"An Illustrated Vocabulary of Tenderness"
"An Illustrated Vocabulary of Tenderness" is a growing series of artworks based on language flashcards that serves as a tool for storytelling and building solidarities.
Audrey Chan (b. 1982, Chicago, Illinois) is a Los Angeles-based artist, illustrator and educator. Her research-based projects use drawing, painting, public art and video to challenge dominant historical narratives through allegories of power, place and identity. She received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts and a BA with honors from Swarthmore College. Chan was commissioned by L.A. Metro to create a large-scale public artwork for the future Little Tokyo/Arts District Metro Station, opening in 2022. She was a visiting artist faculty in the Program in Art at California Institute of the Arts and the inaugural artist-in-residence at the ACLU of Southern California.
Artist Q & A
What inspired you to create “An Illustrated Vocabulary of Tenderness”?
I began “An Illustrated Vocabulary of Tenderness” in January 2020 as a series of gouache paintings on paper during an artist residency at the Sam Francis Gallery. Like many children of immigrants, I have a fragile grasp of my inherited language. Although Mandarin is one of my family’s spoken dialects, I realized I needed to approach learning it as if it were a foreign language. This led me to play with the form of bilingual flashcards (which I had as a child), substituting generic vocabulary with words, images and subjects that resonated with me more intimately. The invitation to create new work for The Music Center’s For the Love of L.A. led me to expand the series as a tool to build AAPI solidarity through storytelling. I wanted to acknowledge that we each contain multitudes and that a single word has the potential to open up layers of meaning and recognition. The larger AAPI/API public comprises people from more than 40 ethnicities who speak more than 100 dialects. We are far from a monolith and it is a constant struggle to be present to each other and ourselves, much less within an American culture molded by white supremacy.
What was your process in choosing these specific words, and why did you choose to have each of the flashcards represent a specific Asian language?
Each flashcard is composed of interconnected indexical relationships among the image, text in a chosen language, English translation, Anglicized/Romanized pronunciation guide and the relationship of the viewer to the subject, culture and/or language represented.
I composed flashcards that alluded to historical and recent anti-Asian violence (the murders of Vincent Chin and massage spa workers), legacies of American imperialism (Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawai’i) and labor and solidarity struggles in the U.S. and in ancestral lands (nurses and care workers from the Philippines and the ongoing farmers’ protest in India). I want to emphasize that this iteration of the project should not be considered “complete” and is already seeding ideas for more narrative combinations. I am energized by the pull between representations of the “ordinary” and “extraordinary” in narratives of communities of color. My work as a visual artist is about that tension and also the process of manifesting what I need to see more of in the world.
What do you hope the audience takes away from this piece?
People can engage with the flashcards at different levels, whether it’s learning a single word or imagining what words and images they would want to add to this illustrated vocabulary. I think it’s important for people to build their own systems of knowledge. We need to embrace learning about and uplifting each other in solidarity with all historically marginalized communities as we strive for our intertwined liberation. This illustrated vocabulary is designed to expand over time and respond to the people and histories that may intersect with it. I was interested in the built-in contradiction of flashcards in that they have the potential to flatten or oversimplify while being a learning tool. In future iterations, I’m interested in seeing how a single word or idea could be refracted through different images and contexts.
In light of the recent hate crimes against the AAPI community, what is the role of awareness in supporting the AAPI community?
During this time, my appreciation of the many possible meanings of “tenderness” has deepened. A wound feels tender and raw. Tenderness is a softening of what may have become hardened over time. Tenderness is vulnerability. To be tender is to handle someone with care. Tenderness is an expression of love. AAPI stories are rife with contradictions and conflicts and passions that the American imagination is ill-equipped to grasp, but our layered and prismatic worldview is our source of strength. The despicable hate crimes, harassment, shunning and bullying committed against our community stem from a hateful lack of imagination and violent resistance to a diasporic resilience that has persisted for generations. Awareness is always just a starting point. People need to be willing to step outside of their own experience and fixed sense of identity, which is what immigrants and colonized people have had to do for generations to survive and thrive.
What is one piece of advice you would share with your younger self?
Keep drawing and keep asking questions.