Too often in art and popular culture one voice dominates the conversation — and too often that voice comes from white males. But the annual Art & You exhibit at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design seeks to show work that mirrors and celebrates the diversity of its students and the community.
“We are committed to showing underrepresented artists,” says Daina Savage, director of strategic communications at the school. “It’s important to ensure opportunities for the community to be able to see themselves in the work.”
Interestingly, the work in the Art & You exhibit pops because of what isn’t there or what has been removed. The two-person show features the work of Antonius-Tin Bui and Cupid Ojala. Bui and Ojala emphasize the underrepresentation, and often unseen work, of LGBTQ and nonwhite artists by making use of white space, negative space, contrast and juxtaposition. The work is powerful and revolutionary and seeks to move forward the conversation about identity politics, race, sexuality and inclusion.
“I think more than ever artists don’t have the privilege to exist in this art bubble,” Bui says. “We should be at the forefront. We should be making work that challenges that status quo. I think you’re either perpetuating a very Western heteronormative patriarchal idea of art or you’re pushing the conversation and creating space for community.”
Bui and Ojala agree that all art is inherently political, but they achieve their stunning results by approaching their work in totally different ways.
Bui was born in the Bronx and then moved to Houston and Maryland and is currently a resident artist at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Bui uses a process of cutting paper (by hand and sometimes with a laser cutter) until figures and images are revealed. They also employ their paper cutting technique to a series of reclaimed traditional Vietnamese and Chinese designs with powerful and queer-affirming slogans juxtaposed over them.
Ojala, a Brookyln-based artist and barber, shows multiple styles of ink on paper work including a series of drawings that suggests bodies using only the hair and a series featuring drawings of hybrid mythical creatures.
Ojala’s haunting hair pattern drawings, inspired by vintage pornography and erotica, provide just enough detail and white space for viewers to fill in their own image of what a body can be, and the visual puns of his Edward Gorey-like fantasy series allows humor, storytelling and imagination to bring his message of acceptance and joy across.
“The hair pattern drawings lean toward cisgender men, but really the figures are open to trans men’s bodies as well,” Ojala says. “You can’t necessarily tell them apart. You can still have all the wonderful hair patterns and be any shape or any size. People will use their imagination to fill in the body that they think fits or their desire of what they think the body should look like. People get to use their imaginations and that is very important to me.”
Bui works in various mediums such as drawings, textiles, photography and performance art, but the work on display at PCA&D is created primarily from cut paper.
“I think about obliteration,”Bui says. “All my paper starts off as blank white sheets, so I’m thinking about taking away whiteness or carving away at a history that’s continually perpetuated. I break down history and allow space for narratives that are often actively forgotten or erased.”
Bui’s portraits honoring their queer and transgender friends, including poet Ching-in Chen, emerge from the white void of paper through a meticulous and intricate process of cutting away the paper to reveal the subjects.
“I really wouldn’t be the person I am without these people,” Bui says “It’s just simply a way of honoring them, their work and their narratives. I think art really allows for glimpses of another reality. Glimpses of a time and space where we recognize and celebrate the beauty of black and brown folk. In my world queer and trans black and brown people are the most beautiful humans. Those are the people I look up to.”