Rei Lo is a talented Chinese American artist from Queens. We had an in-depth conversation about Rei's background in the arts, the significance of her Instagram art series, 'Unveiled in Red', and the importance of solidarity between communities of color, specifically the Black and Asian communities.
Alefiya: Tell us a little bit yourself! Give us a little intro!
Rei: (laughs) Okay. My name is Rei. I grew up in Queens, New York most of my life. I am Chinese-American and my family is from Taiwan, so I am a first-generation immigrant. I have a background in fashion design, I studied that in school. When I was younger, I was really into fine arts and when I went into fashion design, it sort of left a bitter taste in my mouth and I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue long term. During quarantine, I started drawing and illustrating again and it was the first time in a very long time that I had created something. During that time, like seeing all the hate crimes towards the Asian community, I started illustrating around late March of 2020 and started to showcase my work on social media to sort of amplify these stories. A year ago, our narratives and these stories weren’t as ‘present’ as they are right now. I didn’t really know that fine arts was something I could- or wanted- to pursue, but it’s definitely the direction I see myself going now.
Alefiya: So, how did you get into the fine arts? What sort of sparked your interest, and why did it keep your interest?
Rei: Ever since I could remember, since I was young, I’ve been sketching and doodling all over the place and all the time. And I’m a bit of a hoarder, so I still have all these projects and artwork from elementary school and there was this assignment from first grade that was like ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I was like, “An artist!” There’s always been a part of me that’s always just wanted to capture, like, a moment or an image or ideas in my head that need to be translated to paper. That was always my escape. Growing up, I was always a little more shy, so this was my outlet. During high school, I got to explore different mediums like sculpture and photography and painting and it was just really cool to experiment. My interest sort of went into fashion design, but after schooling, I saw the industry wasn’t really suited for me and there were just a lot of problems in the industry. I saw more and more this past year that I really enjoy fine arts. When I went to [college], it was very much just fashion projects and it was, like, a bubble. I had forgotten how to enjoy creating for myself and doing personal projects.
Alefiya: What mediums are your favorite?
Rei: I think I’ve always preferred more detailed or more controlled mediums. I still enjoy hand drawing, like using pencil, colored pencil, watercolor, a bit of gouache, sometimes pen. I do enjoy painting, like using acrylics, but I’m not that great at it honestly. (laughs) I would like to get into digital painting.
Alefiya: Let’s talk about your current art series, ‘Unveiled in Red’, which is full of portraits of victims of hate crimes. Can you tell us more about how that started, and specifically the significance of the color red? You use it in both your title and your actual art, so what does that mean?
Rei: So the first portrait I created, that was of this father who was attacked in mid-March last year in front of Sam’s Club in Texas. His name was Bawi Cung Nung and he was viciously slashed across the face, along with his two young sons. This was last year, I think about a week into when lockdown first really started. When I saw the photographs of him and his children, it was so brutal and so graphic and I just couldn’t shake that image from my head for a couple of days. It stuck to the point that I was like, “You know, I keep thinking about this image so let me get some paper and pencil and just sketch and let it out.” I don’t really know what I was thinking, but this idea of just trying to capture that image and trying to help me process this violence in a way- that was very prevalent. What was supposed to be a thirty minute sketch turned into something much longer and bigger. I added color and I finished the piece, and it allowed me to be a lot more- you know, I still can’t really understand the feeling- but I guess I processed my emotions more. Prior to that, I hadn’t created in a long time, and I was very, very skeptical about sharing my work on social media because I became sort of protective, you know. But I guess I just decided that this was an important topic and it was necessary, you know.
I was inspired by another artist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who did a street art series for the TV show ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. The street series used the phrase ‘my name isn’t’ and said things like, “My name isn’t ‘Hey, Sexy’”. It was to combat and spread awareness about the sexual abuse and catcalling that women experience on the regular, especially in New York City, and especially women of color. When I saw that, I was like, I love this energy and I want to try and channel that into some of my own work and myself. And from that, the image of using racial slurs came to mind. I didn’t want to censor it- I wanted it to be explicit in the sense that people wouldn’t be able to look away. Racism is very appalling and very dehumanizing, and that’s what my self portrait was supposed to represent.
I was very frustrated with everything that was happening, and then the Black Lives Matter protests, and I felt even more compelled to do something and become more vocal about issues affecting communities of color.
Alefiya: Yeah, you’re very right about that. Over the past year and a half, I feel like I’ve never felt more shocked and disturbed and a huge part of that has been constantly seeing these graphic videos of our elders being hurt and murdered. It’s been gruesome, and like you said, dehumanizing. I think your self portrait definitely does a perfect job at capturing that, and we definitely also didn’t want to censor that feeling,
Rei: Yeah, exactly! Thank you! So, you asked about the significance of the color red. The name of my series, that took a bit of time to come up with. (laughs) So red, red is my favorite color. I like a deep burgundy, you know? Red is also a color that has so many elements, so many layers. Like, when you think of red, you think of blood, you can think of something more gory, more violent. You think of caution, you know the stop sign in red- alertness. And then in Chinese culture, and in Indian culture and just in Asian culture in general, I think it’s a sign of good fortune and life and vibrancy and good luck. So just like the different things that come to mind when you think of red, there was a certain duality that I found interesting.
And then, when I think of a veil- when I think of unveiling something, it’s like you’re revealing something. And of course, you think of, like, a wedding veil, like a sheer fabric- it’s transparent, you know? You can see what’s underneath.
So the title came about like around this idea of sort of ‘unveiling racism’ or ‘unveiling’ these issues that have sort of always been here, have always been beneath the surface, especially here in the States. It’s rooted in our country’s history, so trying to shed more light on that. This idea of transparency was really big- this problem has always been here and we’ve been aware of racism and we’ve seen it and heard about it, but the series was more about pulling away that ‘curtain’ of sorts and just being really more open and apparent about everything.
Alefiya: I love everything about this, specifically the part about red and that duality. In India, brides wear red as a symbol of life and opportunities and in Western culture, it’s almost the complete opposite. Even with the white, that’s a symbol of purity here, but we wear it for funerals in India. It’s really interesting actually.
Rei: Yes, exactly! It’s like a really weird clash, but I liked using it as a point in my art.
Alefiya: Speaking of your art, let’s take a step back. You previously mentioned Tatyana Fazlalizadeh as an inspiration for you and your art. Can you tell us why that is?
Rei: Sure, sure. You know, I think her art almost sort of hits on a personal level. Like, growing up in New York City, and I started, like, taking the subway regularly during school and college. And you know, during my commutes, there would be creepers, catcallers- they would call me dumb names. Even during COVID, you know, half your face is covered with a mask, and there’s still men being irritating and saying inappropriate things.
So I saw that show [‘She’s Gotta Have It’] and the main character, Nola Darling, her story is that she is a Brooklyn-based artist and she gets sexually assaulted. From that, it spurred this street art campaign that Tatyana created for the show. There’s photographs of women and graphics and bold text displayed in a very blunt way across walls and streets in NYC. I thought it was such a badass way to channel that frustration and trauma and turn it into something powerful and defiant. I definitely am more soft-spoken and on the shy side, especially when you see me in person and I just wanted to channel that energy of speaking out and being more vocal and reclaiming my own trauma and experiences. When I saw Tatyana’s work, I was like, Wow she is really just owning up to, like, her- I don’t even know what the word is- but, like, not letting those things take control of her, but instead reclaiming herself and her power.
Alefiya: That’s really cool. Yeah, I did a little bit of research on her prior to this call, since you mentioned her in your artist’s bio that you sent over to us. Also in your bio, you mentioned that your artwork seeks to examine the solidarity and intersectionality between the Black and Asian communities. What does Asian and Black solidarity mean to you and why do you choose to focus on that?
Rei: (laughs) That’s a very tough question. It’s also a very important question. I think it is very important to unite these two communities: there’s been a very long, drawn-out history of tension between these two communities, with violence towards each other from both sides. This past year I was learning more about Asian-American history and just trying to educate myself on different histories from other cultures and POC and stuff, and then when there was a really huge surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a huge wake up call for many people. I was having long, intense conversations with my parents, because, you know, it’s not really a secret that there is a lot of anti-blackness within the Asian community. So there was this constant conversation, especially with the older generations.
Even when Stop Asian Hate really took off in these past couple of months, there was this rhetoric- there was support from the Black community- but I also saw discourse about how even with the hate crime buildup against Asians, it was still anti-black, because it relied on more police authority. Hearing this constant feedback of, like, how can we fight for our Asian communities but at the same time, protect other communities of color, was interesting.
I grew up hearing anti-black remarks, and just not being able to say something or correct them. To be vocal now, and to acknowledge that now, is really crucial.
You asked what Black and Asian solidarity means: I think it means really sticking your neck out for the other person, even at your own discomfort. I think true solidarity means transcending various industries. It’s not just going out to a rally and being vocal about these issues when it’s May [AAPI Heritage Month] or February when it’s Black History month.
It’s this constant drive to want to tackle these issues, within your own workplaces, within your own circles.
I also think that solidarity needs to occur in our own community as well, and that’s a critique I’ve been hearing as well. Like, I feel like when you think Stop Asian Hate, it’s more for East Asian people, but why is it not including all Asians, like South Asians, for example? Stop Asian Hate shouldn’t be exclusive, you know? It may have started with East Asians, but it should expand.
Alefiya: Mhm. I completely agree with all of this, especially that last part about making Stop Asian Hate more inclusive.
Alefiya: Okay, so last question. If you had to describe your Asian identity in one word or phrase, what would it be?
Rei: Oooooh, what a tough question! (laughs) You saved the best for last. I’m curious, do you have an answer for this question?
Alefiya: Hmmm, I think ‘interesting’ would just about sum it up. (laughs) It’s definitely been a journey growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the US. Maybe I would say a work-in-progress? You know, I’m still learning about myself and my culture and heritage and history. The way I define- or try to define- my identity now will definitely be massively different from how I define it in 5 years.
Rei: I was actually sort of thinking of the same sort of concept! I guess a phrase I would use is: stronger and richer than we think.
This past year has really been a testament to how strong we are, and how much stronger we can be when we come together as a collective. I don’t think there’s been a time in history, or at least recent history, when all different Asian communities have come together in such large numbers to fight for something. We are capable of so much- our strength should never be undermined or underestimated.
So yeah, just, way stronger and richer than we think.