History-informed futures

Angela Chan interviews Beatrice Glow. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Artist-researcher Beatrice Glow’s extensive commitment to public history shapes her work across social-botanical history, dispossession, enslavement, migrations and extractive economies. Building long term projects directly with communities, Beatrice maps complexly interconnected colonial histories through grounded investigations and emerging technologies. Currently on a residency, Beatrice chats from Singapore with Angela Chan in the UK about her work and science fiction’s capacity to tell truthful histories and envision just futures together. 

Clay Pipe, Smoke Trails Series, 2021, Beatrice Glow, VR Sculpture. The reference image is from an obsolete 2 dollar bank note from the Timber Cutter’s Bank, Savannah, Georgia, United States, and features a smiling Black woman carrying a child and carrying tobacco leaves in her apron.

AC: Hello Beatrice, thank you for calling with me. Given the array of your practice, how would you like to describe yourself as a practitioner and what are the key themes that guide your outlook and activities? 

BG: It’s constantly going through evolutions, and at the moment, I think of myself as a multidisciplinary artist-researcher in service of public history. I activate many different mediums across art, from sculptural installations to video, to emerging technologies, and all of that with the intent to meet my audience where they are. Public engagement is an important factor in my practice, and for the art, to shift a dominant narrative.

AC: I first experienced your work through your solo exhibition Forts and Flowers (2019) at Taipei Contemporary Art Center, which is part of the larger community-centred project Rhunhattan: A Tale of Two Islands (2016 – ongoing). That was my entry point into the many extended investigations you sensitively spend time with. They often focus on everyday elements of migration, extraction and globalisation, such as etymology, perfumes, tableware, nutmeg, architecture. How did you begin mapping these complex and multiple histories of colonisations, and as aligned with indigenous land sovereignty and climate justice?

BG: I’m glad you got something out of that exhibition, because it was a small attempt at trying to bring that story to my ancestral homeland in terms of the larger history that ties together the different migration flows, the circulation of people, goods, cultures between Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Great Ocean in between. 

Place is very important to me in how we shape ourselves and reflect on who we are through lived experiences. Growing up in North America, with family in South America, and parents from Taiwan, I’ve always had in mind how my family’s experiences are different by place. After university I had an amazing opportunity in receiving a Fulbright grant, and I moved to Peru, where there is the largest Asian Latin American population. The year before that, I had been to Argentina for a few months to meet my family, and that really piqued my interest in the different ways in which we experience belonging and feeling safe as racialised people in this world. My uncle, whom I met there, seemed very much not to have been in a safe place for most of his experience; he slept with a pistol under his pillow. They went through the saqueo in the early 2000s in Argentina so they had a very different idea of what it means to be a racialised minority. It made me interested in this side of history, and I was also surprised about the way I was treated as a romanticised ethnic Other. Experiencing humorous yet strange questions/encounters or microaggressions, I guess, led into my early development as an artist: just trying to poke fun but ask questions around identity and perception, and how we show up as racialised bodies. 

So in Peru, I wanted to look at the longer history of Asian presence in South America, and that brought me to so many homes of people with diasporic histories. I visited many cemeteries, for records of Japanese and Chinese labourers, which uncovered difficult histories. I also traced the railroads from Lima city all the way up to the Andes. I finally took a boat ride in Iquitos, which is a city in a jungle in the Amazonian river basin, looking for the village called Chino, which on a basic level means Chinese. But really the word Chino is an imaginary word to me: it has many definitions in Spanish, the colloquial language and its slang. Meaning orange in Puerto Rico, it can also mean an indigenous person in Central America, 50 cents in Peru, or cannabis, in reference to squinty eyes one has after smoking. So I was looking for Chino in its plethora of meanings. When I finally arrived, they said I was the first chinita to arrive, but I don’t identify as Chinese. I was placed under that umbrella, and I was placed to think about how we are read. 

That experience also allowed me as a young person to visit the Guano Islands where Chinese ‘coolies’ were forced to do labour, and where the first railroads in Latin America were built to transport the guano on these islands. These horrific places that inflicted violence on these people, and trying to understand that history, also allowed me to see the complexities of where my privileges were, and where my disadvantages were. I met teachers who were of indigenous and mixed race ancestry, white Peruvians, and Afro-Peruvians who also have Chinese ancestry that’s not so much documented, which informed what it means for me to be a visibly racialised settler in South America.   

That set the scene for me, regarding how we tell important stories, and what the artist’s role is in recovering stories that are not told. A lot of people had entrusted me with the responsibility, telling me I’m the first person to ask them these questions and allowed me to do their interviews and they shared their family photos. It was a gift that I could stay for two years doing this work with people. When I travelled back to the US, I thought about the stories that slip through the gaps in the archives, and one of the main ones was the pre-Columbian connection between Asia and the Americas, which signaled to me the Great Ocean, known also as the Pacific. There’s one founding myth in the northern coastal region of Peru, of Señor del Naylamp who arrived on a boat, and he had almond-shaped eyes, and many concubines and ‘brought civilisation.’ There are many archaeological references to this character, and people were wanting to tell me that our ancestral heritages are related, like in these stories. Such folklore and artwork allow for more speculative understandings of history than the archives of history books. It made me think about the Great Ocean, and growing up in California, my mother’s brother would say if you look out to the west, you’ll see Taiwan. This sparked my imagination that despite geographical differences, you’re always connected to a place. 

I’m presently on a residency, and I’m in the Malay archipelago that’s a homeland of many Austronesian peoples, and their history is under-discussed in the world. The general consensus in linguistic research, which some contest, is that Austronesian peoples set sail from Taiwan around five to six thousand years ago, and people speak Austronesian languages across Taiwan, Aotearoa, Madagascar, Hawaii, Indonesia, Philippines, Rapa Nui, just to name a few. So it’s a very beautiful story about human connection that’s also seen in certain foods of the Pacific that are found in the Andes. Those are the stories I’m interested in about Asia and the Americas, in which history doesn’t begin with Columbus; it’s an anti-colonial narrative I began following then, even if I didn’t realise this at my younger age. So you see, I’m mapping a very big map! 

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