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Gallery Defends 'Chinatown' Display Critics Call Racist 'Poverty Porn'

By Allegra Hobbs | October 16, 2017 4:17pm
 Protestors accused the James Cohan Gallery of hosting a racist exhibition that reduces the surrounding immigrant community to
Protestors accused the James Cohan Gallery of hosting a racist exhibition that reduces the surrounding immigrant community to "poverty porn."
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DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

LOWER EAST SIDE — Dozens of protesters descended on a Grand Street gallery Sunday, saying an installation mimicking a Chinatown business amounts to racist "poverty porn" and ridicules the struggling immigrants often displaced by newcomers such as art galleries.

Jerusalem-born video artist Omer Fast has transformed the exterior and interior of the James Cohan Gallery on the border of Chinatown into "the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic," according to a description on the gallery's website

The description calls the installation an "ambiguous gesture" intended to reflect on gentrification, representing "a futile attempt to roll back the clock and speak about community, citizenship and identity" by turning the space into what it may have looked like before.

The space features holes in the walls, a damaged awning, broken ATMs and damaged, mismatched tiles — an insensitive display local activists said reduces the surrounding immigrant community to "poverty porn."

"The conception and installation of this show reifies racist narratives of uncleanliness, otherness and blight that have historically been projected onto Chinatown," stated a letter from artist collective Chinatown Art Brigade, read aloud through a megaphone by co-founder Betty Yu inside the gallery Sunday as the gathered protestors echoed her words in unison.

"We cannot underscore enough how offensive this is to the people who live and work here. The artist's choice to ignore the presence of a thriving community filled with families and businesses reduces their existence to poverty porn."

DNAinfo/Allegra Hobbs

And the gallery itself is an agent of gentrification, adding insult to injury for locals facing displacement and tenant harassment, the letter states.

The James Cohan Gallery opened its first outpost in Chelsea in 1999 and expanded to the Lower East Side two years ago, replacing a fish market that once occupied the 291 Grand St. space, near Eldridge Street, according to the New York Times. The Lower East Side, known for its rich immigrant history, has attracted a bevy of art galleries amid the neighborhood's rapid gentrification. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2008 placed the Lower East Side on its list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.

Writer Danielle Wu penned a critical opinion piece on the installation for the art blog Hyperallergic several days prior to the protest, which the collective credited with raising awareness of the issue.

After reading the letter aloud, Yu led protestors in chants of "Omer Fast your art is trash" and "Hey-hey, ho-ho, Cohan gallery has got to go." Demonstrators held up signs reading, "Racist art has no business here!" while those outside unfurled a large, yellow banner reading, "Racism Disguised as Art."

Gallery visitors clashed with protesters throughout the demonstration, as those entering and exiting the gallery were met with boos and chants of "Shame." In one instance, when met with protesters blocking the door, a man attempting to exit the gallery forcibly shoved a 20-year-old female protester aside — an act the protester said seemed to reflect the essence of the conflict over the gallery.

"I was trying to occupy the space again, and being physically shoved out of the space was really symbolic," Chinatown resident Wing Ng said.

Yu said the collective had sent the letter she read aloud to the gallery over a week prior to the protest, and had still not received a response. The collective brought a large copy of the letter, which demands the exhibition be shut down, and taped it to the gallery exterior after the protest. 

Through a megaphone, Yu repeatedly asked a gallery employee to come outside and accept the letter. No one did, but the gallery later released a statement.

"We support the right of free speech by the protesters to Omer Fast’s exhibition at the gallery. We also support our artist’s right to free expression and oppose censorship," the statement said.

Yu told DNAinfo New York she hopes the collective's response will send a message to other art galleries in the neighborhood.

"We want to send a clear message to the other galleries and other institutions and gentrifiers that this is not tolerated, and also that we as a group are an art collective that will hold gentrifiers and galleries accountable," she said. 

Fast's installation is meant to accompany his exhibition called "August," a 3D film about German photographer August Sander. The exhibition opened at the gallery Sept. 16 and will remain through Oct. 29.

Gallery representatives did not return a request to speak with Fast.