Audrey Chan on the role of art and storytelling in the fight for social justice

Joel Oliphint
A poster that artist Audrey Chan created for the ACLU of Southern California

In the fall of 2019, Los Angeles artist Audrey Chan became the first visual artist in residence at the ACLU of Southern California, which gave her a front-row seat to an organization that rushes to find solutions to crises of inequity and social justice.

“[The ACLU] has a general framework for incorporating visual storytelling into their day-to-day work, because they have worked with artists regularly over the years, but more on a project-to-project basis. In this case, I was embedded with them and committed to them for a year,” Chan said recently by phone. “The first one that we really found our groove in collaborating was with a campaign called ‘ICE is not welcome here.’”

The ongoing campaign’s goal is to educate immigrant communities about the deceptive tactics sometimes employed by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Initially, Chan had planned to contribute drawings for posters that would be distributed at rallies, but when the pandemic put a halt to gatherings and the distribution of physical materials, Chan and the ACLU shifted to a digital campaign, creating drawings and infographics to circulate online.

“[The ACLU] is really invested in this idea of narrative change: How do you change the narrative around ICE? Because in the media, ICE is [often] covered [within] a fear-based narrative, and it's disempowering to communities who feel like they're constantly being surveilled and vulnerable. So the ACLU is trying to find ways to educate people about their rights so they know what to do and how to protect themselves,” Chan said. “It's been really amazing to work with a team that's so sophisticated in terms of political messaging.”

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That knowledge and experience has come in handy in 2020, a year chock-full of political turmoil and social upheaval, which makes Chan an ideal candidate to discuss the role of art and storytelling in the fight for social justice in a free, virtual, open-to-the-public lecture at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, part of CCAD’s Visiting Artists & Scholars series.

While Chan’s time with the ACLU opened her eyes to the intricacies of advocacy work and the coordination it requires, she also said the residency was mutually beneficial, particularly the experience in public art that she brought to the table.

“We're doing a big mural on the facade of [the ACLU of Southern California] headquarters, and I had recently finished a public art commission for LA Metro before I applied for the residency that's going to be in a subway station in Little Tokyo, which is a neighborhood in downtown LA,” Chan said. “I am really interested in allegorical storytelling and having community narratives be visible in a monumental way. This project that we're about to start working on, the building itself, is very much an extension of that. ... I helped them grow their capacity to commission a public artwork and figure out how to align it with their work and their partnerships and how they want their work to be visible in the world.”

Discussions about public murals and the purpose of such art, including their often temporal quality, have risen to the fore this year, particularly in response to murals and other public art made during racial justice protests over the spring and summer. Columbus artist Lisa McLymont, for instance, raised questions about the emphasis placed on murals and their preservation. “The meaning of the murals has shifted into something else,” she told Alive in June.

“Although [a mural] may use the same materials as a painting that’s going to be in a museum, it's more vulnerable to the elements and being painted over and building owners changing hands. Murals are living entities, so they're really hard to categorize and care for. … They live in a different space,” Chan said. “The immediacy of being able to walk up to it or drive by it and have it be part of a neighborhood is what makes them really interesting and challenging. … They’re kind of like these visual editorials.”

Chan has often made work about history and social issues over the years, and in 2020, particularly through her experience with the ACLU, she has felt particularly empowered as an artist, knowing her drawings can be mobilized to make a positive impact, and she sees other artists pursuing work with similar hopes. “I think artists are trying to figure out how to be present for this moment,” she said. “A lot of artists are just showing up as people first.”

Audrey Chan