So, how does it feel when the Seattle mayor asks you to make a work of art for the authoritarian president of a fifth of the world's population?
Only Louie Gong knows.
Tuesday, after the deed was done, Gong was allowed to talk about why he made what he made, and how he feels about it. (I asked a City of Seattle spokesperson to tell me how the Chinese president liked his present, but she left me hanging; all we know is that it happened.)
This is my phone interview with Gong.
Let's start with why the Mayor's Office chose you.
I live in the Central District. I have a studio at Inscape Arts. And I've been connected to the city’s Native employees and the people who are interested in Native issues because I use my art as a tool. So I think that is how they initially came to think of me.
Over the course of the last couple of months, we’ve been talking about how to coordinate the city’s official gifts to visiting dignitaries in 2016.
I decided to use my various influences from my Chinese and Native heritage. [Gong has Nooksack, Chinese, French, and Scottish heritage, and was raised by his grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community.]
They came to me with about two weeks' notice. It was quite a quick turnaround. But it was serendipitous that I was already collaborating with my uncle [Peter Gong, Squamish/Nooksack/Chinese], who made the bentwood box. I decided to apply one of my designs to one of my uncle's bentwood boxes.
Taking a week off to both coordinate and execute the art for this box, I didn’t take that decision lightly. But I thought it was such an honor and such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I had to do the best I could.
You mentioned talking to the mayor about all the visiting dignitaries for 2016. Is this box just for the Chinese president, or others, too?
We had a general discussion of creating a gift that the City of Seattle could have on hand, so that when the city needed a gift, there was something that represented the community well, that they could hand over. However, when they knew the president of China was coming, they immediately thought of me and recognized an opportunity to do something special.
And I think the box we created represents a fusion of Northwest Native art influences and Chinese culture. It does a really good job of representing the diversity of cultures in the Northwest.
The design, which you call "Guardian," has a Fu Dog on all four faces, watching every direction protectively.
The original dog design was created for the Wing Luke Museum, and it’s an 8-foot by 8-foot painting. I adapted the design for the box.
One thing that’s characteristic of the Fu dogs is there’s always a male and a female together. So I designed it so that there are two sides that come together to make the whole. One side is the female and one side is the male.
Because the box has four sides, I basically put two of those designs on the box, so that there’s one profile facing each of the directions.
But if you look at it from the corner, you can see a whole face.
The other painting is 8 by 8 feet, but it’s also 7 or 8 different colors. And because the scale’s so big, it also has three eagles.
When did you make it?
2013, I think, yes. I made it for the War Baby/Love Child exhibition at the Wing Luke that was focused on the mixed Asian experience.
Tell me, when they invited you a couple weeks ago, did you have any mixed feelings about the president of China given his political practices?
Um. Let me see. How should I answer that? Let’s see.
Take your time. It’s a little bit of an uncomfortable position to be in.
Yes and no. I feel like the complexity of politics are never lost on me, however as somebody who comes from a community-centric culture, or cultures—let’s put it this way, I recognize that the honor of being called on by the community in which I live to create a gift for the country from which my grandpa came outweighed any, um, it outweighed any concerns I might have had about people assuming I supported the—that the gift I created is some sort of affirmation of the president’s politics.
It wasn’t, I was concerned about, I had a second thought about how people might perceive it, not that I was actually affirming his politics.
I think I understand. Like I said, it’s awkward.
It definitely crossed my mind, but it was only for a second. Because it was very clear to me that the honor of the community in which I live choosing me to give a gift to the country in which I have ancestry made me very proud.
As an artist, I always say that I look at everything that I do as collaborations with the people in my family that came before me. So this wasn’t just me taking advantage of opportunity, this was a way of honoring the people in my family who established the foundation that I stand on today.
Have you heard anything about how President Xi liked the gift, or how the giving went down?
No! [The city spokesperson] knows more than me about that. I assume it’s going to be on TV and I’ll probably be able to watch with the rest of the people in the West Coast, to see what it was actually like.
Someone asked me how I expected him to react, or what did I think he would say when he saw the box, and what I said is that I hope that when he sees the box, he says nothing for a minute, and just experiences the box as something unique that he hasn’t seen before but understands that it’s a reflection of the region that we all live in.
I felt like we gave the mayor the right information to share with the president so that he understood it wasn’t just a regular box.
The body of that box was made of one piece of wood with special notches in it, and steamed in order to be bent into shape. A bentwood box is typically used for special occasions these days, though traditionally they were used for more regular occasions, like carrying things, storing things.
There's the design, and then the box, and both have functions, but one is often considered art, and the other utilitarian. This October will be your first foray into a fine art environment, with your gallery show at Artxchange with Jonathan Wakuda Fischer. Why haven't you wanted to be in galleries all along?
Right. Traditionally, when you put art on things, they were traditionally utilitarian things like spoons, bowls, clothes, or moccasins, our custom footwear. So when I first started doing shoes, people thought I was new and contemporary. I kept telling them, this is just the perpetuation of tradition. Moccasins are custom footwear.
I like the idea of doing art on traditional things. The idea of making something on a panel and having someone hang it in their house where other people will never see it was very foreign to me. It has taken me a long time to get used to the value of using my art that way.
To put designs on things that people can buy for 20 or 40 or 50 dollars allows me to reach a much greater amount of people. For the first few years, I really rejected doing the art thing. I’ve had a whole career as an activist around race and identity. I had never done an art show or really even been any part of the art community.
Can you describe the work you did as an activist, and why you left to become, as you call yourself, an artist and arts entrpreneur?
Basically, I had 20 years in education, starting off as a tutor working in my own tribal community, and I did that all the way through graduate school.
I moved into working in higher ed, and I started to get more and more involved with this work around race and identity. And in about 2003, I got on the board of the MAVIN Foundation, which is just called MAVIN now. At that time, it was a pretty prominent organization related to the experiences of mixed heritage people and families.
So for many years, I helped run that organization in addition to my day job.
What was your day job?
At that time, I was working at the University of Washington as a counseling services coordinator in the TRiO program.
So I did that [MAVIN] work for a number of years, and I was establishing myself as a person working on issues of mixed race nationally. Around 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy really shed a spotlight on the mixed-race experience, so there were tons of opportunities for us to share the work we were doing on a much larger platform. I’ve been featured on NBC Nightly News, been in the New York Times numerous times, probably have appeared in 100 media outlets, and that was all around what it means to be a person of mixed heritage in the United States.
What I do is, I take that academic-oriented discussion and bring it into an accessible message. I was really focused on being story-based.
In art, I’m still looking at accessibility as a message. I start with the idea I want to convey, not getting inspired by somebody else’s aesthetics or kind of a visual aesthetic that I want to achieve. I really start with the message I want to convey. So that experience is still in my work, and the number-one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that accessibility is key.
Right now, doing the work that I’m doing as an artist or an arts entrepreneur, I’m a lot more able to convey the message that Americans are a lot more complex than we’ve been led to believe. I’m far more effective than I was as a national leader around the mixed race experience. My tool is not words anymore, it’s art. For anybody who’s internalized the idea that their cultural or racial inheritance is at the margins, this is a much more effective way to generate change. So now I don’t really tell people what I think as much as I perform it.
I was going to ask you what the message was when you started President Xi's box, but I don’t know if that would be forcing you back into words.
For me, the box was a reflection of the Chinese diaspora in the United States. My experience as an indigenous person and my experience being the grandchild of an immigrant—it's a distinctly American experience. That story connecting Seattle and China is embedded in that box.
How big is it?
It's 8 by 10 inches.
Does it open?
Yes, the lid opens.
The way the box is made by bending the wood. That box will never fit another lid. The top and bottom of the box are red cedar, and the body of the box is yellow cedar. My uncle made that in his workshop just across the border in Canada.
I'm embarrassed to say I'm going to have to look up whether Nooksack is Salish because I can't remember. [Salish refers to a group of tribes sharing a language system, and indigenous to Seattle and its surroundings.]
We are Salish, yes. We are just outside of Bellingham.
In writing about art, I've often come across the problem that Coast Salish art is overshadowed by the Northern formline style. There have been countless exhibitions of formline art at museums and galleries, but the first time a museum organized a Salish show was just a few years ago, despite that Salish territory spans along the coast from Oregon all the way up into Canada, where the Northern coastal territories begin. There are three basic shapes in Salish art, right?
Yes. There's the crescent, the oval, and the trigon.
On the box you made for President Xi, what is Salish, and what is Northwest Coast?
Basically the box is mostly influenced by Northern-style art [formline]. My art typically has influences from Coast Salish and Northern-style art. The curly hair of the Fu dogs, that's made of trigons and ovals, and that's Salish.
Why do you mix Salish and Northern styles? What’s that about for you?
For me, just like any artist, I’m influenced by my environment and the things around me. I think that most Salish artists grow up without being able to distinguish between Northwest Coast and Coast Salish art, and it’s only later that you get that information.
So for me, I’m just very influenced by the dominance of Northwest Coast art in this region.
I started off in strictly Salish contemporary art, and later, I’ve come to embrace the idea that it’s okay to allow those [Northern] influences into my work.
I really like to challenge ideas of what authentic Native art is. The fine art and the museum scene tend to look at Native art as being something that needs to be a reflection of what Native people were doing at first contact. So it’s really important to share this idea that culture is something that changes and evolves all the time. While it’s important to understand what your traditions are, and what traditions you’re borrowing and to do that in a respectful way, growth and change isn’t something to be ashamed of.