New grunt gallery exhibit celebrates East Asian culture alongside the experiences of incarceration

Inside/Out: the art show my dad never had, a new exhibit currently on display at grunt gallery, examines the life and work of the late Sue Dong Eng, co-curated by his daughter Mercedes Eng.

Sue Dong Eng and his mother, Gam Hoe Lee, in China, circa 1940. | Photo courtesy of Mercedes Eng

The exhibit is composed of archived family images, copper etchings in handmade frames and literary work, featuring some of Mercedes’ own work. The exhibit takes a specific look at Sue Dong by showing images of his family and upbringing in Vancouver’s Chinatown, as well as the art he created in the carceral facilities he frequented during his adult life.

Inside/Out brings about themes of cultural invisibility, institutional violence and community building that remains relevant in Vancouver today. The collection of the two artists’ work is a response to both the prison industrial complex and colonialism
in Canada.

“As someone who is in community with folks who have been incarcerated, folks who are drug users and people who are more surveilled or criminalized under our current systems, the prison industrial complex affects all of us,” says Keimi Nakashima-Ochoa, co-curator of the exhibit.

Giving voice to the voiceless through art

Mercedes’ own role in the exhibition was as an artist, archivist, collector, family historian and co-curator. Her own work can be found in the show next to her father’s work and their family archive.

“Like many of us, her life was shaped by her caretaker’s presence in and out of her life,” says Nakashima-Ochoa. “She, along with her relatives, has been holding onto a rich history of her family’s branches, one of which includes the [tender] and wayward path of Sue Dong’s life.”

Embedded in the father and daughter’s family branches is their position within Vancouver’s rich and deep history with East Asian immigrants. The family was able to build community and wealth through their participation in cabarets, contributing to a high level of cultural visibility, representation and community in the city.

Mercedes Eng and her father, Sue Dong Eng, at Drumheller penitentiary circa 1983. Mercedes expresses a debt of gratitude to the unknown prisoner-photographer of this family portrait. | Photo courtesy of Mercedes Eng

Alongside these experiences, however, is a prevalence of xenophobia, anti-Asian sentiment and the complexities that comes along with being an immigrant settler. Nakashima-Ochoa notes how the deep and lasting effects of the prison industrial system, demonstrated in the showcased copper etchings and frames created by Sue Dong during his incarceration, sit alongside more tender images and family photos.

“To me, sitting with the archival images we present in this exhibition shows the joy, performance and confusion that comes with being an immigrant settler, along with our complicity in settler colonialism, being immigrant settlers on this land,” says Nakashima-Ochoa.

Mercedes and Sue Dong’s experiences speak to those of many others, both through their family’s position as East Asian immigrants in Vancouver and their exposure to the prison industrial complex.

Sue Dong’s work, now being showcased only after his passing, is an example of the many voices alike that have been unable to break into the art scene due to their similar experiences.

“There are so many artists, people who make things, whose work is not seen as valuable in the context of art presentations because they are either drug users, poor, unhoused or formerly/currently incarcerated.”

Despite the difficulties that come with those who have faced addiction, poverty, homelessness and incarceration, Nakashima-Ochoa notes the rich and unique stories that stem from their experiences. Sue Dong is only one of many who was able to translate his distinctive life story into his craft.

“There are so many artists doing amazing things, and we can honour and celebrate that, if we bother to look.”

Inside/Out: the art show my dad never had, is currently open and will be available at grunt gallery until March 16, 2024.

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