Daughters of Lam at FiveMyles

In Dialogue with Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and Rachelle Dang

Rachelle Dang and Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow in front of Dang’s work at the opening of their exhibition Daughters of Lam at Five Myles.

Daughters of Lam at FiveMyles features work by two artists of Chinese descent – one from Jamaica and one from Hawai`i – paying tribute to Wifredo Lam, an artist who drew on an Afro-Cuban and Chinese heritage to create works evoking spirituality and the power of nature. Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and Rachelle Dang reflect in their installation work on notions of landscape, history, and myth.

AS: What is the genesis of your collaboration for this show and how you collaborate?

JLKC: Rachelle and I met around two years ago at the end of my first Asianish meet up. Asianish is an art collective where all participants are artists and curators who identify as Asian and other races, nationalities. When I overheard her talk about breadfruit in Hawai`i I had to get in on that conversation and ever since then we’ve been in dialogue. I’m continually fascinated with what I’ve learned of the commonalities between the colonial histories of our birthplaces, Hawai`i and Jamaica. Rachelle and I work very differently yet the landscape seems to be a common subject matter in our works. We both work with site-specificity, histories, and tropicality. When we met I think I had just returned a month prior from a school trip to Hangzhou, China where I lectured on Wifredo Lam’s work and its connection to mine.

Rachelle and I were collaborating on Asianish presentations and I think sharing our research as a collective really informed and inspired me. A curator friend of ours thought that we should show together before the FiveMyles opportunity actually came along. When it did it all happened very fast. The title of the show, Daughters of Lam kinda came up when we were ideating about a show together with completely different and older works. Rachelle invited me to show alongside her and we suddenly collaborated on the writing for the FCA Emergency Grant. We knew we wanted to show individual works.

RD: We have commonalities in our ancestry, and we are both from islands with colonial histories. We have Chinese ancestors who came from the same region of southern China. The earlier generations of my family worked as cane cutters in the sugar fields of Hawai`i, and did other kinds of agricultural and industrial work. I feel a connection to the Caribbean because of sugar, colonial legacies, and parallel histories of Chinese indentured and migrant labor. Jodie and I each have a mixed heritage – my father’s side is Chinese and Hawaiian. Our practices are different, yet deeply invested in transcultural and diasporic narratives. Although we don’t collaborate as a team, we keep the dialogue going.

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Swings, 2021, Photo: Etienne Frossard

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Journey to the Moon Garden, 2021. Photo: Etienne Frossard

AS: What will the visitor see as they enter the space?

JLKC: Swing (to the West) (2021) a semi-transparent white curtain with an image of a girl on a swing, greets the viewer and hangs directly in front of a framed drawing bearing a double or Rorschach view of the same image. Though each girl’s face is different the image alludes to twins colliding from opposite directions, east and west, framed within the swings’ ropes morphing into an ascending triangle pattern on the page. This work faces Rachelle’s sculpture, Dwelling of the Ant Ancestors (2021). Adjacent to the curtain and drawing is another drawing and a bamboo installation in the corner titled, Marvelously Real (2021). This totemic structure towers from the ceiling to the floor. At the top of it smaller branches of the bamboo intercept in horizontal and diagonal angles reminiscent of a lightning bolt. There are subtle gold accents and two live green bamboo plants at the bottom, their stems embracing with the text on their store bought branded labels, “I’m feeling Energized! Lucky Bamboo”.

Facing the street (on the right) is a wall piece titled, Over Yonder where painted bamboo sticks are suspended horizontally from the links of a chain. The chain is draped on the wall and falls in the standard silhouette of a house. A circular painted mirror hangs behind the gouache painted parts of the bamboo. In the far back right corner of the gallery is a smaller vertical sculpture piece made of gouache and acrylic painted bamboo, balanced by a broken red brick.

RD: In my work, Dwelling of the Ant Ancestors (2021), there is a stark contrast between the metallic biomorphic forms and the textured, otherworldly landscape beneath them. The shapes resemble strange mounds with vegetative protrusions. They convey a sense of mystery, ambiguity, and otherness. The sliver of landscape beneath these forms has the texture of tree bark, such that its ‘crater’ could also be the hollow of a tree. I elevated these elements on agricultural crates containing bone-dry ceramic leaves, evoking the shape of an altar, yet there is an incongruous element: a ceramic structure resembling a cage or trap alongside the tumescent forms.

AS: Can you zoom in on one specific piece in the show that you see as central – your idea, process, collaboration, and how it relates to Lam’s work?

JLKC: I’d like to zoom in on my piece, Marvelously Real (2021). Before making this piece I thought of one of Lam’s most well-known works, La Jungla (The Jungle) (1943) and how bamboo and sugarcane are featured amongst his abstracted figures in the fields. By stacking bamboo in this mostly vertical arrangement, I wanted to have the viewer reminded of the power of nature (amongst dead and live bamboo) and to be confronted with what it would have been like to walk in the fields of this tropical and wild landscape that Lam and others saw while in Cuba. Cuban critic and novelist Alejo Carpentier’s term marvelous real describes the surreal landscape of the Caribbean and how the marvelous arises out of an altered reality (the miracle) and how this notion leads to an exaltation of the spirit leading up to an extreme state. The Martiniqian and French surrealist writer and philosopher Rene Menil explains that everything becomes possible in the land of the marvelous since it has survived the perils of an arduous life.

RD: I love Jodie’s reference to the marvelous. Kobena Mercer wrote that the figures in Lam’s paintings are “border-crossing transgressors who move freely across animal, human and vegetal boundaries.” I created the biomorphic sculptures from my observations of a specific tropical plant, the ‘ant plant,’ which houses an ant population in its beautifully bulbous base. I came across this unique plant during my artist residency at Wave Hill (Bronx, NY), when I drew plants in the conservatory, reminiscent of Lam’s experience as a young artist drawing at the Botanical Gardens in Havana. I considered symbiotic relationships between insects and plants as a model for better human interaction with nature and with each other. Ants were also the first farmers. My sculptures seemed to resemble the anatomy of the human heart, so I thought of familial relations and my own ancestors who did agricultural labor. My work contains these shifting references to nature, family, and intertwined care, evoked through the strange, magisterial beauty of tropical plants.

Rachelle Dang, Dwelling of the Ant Ancestors, 2021, glazed earthenware, air-dried clay, epoxy, wood, paint, crocheted heirloom, dimensions variable. Photo: Etienne Frossard

AS: You say in your text on Daughters of Lam that you both – “consider home, haves and have-nots, what could have been, what is hopeful, and what has been lost.” Can you elaborate on this idea and how it comes through in your exhibition?

JLKC: Home is not necessarily a single place. I think of my ancestral homes as my home too, just one where I less frequently reside but with that comes the ‘what could have been’. I think of the homes that my Chinese and African ancestors left behind, what customs and traditions were no longer practiced and observed due to colonization/Christianization. My bamboo wall piece, Over Yonder (2021) is an abstracted view of a windowscape and within it a horizon in the upper left side containing a circular window behind it. This is my representation of the sun or the moon hovering over a beachscape sunset. I thought of the horizons that my ancestors may have seen on their journeys to the Caribbean via the Atlantic. This seascape is the space of transitions, in between homes. The structural support and frame of this piece is outlined with heavy duty steel chains. The chains for me symbolize the journey of the enslaved Africans and henceforth the indentured servitude of the Chinese under contracts of imperialism. At the same time the chain in the shape of a house is symbolic of the American dream an immigrant often has and the debt that comes with it. One is confined to the system, chained to labor, and one’s escape is looking through a window, daydreaming off to the horizon. For some Caribbean immigrants, the view of actual sunsets back home is out of reach since it’s expensive to travel back home.

In my piece, Journey to the Moon Garden (2021) there’s a broken red brick that I brought back from my last trip to China Art Academy in Hangzhou, China in 2017 after lecturing on Wifredo Lam’s work as inspiration and its connection to the Caribbean landscape. I brought it home to the US from an open construction site there. It balances mostly upside-down bamboo with the exception of one golden upright stem. This symbolizes the disconnection of the land in China while nodding to the constant construction sites and urban development prevalent in today’s China. The brick is a reminder of the newly built sites which serve as a replacement for the more ancient sites that once held these histories. As a performative act I’ve transplanted this broken brick here in the US and wondered if the laborers on the construction site back in Hangzhou would notice this loss. The brick also serves as a reminder of the labor of the Chinese ancestors and the foundations they laid here in the West.

RD: While creating this work for Daughters of Lam and thinking of ancestors, I imagined a yearning for transcendence from difficult circumstances through love for family and an adopted home.

Installation view (from street) of Daughters of Lam. Photo: Etienne Frossard

Daughters of Lam at FiveMyles Featuring Rachelle Dang and Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow
Runs through May 30th, 2021

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com