You worked in America for a long time and were stuck in New York because of the pandemic. What was it like to be locked in New York? As a Chinese, did you have any problems in New York?
I heard about the abuse and attacks on Chinese people on the news. Personally, I have not experienced any anti-Chinese resentment. Only once, during the first outbreak of the pandemic, did it happen that a car suddenly sped by while I was walking down the street and I was soaked from head to toe. I was ashamed and my first thought was if I accidentally stepped on the street. But I was moving on the sidewalk, still three feet from the curb, so I suspected it was on purpose, hopefully just a kid who took a prank on himself for fun.
Before arriving in New York, you traveled to Eagle Pass, Ciudad de Juarez, and elsewhere along the US-Mexico border. Like classic painters, you paint outside, right in front of the subject. What is the relationship between seeing and painting for you?
I stick to reality as directly as possible, which is why, at a young age, I was very close to the neorealist avant-garde film in China. The reality that I see with my eyes tells me how to paint something, when to put the brush down and the picture is ready. Constant contact with things and people enables me to set a limit, without which there is no freedom in my painting. Accompanied by Alice Driver, an independent reporter who has specialized in writing about migrants in Mexico for four years, we drove along the border by car without knowing what to expect. On this trip I got an insight into the daily life of the people on both sides of the border, from citizens, migrants and police officers. Sometimes the border consists of the newly built wall, sometimes it is the river. I wanted to learn and record more about the relationship between regulation and freedom, between borders and freedom of movement. Along the way, I wondered if the territorial borders weren’t a bit like the psychological ones that separate people.
You have often painted minorities – migrant workers, outsiders, but also rich women from China who, living in Jakarta, form a minority there. What experiences did you have on your trip?
In Mexico we visited three refugee camps and two families. In Ciudad de Juarez, the Mexican sister city of El Paso, Texas, on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, Alice introduced me to an old documentary photographer. He took us to the border, which we reached after a walk. There were many small exchange offices on the streets. The border is a canal with little water, not a soul around us, only water birds that drank from the canal. America is on the other side of the newly built steel wall. In the afternoon we went to a migrant camp very similar to the one I had seen in Milan, a large courtyard with a guarded gate.
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