While depicting the journey of Chinese migrants to gold rush-era British Columbia, multidisciplinary artist Janet Wang underwent an odyssey of her own.
“I used to say I was Chinese-Canadian, hyphenated,” she said. “Now I say, no — I’m Chinese in Canada, and still questioning that identity. I am Canadian. I am Chinese. You can’t ever go away from one or the other.”
Wang’s exhibition Ports of Entry opened at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt with a public reception on Feb. 10.
Using static images and interactive works, Wang interprets the vision of Gold Mountain that drew Chinese workers and families to the region now called British Columbia. Her depictions of Altar, Barkerville and Joss House, Lytton, using black walnut pigment and Chinese ink, reflect the ways that traditional spiritual practices were maintained amid the pluralistic jostling of settler culture.
Her fine-lined drawings on sepia watercolour paper also reinforce the fragility of metaphysical touchstones. The Joss House was destroyed in 2021 during the wildfire that swept through the village of Lytton.
Wang familiarized herself with traditional Chinese religious practices, which are reflected in her interactive video game Welcome to Gold Mountain. In it, players pluck stars from the sky, transforming them into artifacts common to Chinese settlements in 19th-century Canada. Without warning, a digital conflagration consumes the pile of accumulated chattel, an act of sacrifice to honour ancestors.
As the daughter of a Christian minister, the practice of burning joss paper and making offerings to venerate the deceased was new territory for Wang. (Her work occasionally raises her parents’ eyebrows, she said, “but they’re happy that I’m doing what I love.”)
“One of the things I’m hoping to do by using all these different mediums is to bring in audiences in a way that they can experience them as pure entertainment or through their aesthetic properties,” Wang said. “If you want to dig in and keep looking, there is more and more there. It’s kind of like my process of unearthing: there are all these stories that you can discover, and I think that [the experience of] discovery is actually really important.”
In the midst of the 2020 pandemic year, Wang received a grant from the Canada Council for a COVID-safe mobile residency. She toted her family through sweltering Interior heat along the Cariboo Wagon Road, studying the impact of Chinese labourers and communities during the mid-19th-century gold rush.
Some of her works, especially the three-dimensional casts of re:orientation and the looped digital animation Ports of Entry, resemble archeological assemblage. Wang uses utilitarian objects to develop an iconography of identity. She also acknowledges the complex influence of Europeans’ fascination with Asian traditions expressed in the imitative practice called Chinoiserie.
The Sunshine Coast forms part of Wang’s visual narrative. Her series of intaglio etchings Waves: Under, over, through is based on a photograph taken from the Davis Bay pier during a residency at the Coppermoss artist retreat centre. Autobiographical images are scattered among repeated views of the rippled sea.
Individual entanglement in cyclical histories is a dominant theme of Wang’s work. “It’s like the waves repeating,” she said. “It’s like those time periods when the Chinese came to North America, then were disallowed from entering, and then were again allowed to come again. As for myself, I don’t have any answers but I like to put myself into these stories.”
Janet Wang’s Ports of Entry is on display at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt until March 11. Browse to sunshinecoastartscouncil.com/ for details.