By Kari Lindberg
A pair of chopsticks, a small table laden with bowls of sweet dumpling soup being eaten by an older Chinese woman, a wall painted the color of yellow pus with air bubbles and peeling flakes are all images reflected back in the photographs hanging on the second-floor mezzanine gallery of the new Pearl River Mart, at 385 Broadway.
The images are part of a multimedia exhibition titled, “Resilience / Resistance,” by the Chinatown Art Brigade, a collective of Asian American artists, media makers and activists with roots in New York City’s Chinatown, and will be running until Sun., Jan. 22.
Co-founded in 2015 by Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong and Betty Yu, the Chinatown Art Brigade seeks to use art to address broader issues of displacement and gentrification in Chinatown. According to the New York University Furman Center’s “State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods in 2015” report, the Chinatown / Lower East Side area has seen a 50.3 percent percentage change in average rent from 1990 to 2010-2014, making it one of the city’s most gentrified neighborhoods during that period, second only to Williamsburg.
“Resilience / Resistance” provides a platform for the Chinatown Art Brigade to build a bridge between the Chinatown community and local residents unaware of its changes. In doing so, the exhibition has grounded its work on art produced by Chinese tenants experiencing landlord harassment.
“What makes our artwork unique, is that it is really centered around the tenants,” said co-founder Yu. “Not only are they resilient — like the title of the show — but also they’re doing their own organizing.”
Highlighting the tenant artwork is a series of six photos by three local Chinese tenant leaders who are organizing their buildings to fight against their housing conditions: Mimi Yan, who is still involved in a lawsuit with her landlord over living conditions; Zheng Zhi Qin, whose landlord cut off her building’s hot water as an eviction strategy; and David Tang, who was subjected to construction harassment by his landlord to make his building so unlivable that residents would rather move out.
Together their six photos show snippets of daily lives, ranging from a tradition of making sweet dumpling soup with friends and family, to buying produce from vendors underneath the Manhattan Bridge, to the physical walls of their home — yellowed with years of water damage.
Daily life is also given a voice though three continuously looping documentaries, made by co-founders Yu and See. One film by Yu documents her parents’ lives as Chinatown garment workers, while two others by See portray older Chinatown residents.
Adding to the emotional, visual and auditory mix are infographics made by Yu. These plainly state market-rate rents for the area as ranging from $1,200 to $9,500, compared to $934, which would be the rent for affordable housing for a family of four making the average median rent of $37,362.