*This interview was conducted by Talk Story Director Stan Lou
The 1882 Foundation has sponsored the Chinatown Art Studio for the past two years under the inspired leadership of artist-in-resident Shani Shih and look forward to the beginning of this summer's virtual version. Shani is a talented artist with a great passion to pass on her knowledge to aspiring young artists in our community. This is a part of her continual selfless contributions for us. We had the opportunity to engage Shani in a very open conversation that expresses her personal narrative and devotion for her work.
What motivated you to create Chinatown Art Studio?
Chinatown Art Studio came out of my personal journey of empowerment. It’s been a big goal of mine to pay it forward—to support and empower others, especially young people, through art. After graduating from school in DC, I’ve been enriched by formative experiences with different communities in DC and with organizations including Asian American LEAD, maybe the only local youth program catered towards low-income AAPI families. I’ve grown as a community advocate and artist in various capacities, independently creating art, collaborating with my street art collective, and teaching art workshops for youth in the DMV. Having stayed in touch with former AALEAD students, I saw that many were still interested in art and some were actually cut off from affordable after-school programs in recent years. It was unfortunate to see, especially given the heightened need for community and youth support in the dwindling Asian American community in DC. In 2018 I had the thought—if a space doesn’t exist for them, why don’t I help create it?
What are your ambitions for the space?
Coming into our 3rd summer I hope we can continue to expand and enrich Chinatown Art Studio in size and scope; I hope to grow our student group, hire more facilitators, and create more frequent, immersive and dynamic program offerings in partnership with local communities, organizations, artists, creators, movers and shakers. As we witness our society go through a period of great reckoning and transformation, I also hope Chinatown Art Studio can continue to be a space for AAPI youth to process, heal, dream, and build connections—a space that supports self-expression, creative identity and agency, and provides tools so they may make the world a more just and joyful place through art.
Tell us your personal story of realizing your artistic mind and heart, who or what motivated you?
My journey finding my artistic voice and vision came hand in hand with my journey with race, class, identity, and mental health.
There was a lot to be thankful for growing up—I was able to learn about Taiwanese and Chinese language/culture from an early age. My town and county was home to many AAPI communities and other communities of color so I always had company. Nevertheless, I spent the latter part of my childhood feeling quietly frustrated, resentful and disconnected to my surroundings, especially within my own Asian American communities. I couldn’t accept the narratives about how I should see myself in this world, culturally or otherwise, that were so dominant in the immigrant suburban world. I had never been to Taiwan; I did not feel that Taiwanese identity was something that I could call mine. I was made fun of and my passion for social issues was perceived as anger. I felt isolated, like a bit of a failure. I didn’t know how to deal with my community’s segregation from other communities around us, or lack of connection to traditions of civic engagement and movements that fought for our current day privileges.
Finding Hip-Hop in 2012 was a pivotal moment in my life. Pioneered by Black and Brown communities in New York, Hip-Hop culture has become a global movement in a matter of decades. Its bold and defiant sound and aesthetic has shown to be a universally accessible platform for empowerment. It was the first community, culture, identity that I felt welcomed my whole, complex self. It gave me a new platform to connect to the world and confront our realities with—an approach to identity based on awareness, knowledge, growth through art.
I hope to continue developing my body of work and grow in my mural practice. I am passionate about the power of public art and hope to uplift communities by sharing my artistic vision in large scale public works. I want to use my art to inspire and provoke introspection, to provide comfort and acknowledgement in shared human experience. In terms of youth work, I hope to continue passing along skills and the lessons I’ve learned, and help youth find their voices and expand possibilities through art.
How do you describe your art, and what are your ambitions for your art.
In my work I juxtapose expressive figures and visual themes of industrialism. Using gritty textures, bold lines, black and white illustration-style painting mixed with color abstraction, I render chaos, anxiety, confusion, and trauma, mixed in with hope, comfort, strength. I use form, movement, and abstraction to communicate honesty, vulnerability, emotions and experiences. I weave in glimpses of nature and the natural elements to help illustrate inner transformation and emotional transcendence.
I hope to continue developing my body of work and grow in my mural practice. I am passionate about the power of public art and hope to share my artistic vision through large scale public works. I want to use my art to inspire and provoke introspection, to provide comfort and acknowledgement in shared human experience.
Where do you work/what do you do outside of art?
I work full time as a tenant organizer with a housing non-profit. In this moment of drastic gentrification in DC, we assist both individuals and tenant groups across the city in building tenant power. We help organize tenant associations and support them in preserving affordability in their buildings, fighting slumlord conditions, displacement, and more.
Where can people find you?
You can connect with me on via my Instagram (instagram.com/shanishih) or my website www.shanishih.com!