By Hrag Vartanian

The artist released a statement after Sunday’s protests, and the protesters have responded.

After Sunday’s protests at James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan’s Chinatown, artist Omer Fast released a statement comparing the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and their activist allies to “right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built.”

According to the protesters, Sunday’s rally came after CAB received no response to their letter to the gallery and artist. The artist has declined to speak directly to the protesters or the media. He released a statement through his gallery yesterday.

 Chinatown Art Brigade and allies pasting up the protest placard with their letter to the gallery and artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Chinatown Art Brigade and allies pasting up the protest placard with their letter to the gallery and artist. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fast writes:

The actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.

The Chinese have been part of the US for centuries and their presence in Chinatown specifically dates to the late 19th century at the very least, so it’s not clear what exactly the artist sees as “foreign.”

The artist is “surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling” without citing specific terms, but then compares the mostly Asian-American protesters to white supremacists by writing, “I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.”

He also adds: “A group of protestors hanged a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing ‘a non-US and non-New York artist.’” The artist understands it as a form of xenophobia. It appears the artist may be referring to the original letter that was enlarged and taped to the front of the gallery.

Alicia Grullon, who was a speaker representing Mothers on the Move (MOM) at Sunday’s protest, was disappointed by the artist’s response.

“Since Fast completely missed the point of Sunday’s protest, here’s perhaps a critique he might understand,” she wrote to Hyperallergic in a long email reflecting on Fast’s video piece also on display at the James Cohan Gallery. The video is inspired by the life of August Sander, the German photographer. She believes Sander’s work may touch on a few things that Fast may be missing.

“As noted on the Tate Museum’s website, ‘Five Things to Know About August Sander‘:  ‘Sander once said ‘The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.’ He believed that, through photography, he could reveal the characteristic traits of people. He used these images to tell each person’s story; their profession, politics, social situation and background.’

“Beyond superficial observation, the depth of Sanders’s relationship is in the exchange occurring in the lens — the comfort in the space allowing what needs to be said about a very specific place and time. This level of connection is one for which many documentary photographers aim. If Omer Fast (and on that note the curatorial team at James Cohan as well) had dedicated research, thought, and care in understanding Sanders’s portraits as testaments of successful relationships between artist and subject, Fast’s rather empty installation of a Chinatown shop before gentrification, as noted in his artist statement, could have been avoided. Yet perhaps the installation is a portrait of Fast — shallow and blinded by the colonized gaze.”

Today, CAB released an extensive statement in response to Omer Fast, and it is published at the bottom of this post in full. CAB suggests there may be a contradiction in the gallery claiming both censorship and that “our protest was exactly what their artist intended.”

They wrote that they “are not interested in responding to these comments by the gallery or engaging in any future dialogue with the artist and his apologists.”

And they explained that “We prefer to speak about who we are, our work and about the community that the artist and gallery felt free to ‘transform’ and appropriate.”