Vanessa Chen (陳詠昕) was born and raised in Taipei. Currently finishing up the last stretch of grad school (MFA Social Practice) in D.C., she is a curator/artist who uses art as a form of advocacy and to influence policy change. Outside of art school, she is a human rights advocate and a multilingual translator for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and many more who are experiencing crises.
We’re pleased to share this Q&A with Vanessa on her upcoming thesis show, “Until The Sun Rises.”
Can you tell us more about your thesis show?
My thesis show Until The Sun Rises is an exhibition probing Taiwan’s colonial history and its complicated status quo. It is also an invitation for people to relearn our past, reclaim our present, and regenerate our future. Divided into two parts, the first section of the exhibit demonstrates how my own experience as a Taiwanese living in the United States parallels Taiwan’s colonial past through sociolinguistic notions, such as name, silence, language loss, and more. The second section presents multimedia work that focuses on violence and oppression conducted by the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) regime, explains how contemporary Taiwan is now still under the R.O.C.’s occupation, and finally encourages the audience to sign a petition that will be delivered to Congress. The exhibition is going to take place at Gallery 102 in Washington D.C. from April 20-26, 2023.
What’s something that surprised you as you were researching for your thesis?
One thing that struck me the most is that there are so many shared histories between individuals from different cultures. I feel deeply relatable when my Filipino colleague tells me how their people were inhumanely colonized by Spain, Japan, and the United States; when seeing my Ukrainian friends trying so hard to rectify and revive their language; or even when my Uyghur, Hong Konger, and Chinese friends share how their families and friends have been arrested and disappeared in an instant. The way these overlaps across time and place on the one hand breaks my heart, but on the other hand, makes me grateful that we can build allyship across nations and that we are not only able to learn from each other, but cry, heal, and fight together.
What are some milestones in the Taiwanese independence movement that you want to highlight/are particularly affected by?
My awareness of Taiwanese independence was deeply influenced by the death of Nylon Cheng. My home in Taipei is near the office of Freedom Era Weekly, and I used to walk past Freedom Lane every day when I was a child. As a kid, I didn’t know why it was called “Freedom Lane” and just thought the name was funny. It was not until I was in college that I realized the meaning of the name and how close the Taiwanese independence movement was to me. I visited their office (now transformed into a museum) once and was shocked to see the burned room as well as other art work and artifacts displayed in the space. This not only reminds me of how hard Taiwan’s democracy is to come by, but also inspires me to use art to change the world.
Growing up in Taipei, which is generally a “blue city” where people either support the KMT or are “politically apathetic,” I was really surprised to find traces of Taiwanese independence movement in the neighborhood. I wonder how many more hidden stories there are around me and would like to really start this difficult conversation with the older generation. Even though these are just baby steps, through recounting a site, a piece of oral history, or even just a memory in someone’s heart, I hope that by pulling together erased stories and unveiling the truth that has been forbidden to be talked about, our generation can finally find a path to reparation and restoration.
In your introduction, you write about wanting to explain the “the generational trauma that our generation is trying so hard to prevent passing down to our future kids.” What freedoms do you envision for future generations?
When I wrote this, I was thinking about how my Hakka grandmother always refuses to teach me Hakka because she thinks it’s useless and vulgar. In sociolinguistics, “prestige” means that a language is considered the most “correct” or superior. To show that she was well-educated, my grandmother is very proud of her ability to speak Mandarin and has developed the perception of disregarding dialects. The ideology of the KMT regime is manifested in the language loss of our generation through the refusal of the previous generation to pass it on.
Today, though most of the younger generation (including me) still don’t understand our mother languages, there are more and more people starting to realize the importance of keeping and reshaping our own culture. I envision an island full of proud Taiwanese who are able to connect with their grandparents deeply and are not afraid to speak out freely in their own language.
Can you tell us more about the artists you’re working with?
Yes! Two of the artworks in my exhibition are generously donated by artists Galen Chen and Sean Wang. Galen’s piece Formosa Harmony 1945 explains the contradiction between the Treaty of San Francisco and The Cairo Declaration, and Sean’s piece Artist from Taiwan, China describes his own experience of being forced to add the word “China” in front of his nationality while participating in a show in China. My exhibition could not have been complete without their brilliant works. For more information about the artists, please check out their websites:
Galen Chen https://www.galenchen.net
Sean Wang https://seanwang.format.com/#1
Vanessa is currently crowdfunding to manage the costs of her thesis exhibit. If her work resonates with you, please consider making a donation.