Sensing Out of Numbness: A Conversation With Shin Yu Pai

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—Cynthia “Mama” Green

by Jasmine J. Mahmoud


How do we sense at this time? With the onslaught of violence against Asian American and Asian Diasporic people, the horrifyingly regular state-sanctioned murders of Black and Brown people (including CHILDREN), and general harm towards those who our society minoritizes, I’ve been feeling numb and guilty in my inability to sense, as well as to post, donate, fight, and make sense of what’s going on. How do we sense well at this time?

I always return to the arts. I remain endlessly thankful for artists who orient our senses to take stock of this world and imagine new ones. In this column, I’m featuring poet, photographer, and multidisciplinary artist Shin Yu Pai, whose recent exhibition work at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, as well as recent publication, Ensō, asks us to imagine lyrically. The column closes with a list of events — including film screenings, poetry readings, art exhibitions, and workshops — that also situate and expand our capacity to sense.

cover image of Enso by Shin Yu Pai
The cover of Ensō , a publication by Shin Yu Pai

Last month, I found myself moving through the recently reopened Wing Luke. In a small room on an upper floor, I grew transfixed with a series of oil paintings. In one, patrons in black shirts and white and gray coats sit on wooden stools and consume food and drink. We mostly see the back of their heads, as they face towards a take-out counter and open kitchen situated in the frame’s background. Other details — such as overhead exhaust venting and the glaring glow of round overhead lighting — frame this painting’s representation of interior space, as does an impressionist blur that washes over the canvas, softening edges. This is Larine Chung’s Tea House (2015), which features an everyday scene of life in Hong Kong. It is part of Chung’s Homecoming series, exploring home and belonging.

Lost in this world of urban streetscapes and restaurants, I was similarly moved by other work in Paths Intertwined, an exhibition at the Wing that centers works by artists of the Taiwanese and Chinese Diaspora: Agnes Lee, ZZ Wei, Larine Chung, May Kytonen, Jenny Ku, Shin Yu Pai, Ellison Shieh, and Monyee Chau. Also moving, the opening didactic wall text that introduced me to this art through poetic writing. It begins: “In the palace of memory, children of the diaspora walk through empty rooms and turn the pages of unfixed photo albums, asking ‘Where do I belong?’”

These words were penned by poet Shin Yu Pai, who also shows video work in this exhibition (and also wrote the interpretive text for the Where Beauty Lies exhibition on the Wing’s first floor). For Paths Intertwined, she told me “the writing of the text … was like a process for me of writing a poem … They gave me a word count. I thought about the artworks that are in the show itself by artists of the diaspora and the kinds of patterns and themes and self-portraits of faceless people, and this kind of nostalgia for places that you’ve never been or that no longer remain, except in memory.”

Pai also described how she used the Greek concept of “memory palaces” to anchor her writing, noting that “opening metaphor helped me to construct a mental museum in which I could stroll through these galleries, looking at the memories of these artists or [what] they imagined, which in some cases became a blend of memory and imagination.” 

Pai’s own work in this exhibition — a video for Embarkation —draws from, she tells me “a trip that I made to Taiwan in 2018, where my visit coincided with a recurring traditional folk festival drawn from Taoist tradition.”

Screenshot from “Embarkation” by Shin Yu Pai.

She continued:

“The Wang Yeh Boat Burning Festival happens every three years in Donggang. It was a festival that came from Fujian, China, and made its way over to Taiwan. The community takes a year to build a giant wooden boat that instead of piloting on the waters, they carry around the streets of the town, while residents load … it up with broken dreams, misfortunes, and illnesses of the past year. They parade it day and night, through the streets, and moor it on the beach at night around midnight. They end up incinerating the boat … it goes up in this brilliant spectacle that takes about 45 minutes. The ritual that is involved with preparing the boat for its journey – from my perspective of somebody who’s living outside of that culture but feels connected to it – I see it as a ritual of purification, or cleansing. And a way of working with grief. I was taken with this particular practice and knew that I wanted to make something about it with the footage I had. Embarkation re-imagines this traditional ritual and transforms it into a personal grief ritual for letting go of some things I needed to.”

Screenshot from “Embarkation” by Shin Yu Pai.
Screenshot from “Embarkation” by Shin Yu Pai.
Screenshot from “Embarkation” by Shin Yu Pai

I asked Pai about what her work and Paths Intertwined means for the Seattle region. She contextualized the long-term planning of museum exhibitions that often happen years out from when they are first conceptualized. “They happen when they happen,” she said. “And right now we’re in a strange time of museums because of the pandemic. Shows that are staying up past their scheduled date with artwork that can’t be seen. They open when they can open.” Pai also mentioned that she hasn’t been to see her artwork in the show in person yet, out of anxiety about violence towards Asians and Asian Americans.

But she also added insight on engaging this work at this time. “The show opened during a time when there is a rise and a spike in Anti-Asian violence and hate crimes,” Pai narrativized. “The timing of the show wasn’t contrived to create the opportunity for commentary on current events. But it happened to be opening during a certain historical moment. So, when you ask me about, ‘What it means for Seattle?’ I feel what it means is that for people who don’t know much about Chinese American artists or artists of the diaspora and/or how they relate to or connect to their culture or cultural traditions, this show is an opportunity for people from outside those communities to come in and look at the many ways in which Chinese American artists are innovating the ways in which they reflect upon and interrogate their identities and their cultures. It is this opportunity to support Chinese Americans by engaging with their stories and their imagination.”

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Pai published Ensō. She told me:

“It’s about a year old now, but it still feels like a very young book because I just don’t know how it has circulated in the world. It’s a book that’s still very much alive for me.  Ensō is a survey of 20 years of creative practice across different creative disciplines, working in animation, installation, music, photography, long poem sequences, alongside personal essays, that contextualize and talk about why I made those particular bodies of work. I also write about collaborations I’ve had with people in my community and what the artistic community has meant to me in terms of how it’s impacted my own creative practices. … this book is my thank you to my collaborators. ”

This month and beyond, I am holding onto Pai’s work as a way to recalibrate sensing: supporting minoritized folks by engaging with stories and imagination, engaging visual arts through that medium itself as well through lyric expression and memory, and thanking community and collaborators who support artistic work and antiracist social progress. 

Upcoming Events (all times listed are Pacific Time)

Black Cinema Collective + Wa Na Wari. This film/artist event HOMESTORIES OF be/LONGING is a special screening + communing of Black art films” by Adama Delphine Fawundu, Crystal Z Campbell, Kamari Bright, Mia Imani, followed by an artist panel. Organized by curator, Berette S Macaulay, the event takes place virtually on Thursday, May 13 at 5:30 p.m., and asks expansive questions, including “While we course-correct histories, how do we sustain our ancestral memories with witnessing and wonderment to cultivate new futures? When considering the role of caretakers and storytellers, how do we nourish indigenous and diasporic kinfolk and the earth? How do we re-figure our co-existent “right to rights” and our right to belong?” 

Poster provided by Black Cinema Collective.  Design:  Chile Dulce, BCC co-organizer.

Frye Art Museum. Virtual events include Lorde Knows #2 (Saturday, April 24 at 12:30 p.m. via Zoom), a poetry reading in dialogue Anastacia-Renée’s solo exhibition (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts with four of her beloved poets Mahogany L. Browne, Cynthia Manick, Natasha Ria El-Scar, and avery r. young.  If in-person viewing is available to you, Anastacia-Renée’s solo exhibition runs through Sunday, April 25. 704 Terry Avenue, Seattle, Wash.  

LANGSTON & Henry Art Gallery. Join Black poet Carlynn Newhouse for “The Memories of Home,” a two-part online workshop (first writing and then performance) in dialogue with the Henry’s Gary Simmons: The Engine Room exhibition. Register ASAP for the events that take place on Sunday, May 2, and May 9 at 1 p.m. 

Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery. Browse virtually, or wear a mask and see the current work at Jake Prendez’s White Center community arts space dedicated to Latinx art. Thursdays to Sundays, 12-6 p.m. 9414 Delridge Way SW, Seattle, 98106.

Seattle Art Museum. Among the art institutions that have opened over the past few months, SAM requires timed tickets to view exhibitions across its capacious, multi-floor space. Don’t miss Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle (through May 23, requires special timed tickets), the 30-panel series by the Atlantic City-born, Harlem-raised artist who moved to Seattle in 1970 to work as faculty at the University of Washington’s art department; in addition to Lawrence’s panels, recent works by Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, Hank Willis Thomas — as well as Seattle youth — animate the civic resonance of that exhibition. Make sure to also check out Barbara Earl Thomas’ The Geography of Innocence, the illuminatory exhibition of mesmerizing portraits and light sculptures (through January 2, 2022). 1300 First Avenue, Seattle

Part of the Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (through May 23, requires special timed tickets) “. . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, Jacob Lawrence, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Seattle Black Film Festival @ LANGSTON. Immerse yourself in Black films as part of the 18th edition of the Seattle Black Film Festival (SBFF), which again runs virtually this year. There are over 70 official selection films to screen; my favorites include T.E.M.P.L.E. – Tell ‘Em My People Leave Enriched Documentary, Lamont Nathaniel Gibson’s vibrant film about the encroachment of Temple University on North Philadelphia’s Black Community, and A Promising Voice, about a Black music major at the University of Arkansas. In addition to films, panels amplify festival themes, including “Decolonizing the Narrative with our #Own Voices” on Sat., April 24 at 4 p.m. (moderated by me and with Black scholars/writers Dr. Adetola Abatan, Martin Douglas, and Dr. Brittnay Proctor); “Black Love, Self Love” on Saturday, April 24 at 7 p.m.; “A Diaspora in Displacement,” moderated by C. Davida Ingram on Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m.; and emerging cinematic voices as part of “Our Identity, Our Future,” on Sunday, April 25 at 6 p.m. 

Tacoma Art Museum. TAM reopened last week for ticketed, in-person, masked entry. There are a host of exhibitions: Native Portraiture: Power and Perception includes contemporary works by Native artists that counter anti-Native representations; Painting Deconstructed: Selections from the Northwest Collection features paintings by BIPOC artists framed through four aspects: medium and support, composition, color, and technique. Both exhibitions are on extended view. 1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, 98402.

Wa Na Wari. After celebrating its second birthday earlier this month, the Black art house continues with amazing events, includingthe virtual Lyric Poetry Online Viewing of Rachel Eliza Grifitth’s Poetry Videoson Thursday, April 29 at 6 p.m. 

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific Experience. In addition to the exhibitions named above check out permanent exhibitions as well as Guilty Party (though May 16), centering pleasure, social media, and adornment, and Community Spread: How We Faced a Pandemic which opens May 7. On Saturday, April 24 at 2 p.m., the Wing hosts a virtual panel featuring Shin Yu Pai, Agnes Lee, and ZZ Wei, facilitated by Fred Wong. Other upcoming events include the kick-off to the Spring Book-O-Rama 2021; on Saturday, May 1 at 2:30 p.m. the virtual series spotlights “Awesomely Inspiring Icons!” featuring Awesome Asian Americans by Oliver Chin and Phil Amara, illustrated by Juan Calle, and We Are Inspiring by Angel Trazo, and moderated by Joan Dy. 719 S. King Street, Seattle.  

Xavier Kelley @ Columbia City Gallery. The South Seattle artist makes colorful, graphic, large-scale works that reference his life as a young Black male athlete, wading through questions of pop culture, family, and oppressive structures. Through May 9. 4864 Rainier Ave. South, Seattle.


Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.

📸 Featured image: Screenshot from “Embarkation” by Shin Yu Pai.

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