Albert Chong is an artist working in the mediums of photography, installation, and sculpture. His work addresses the complex struggles of displaced peoples of the Asian and African diasporas. In doing so, Chong’s art delves into themes of personal mysticism, spirituality, race, and identity, as well as the aesthetic beauty of materials.
Marci Kwon is assistant professor of art history at Stanford University and codirector of the Cantor Arts Center’s Asian American Art Initiative. She is the author of Enchantments: Joseph Cornell and American Modernism (Princeton University Press, 2021), and is presently working on a book-length project about art in San Francisco Chinatown and coediting a digital catalogue raisonné of the work of Martin Wong.
Lara Mashayekh is an art writer with an interest in global modern and contemporary art. She holds a degree in art history from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Lara MashayekhWhat do you collect, and why?
Albert ChongOh, wow, what a way to begin. I collect eggshells because I like to track my consumption patterns. There were times when I filled boxes and boxes with shells, until eventually I thought, “Ah, this is too crazy” [laughter]. I also collect thorns because I like to pontificate about their natural function as defense strategies for plants and creatures. I like animal skulls and feathers too. In fact, I have some feathers floating on my ceiling now . . . [laughter].
Marci KwonWhen I was a child, I collected Beanie Babies [laughs], thinking they’d be worth a lot of money, and now they’re not worth anything.
LMYou both have an affinity for assemblages and archives. Albert, what compelled you to make Winged Evocations  as an immersive kinetic installation and “divine” work?
ACWinged Evocations derived from a strange, recurring vision that kept badgering me over the years. This vision manifested itself by way of my five-figure self-portrait, adorned with rawhide and giant pinecones. I love kinetic installations and immersive works because you can layer sound, odors, and tactile elements in ways that aren’t possible with photography on its own. I had a childhood fascination with flight, as something I wished I could do, and I sought to address that in this work, as well as the futility of yearning for such a thing. The installation was connected to the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, as well as an old Jamaican ska song called “Wings of a Dove” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which was one of the earliest songs that I remember hearing, aside from the Jamaican national anthem. In most cases, music would start playing when somebody walked into the space. These pieces are incredibly heavy; they have motors for the wings and a steel armature, so they could never rise from the ground without defying gravity.
MKI wasn’t aware of the sonic dimension of that work. I wonder, do you hear your photographs?
ACNo, I don’t. I actually refer to photographs as mute testimonials.
MKSometimes I feel like I can smell your photographs, since they’re so botanical.
ACSome of the still lifes produce a scent while I’m constructing them because they are living organisms with life forces. I reluctantly agreed to incorporate an odious rotting pigeon in a portrait once. So, yes [laughter], in that sense I do smell my photographs.
MKYou once described photographs as “receptacles of memory.” What did you mean by that?
ACA photograph is not just a receptacle, but an extension of memory, like music. Memory is in and of itself faulty. The beauty of a photograph is that, unlike memory, it’s unchangeable. Thus I view family photographs as some of the greatest receptacles of memory, because they practically become an affirmation that you are here, that you’ve lived, and that you’ve existed.
LMIn relation to constructing your identity and family portraits, what is the significance of the Chinese iconography embedded in the margins of the copper-matted photograph Aunt Winnie [1995/1998]?
ACIn narrating the story of my aunt’s life, I was trying to reconnect to the severed ties of my Asian and African ancestry using the marginalia and text. I’ve always loved medieval illuminated manuscripts and Byzantine paintings for their beauty and the ingenuity of the marginalia designs by monks. The marginalia let me extend the narrative beyond the photograph to provide background information on my relatives. Photographs are mute, and text was a last resort for me, but I had to utilize symbolic language to fill in those historical voids. With the Aunt Winnie tale, I described various events, including how she was passed over my maternal grandfather’s coffin at his funeral. In Jamaica, they believed that this act would prevent her from following him into death.
In narrating the story of my aunt’s life, I was trying to reconnect to the severed ties of my Asian and African ancestry using the marginalia and text.Albert Chong
LMInteresting. When you were creating works to memorialize your father, were you consciously performing a Chinese ritual to venerate your ancestors?
ACYes and no. The Aunt Winnie work certainly draws upon some Chinese customs, as well as Obeah and Santería religious practices. I have a deep interest in shamanism and Santería, Yoruba, Obeah, and Buddhism, though I don’t personally subscribe to a religion. I was raised Catholic, or I should say I was “dragged up” Catholic [laughs] and taught by nuns. While I do believe that there are spiritual forces afoot, I have to disavow how a lot of organized religions have been used as forms of indoctrination to control people. It’s a major issue in Jamaica, a very religious country.
MKWhat you’re saying is so important, Albert. Your description of mysticism as related to traditions that are severed by colonialism and slavery has been influential to my thinking. I first encountered these ideas when I saw your I-Traits series [begun in 1979]. Could you take us through its genesis?
ACWell, bear in mind that it’s my first real body of work. Prior to that, I was mostly a street photographer, but I decided to shift gears because I was a young militant Rastafari and was grappling with being uprooted from Jamaica. The “I” in I-Traits refers to the Rastafarian language in Jamaica, whereby the I is a reference to an “extended brotherhood.” I was trying to create my own cosmology by blending this emerging Jamaican mystical system with Africa and the United States. I also admired the Jamaican Pan-Africanism hero Marcus Garvey and his prophecies, so I was trying to coalesce and distill that. The first iterations of the I-Traits were spontaneous or intuitive performances. I would place the camera on a timer and walk into the frame while performing an odd action or holding an object. I would then try to relate the figures’ resemblances to different African archetypes, like warriors, healers, wielders of fire, or natural mystics. I was seeking to explore the notion of a Jungian collective unconscious by creating connections within these photographs.
MKI find it interesting that you were showing your work at the art gallery Just Above Midtown (JAM) as well as at the Asian American Arts Centre in Chinatown in New York in the 1980s. What was the art world like for you at that time?
ACIt was pretty stark territory, because everything was so garrisoned and we had limited access to things. But a lot sprung out of a nexus of connections. One day, my wife and I happened to walk into a SoHo gallery, where we met David Hammons and the music writer Greg Tate and the artist Fred Wilson, so I asked Fred, “Yo, how do you get a show here? How does this stuff work?” From there, I ended up getting a solo exhibition, despite it being my second official show. Similarly, my classmate advised me to visit the photo curator Danny Dawson in 1981, so I made an appointment with Danny to show him my I-Traits. Danny then urged me to visit Deborah Willis, who was a few blocks away at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture]. Deborah and Danny graciously included me in the blossoming Black arts scene in New York, where I eventually met Kellie Jones and worked alongside Fred Wilson. I got immersed in the Asian American arts community through Robert Lee [executive director and curator of the Asian American Arts Centre in New York], who connected me to it after a studio visit. He was wonderful, and we developed a long-lasting friendship as a result.
I’m interested in how “Asian American art” might be reframed as a capacious and nebulous category that connotes infinite incommensurable experiences.Marci Kwon
MKI’ve been thinking about those trajectories in relation to the [Asian American arts activist network] Godzilla and the art historian Margo Machida. She’s taught me to consider how artists of color appeared within these white institutions but coexisted and established support networks with one another. That model has been key to the way I have been thinking about the AAAI.
LMIn broaching the topic of identity, I’m sure you frequently get questions about defining “Asian American” as a term. How do you navigate that and how should institutions think about making it a noncomprehensive term?
MKThat is such a good question. “Asian American” is a constructed term that dates back to 1968. It was created by student activists to establish an anticolonial coalition among individuals with disparate backgrounds, histories, and immigration patterns. Although it’s become a catchall identity category, art will always resist the homogenization of such terms. I’m interested in how “Asian American art” might be reframed as a capacious and nebulous category that connotes infinite incommensurable experiences. Albert, what’s your experience of the term “Asian American”? I’ve seen you identify at times as Afro-Chinese, but I’d be interested to know how you think about race, and how notions of race and identity vary from places like Jamaica to Brooklyn to California.
ACLet’s just say my grandfathers were Chinese and my grandmothers were Black. Both of my parents are half Chinese. I’m not good with fractions [laughter], so I’m not able to classify myself. In America, I’m generally seen as Black. In Jamaica, I would be seen as half Chinese. In American society, the presence of Black bloodlines corrupts or pollutes the notion of whiteness. Having the ancestry of Africa automatically makes you Black, even if you also have white or European ancestry, whereas you can only be called white if you have no sub-Saharan ancestry. Do we really want to denote race in fractions like the European slave traders did, like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and so forth? I believe the only solution to racism is the complete mixing of all of humanity, so we can no longer point to any notion of purity and then we will truly just be one race: the human race. If the last human species, the Neanderthals, had not gone extinct, our racism would be directed at them.
MKYes, and it’s complex when thinking about the term “Asian American art,” since you don’t want to reinscribe those categories. As naïve as it might sound, I have faith in works of art to resist every label we seek to saddle them with. Artists of color are in the same bind as all racialized subjects: within a Euro-American framework, one is either racialized or white; marked or unmarked. But the specificities of works of art, which are grounded in the lives and experiences of their artists and the histories in which they appear and circulate, will always refuse these binary options.
LMAbsolutely. I’d also like to hear about what you are currently working on and how you see it within the lineage of your previous work, Albert.
ACPresently, I’m working on cultivating my family’s farm property, which has helped me foster a deeper connection with the Jamaican land and the local people, especially through my portrait photography. I’m transfixed by the flora and fauna and ways of life there, which stand in contrast to my metropolitan upbringing in Kingston. I also periodically revisit family portraits, using family civil records that my cousins have been digging up. I’d like to create more sculptural works, notably in relation to issues of thorns and garments. I hope to acquire more thorns, such as those of the Jamaican prickelala tree or the silk floss tree, to use on garments and make enough variations to create a new installation. Lastly, my work will be included in a retrospective about Just Above Midtown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York later this year.
LMExcellent. Marci, could you please tell us about the upcoming Stanford exhibitions?
MKThe Asian American Art Initiative will have its public launch in fall 2022 with three exhibitions, including East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art, curated by Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, codirector of the AAAI. Institutional racism has led to this work being neglected, and I’m always struck by its physical vulnerability. In the 1970s, the young artist and collector Wylie Wong salvaged an incredible collection of photographs from May’s Photo Studio—the preeminent Chinese-run photography studio in San Francisco Chinatown—from the trash. In many ways, May’s Photo Studio is an equivalent to James Van Der Zee—both photographed their communities, and both worked in roughly the same time period. Some of the May’s Photo Studio images are collaged portraits that reunite families across geographic borders: fathers were working in the United States, while the women and children remained in China. I’ve been thinking a lot about family photographs and the archive with that in mind.
ACWow, that’s amazing.
MKYes, it’s been really, really—just the true privilege of my life.
The Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI), based at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, is devoted to the collection, preservation, exhibition, and study of work by Asian American and Asian diaspora artists.
Artwork © Albert Chong