just establish this new life. I wanted to understand where my grandfather came from.  He didn’t really share very much information and I have to do a lot of research and learn more about the history and the reasons for migration.

Through the work Anthropocene, I wanted to explore the really beautiful and seductive image of the fish. They are incredibly beautiful fish but they’re highly poisonous and you can die if you’re stuck by the venom. I was thinking about metaphors for colonialism.  Often, when people go to these islands they have this idea of it being so laid back and so beautiful, that their lives could be so much better if they lived in a place like that. They assume that the natives have this ‘no problem’ way of living. That’s the seduction of it. But the actual circumstances of these former colonies and their legacies are not beautiful. People still live in shanty towns and you wonder why poverty still exists in this day and age. Even being here in New Orleans where I’m on a residency at the Joan Mitchell Center, it’s a similar thing. The French Quarters were all slave housing and there’s so much history here, so much violence. Does all this go through people’s minds when they come here?

A lot of my other work is very didactic and so I wanted to have a more subtle approach to talking about colonialism. I wanted Anthropocene to allow the viewer to enter a space and experience a feeling of serenity. Then, when you really pay attention to what’s going on, you can see things that are more sinister under the surface.

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Looking into family histories and trying to understand why people moved and did certain things that aren’t necessarily revealed in an obvious way is a common theme for people who have migrant experiences in their family. Often those experiences aren’t openly shared. There’s a lot of difficulty and trauma and it’s something that younger generations have to piece together. Do you think that through the work you’re trying to tell stories that are hidden?

I think in a broader sense, trying to tell that story. One of my biggest pet peeves, living in the States, is people asking me how I got my last name. I get really tired of having to explain that it’s not that complicated. So I definitely don’t feel like I’m trying to retell specific stories about family history but I am trying to come to some kind of understanding. Families or individuals migrate for a very specific reason. They may not tell you the intimate details of why that was. You do know that something bad might have happened that makes people decide to just get up and pick up and leave everything that they know. Younger generations go through the process of assimilation, having been born in one place but being raised in an entirely different culture. For me, it’s been about coming to an understanding of not only why my grandfather came and where he came from, but also why my family are the way that they are. It’s more of a personal investigation for me to try to understand where they’re coming from.

You do a great deal of research in the process of making work? I’m thinking about the kinds of themes you explore and also projects such as Catchin’ Babies, Colonizing Black Bodies (a collaborative research project about Southern black and Caribbean midwifery). How do you strike a balance between doing the intensive research that could go on indefinitely, and making your work?

My process is very slow. I think I start broadly and I take time to try to be as thorough as I can with my research. A lot of my early work touched on broader issues. I’ve started to pinpoint areas that I want to refine a little bit more in the work. I started thinking about  the lionfish after an artist, Albert Chong happened to post an article about lionfish invasion, maybe six years ago. I thought it was really interesting especially as I was in Mauritius at the time where there are lionfish. I was really freaked out when I would see them and I was very afraid of the possibility of running into one of their spines! I just kept seeing more and more articles appearing, and I started to collect the stories and read more about lionfish, doing web searches. I don’t think it was necessarily this intentional, this idea of “yes i’m gonna use this as a way to talk about colonialism!” Over time, I started to look at the language and how the lionfish were being written about. It’s almost in the way that you would talk about immigrants coming into another country. If you look at a lot of the history of the way invasive species are spoken about, you’ll see that you can just edit that species out and replace it with any nationality or any colour. So I thought that was very interesting. I was also interested in the fact that the lionfish were brought to the West not on their own volition but for a trade, for the aquarium trade, because they were this beautiful thing to look at. I thought that resonated a lot with the way things were handled in the Caribbean, so it seemed like a natural fit.

The process of working with cyanotypes also happened gradually. I had these materials, and my friend had briefly shown me how to do a few things. I had always wanted to do something with it, I just didn’t know what. I became more interested in the relationship of photography to the Caribbean. Today, we’re highly conscious of the ways in which photographs are altered and also the ways in which they mediate the world. We don’t just assume that photographs have a relationship to an unmediated reality or singular truth. There are many images of workers that were posed to look like slaves in the Caribbean. There are no photographic images of slaves in the Caribbean before the abolition of slavery because it predates the invention of photography. I think that this is really interesting and it talks about how images are constructed and opens up questions about photography and the politics and ethics of representation.  I decided to use cyanotypes as it seemed appropriate for thinking about history.

Even though I consider myself Caribbean I didn’t grow up there and so I have a different kind of perspective. In order to be very respectful about how I use and make images I take my time and I also take feedback very seriously. It’s one of the reasons why I like critiques. I just want to make sure that before I put this image out there I’m not being irresponsible. It’s a slow process.

Do you think you have a higher responsibility because of the particular subject that you’re dealing with, or do you think that artists should have a greater responsibility in general? 

I think artists should be responsible but I think there’s a lot of irresponsibility in the way that images are made. Artists might not always be aware of what it is they are referencing and images might be used in a problematic way. Artists can be extremely exploitative even though they try to hide under the idea of social practice. It’s OK to make a mistake, but if you don’t own up to that mistake, then I have a problem with that, and I see that so often with all kinds of artists. I actually get more annoyed when I see it from an artist of colour, because I feel like, hey, you should know better! You should know what it is to be depicted in this way, why are you doing that?

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What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing younger generations of artists today? What are some of the difficulties that you’ve encountered in becoming an artist, developing your practice and being in the art market as well?

I think the hardest thing about being an artist for me was finding the right kind of support system and not physically being in an art city, like New York or LA. I still struggle with issues of that now. I’ve managed to work it out in certain ways, but I think location is a very difficult thing. This feeling that you have to be in the centre of everything. I think it’s kind of counterproductive in some ways. I love going to New York and seeing all those shows but at the same time I’m glad that I don’t live there. I’m based in San Diego. I don’t like the market or constantly going to galleries. I don’t let that define how I make art, and I think that so many artists, especially young artists are trying to be this art star, they’re always trying to figure out what their style is. It’s just important to make your work and have a good practice. Being an artist of colour and being a woman has been incredibly hard. Either you can’t get a show, or you get a show that’s only in February for Black History Month, or you’re only defined as being ‘this’ type of artist. It’s very hard to just be seen as an artist. There’s different ways that you can look at my work from looking at the context and conceptualism to aesthetics. And even when you look at it as Black History, it’s actually American history! It didn’t just happen to us, you are an active participant in the history of what happened and what is happening now.

You’ve said how important it is to have a supportive environment for becoming an artist and embracing your creativity and having the space to create work. When did you know that you wanted to become an artist and was it encouraged when you were growing up?

I think I’ve always known that I wanted to be an artist. My earliest memories are of drawing and this was always something that I loved and gravitated to. My parents were not really excited about that, they wanted me to have a practical job or a ‘real’ job as they say. So it was definitely very hard. It has been very challenging trying to do this, but it’s just always been something that I’ve wanted to do.

I’ve had some people in my family tell me that the work I’ve made about my grandmother was incredibly disrespectful and that I should be ashamed of myself. I was trying to make art that honours her hard work. They don’t understand art, they’re not interested in trying to understand it. They just take things at face value and they kind of lead with their own emotions without really having a conversation with you. So it’s been really hard. But in the last few years I got this Joan Mitchell award, and I also won another award, an Art Matters grant, and I got my first studio. I went to Norway this year, and then I came to Bristol, and now I’m here (New Orleans).

How do you deal with some of the isolation that comes with being very involved in the kind of work that you do and living somewhere where there isn’t a huge artistic community? It can be quite reclusive, working alone.

I am very lucky to have married a very creative person. He wouldn’t call himself an artist but he’s an artist. And in some ways he’s my muse. If he doesn’t like something that I’m making, then my first response is to get really angry because I’m frustrated and then I go revise it, and then I come to him again. He and I are like-minded in the sense that he thinks that anything that’s made or written should have a certain responsibility. So he’s been a really good way for me to not feel so alone.

I feel alone in certain moments when there is no-one around to just come into the studio and give me feedback. I have to be really creative about how I stay relevant and up to date with what’s happening. The internet has been extremely helpful for me, and that’s the way that I keep in touch with people. I started following different artists and really great conversations began to happen. It’s amazing what you can do with the internet if you really think about trying to create a community. So that’s been a way for me to deal with the isolation. I do also try to come to New York once a year to see my friends and see some shows. I’m not really afraid of rejection so I don’t have any issue with cold emailing a curator and asking if I can have a studio visit with them, with my laptop. Because no one’s going to come to San Diego! Even people in LA are two hours away, they’re not coming to San Diego. So you have to be a little more proactive in how you approach people and that’s been my way to do it.

When you go to New York or LA how do you feel about seeing shows? Do they give you any inspiration or is it just to see what’s going on and about staying connected? 

It’s pretty much both. When I go to exhibitions it’s about the work but it’s also about looking technically at how things are made. I saw this amazing animation/installation by Federico Solmi at a gallery in LA called Luis De Jesus. I hadn’t seen work in a very long time that made me that excited. His process of making is crazy. He paints images, puts them into a 3D video game modelling programme, and makes these elaborate installations. He actually built a box with a screen inside but then he physically painted on top of the screen as well, and so you get all these layers of process. I just haven’t seen anything like that before, it is really innovative. I was really excited about learning how he made his work because I’m not a trained sculptor. I started off painting, so working three dimensionally has been really interesting. It’s a different way of thinking, because you’re kind of working in reverse, as opposed to the way a painter would work. Often I go to shows that have a lot of sculpture and installation so that I can figure out how my body interacts with that work, and how I can make people interact with my work, with their own bodies, in very specific ways. It’s learning how to manipulate a space which is really challenging. You have to think about not just making the object but also about how you experience the work. You have to have bad shows to learn that. Good shows and bad shows.


You’ve got a solo show Anthropocene coming up next year at a museum. Do you have some ideas of how that’s going to look? Have you thought about what kind of work you want to put in there? 

It’s a solo exhibition and I’m going to show the lionfish in the space. I see Anthropocene as being in three parts. The lionfish room is the first part, and then the second part is me looking at Sargassum seaweed which is very specific to the Caribbean. It’s also an invasive species that’s been popping up more and more on the beaches. I’m having the lionfish transform into the Sargassum seaweed, so their fins over time will morph into some of the Sargassum leaves.

For the third part, I’m really interested in the construction of colonialism and all of the work and all of the effort that went into making it happen. Cyanotypes were also used to make blueprints, and I’m interested in finding the blueprints for the docks that were built in Bristol and London so the slave ships could come in. I’m interested in documents that showed the proper way to build a slave ship, things like blueprints for slave castles up the Gold Coast. I’ve found all that material, and the acts that went to Parliament in order to make it happen. I’ve also looked at the manuals that were created to teach you how to treat your slave, things like that. I think the French had something called Code Noir that they used for all their French colonies. I think they actually applied Code Noir here in New Orleans too so it would tell you things such as how to discipline your slave, how many times you were supposed to beat them, and what was considered excessive, those kinds of things. I heard of a poet here the other day who talked a lot about how there was no lynching in New Orleans. The French just decapitated the slaves and then put their head on top of a pole, so that everyone in the city could see. They would put it on all of the routes where slaves would try to escape. All of that is really interesting to me and this idea that someone really sat there and took the time to think about how you can scare and intimidate slaves from running away. It took a lot of psychopaths to put this together. In discovering this material, I’m disturbed and fascinated at the same time. I’m embossing it on white paper so that from far away it looks like a clean sheet of paper but when you come up closer you can see all of the documents. That’s the last part of the project.

Work and labour is another recurring theme, across a lot of things that you do. You’ve also said that ‘labour becomes a medium’. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Labour is probably the most important thing in my work. I really like the process of making and not necessarily the finished outcome. It’s nice when it comes together but I think part of why we all start being artists is because the physical production of it is so much fun. It is only when you get to a certain stature that you start having assistants make all your work for you. I often wonder if those people feel bored or empty because they’re not doing the thing that they once loved. I’m interested in honouring other people’s labour. I think the extent of the things that go into making something happen is often under recognised. We take everything for granted. I try to teach myself something every time I make a new piece. I had to teach myself how to build a darkroom in order to do the cyanotypes in my house. I also didn’t really have a whole lot of instruction on working with the cyanotypes. I also did an animation once which was a one minute commercial. I printed out every frame of the commercial and then hand cut everything and reanimated it. My labour was really important to that piece. It’s my small contribution to recognising the amount of work that others have had to do for me to get to where I am now.


Finally, what’s really the most important thing that you’d like people to take away from seeing your work? 

That’s a big question! I guess their actual participation in the world, and this idea of privilege. I really want people to understand the privilege of being able to take time out of their lives to go and see art when other people are working just to be able to survive. It is a privilege to BE an artist. Entitlement is something that I also want to think about when I’m making the work, and all contemporary things that have to do with being a person of colour. I would like for people to be able to have an understanding of this and to know that everyone’s an active participant, not just one group or one gender or one culture.

Aurella Yussuf is a London based art historian and writer whose interests include contemporary art from the African Diaspora and feminism in a global context. She is a contributor to One of My KindDIY Cultures and Black Feminists, and has appeared on BBC Radio London, Colourful Radio and in Vice UK. Aurella is the founder of Women of Colour Film Club.

@rellativitiy @wocfilmclub

All images courtesy of artist.