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This multi-layer painting shows how the formation, perception, and construction of identity are interconnected and inseparable. It also demonstrates how the Chinese were unable to disconnect their own identity formation from the way the public perceived them

After completing all three of the paintings, I tied them together with string, showing how formation, perception, and construction of identity are interconnected and inseparable. I stripped parts of the paintings to reveal what lies underneath, representing how the Chinese identity was physically “stripped” from them, showing this loss of culture, exploitation, and identity. In the first painting, you can just barely see the word “slaves” from the third painting, demonstrating how the qualifier “slaves” was the only way Eliza Ripley and others of power viewed the Chinese. In the second painting, you can see the phrase “slaves forever,” which is just part of the entire phrase, revealed on the third page: “They find ways to tie us up and make us slaves forever.” Their full quote is hidden from the first painting and the second painting, exposing how silenced these enslaved Chinese truly were.

Nota Bene: Used oil pastels as my medium for all three of these paintings to replicate the “Casta-style” of the 17th century.

Painting Descriptions

Painting I: "The Enslaved Chinese Depicted by Eliza Ripley"

The first painting portrays how the enslaved Chinese were perceived by others, such as the enslavers and those higher up in power. I solely used oil pastels to depict the scene, as my goal was to recreate a Casta-style painting, a style born in the 17th century. According to Ilona Katzew, it is assumed that the ‘inventors’ of the 17th to 18th century casta pictorial genre are Manuel de Arellano and Rodríguez Juárez. This genre was inspired by the book “China Monumentis” by Athansius Kricher which included an “astounding compilation on Asian geography, geology, botany, zoology, religion, and language,” demonstrating this infatuated European gaze on Asian culture, as well as this insatiable “desire for the exotic” (Katzew, 91, 109). The “chintz gown” descended from Asian origin, but “by the eighteenth century” it had become “extremely popular” and “avidly imitated” in Western Europe (Katzew, 107). These “engravings of costumes of the inhabitants of China” in “China Monumentis” are “not unlike” the casta paintings originating from Arellano and Júarez (Katzew, 81). Despite seemingly basing this style of painting on Chinese culture, according to Edward Slack, there are “no paintings that disclose an Asian, non-indigenous origin for this casta” (Slack, 57). Instead, these portraits “reinforce the notion of chinos as an adulteration of African and Indian blood” (Slack, 59). According to Don Joachin Antonio de Basarás,  the chinos never “arriv[ed] to the shores of New Spain via the Philippines” (Slack, 58). They were the “offspring of the viceroyalty’s inhabitants between [the] mulatos and indios” (Slack, 58). These Casta-type paintings were used to showcase this “thorough civilization” the Spaniards had developed as well as to “understand how elites viewed themselves in relation to other classes in New Spain;” yet, this complete denial of an entire “four bloodline” is indicative of how the Europeans never viewed the Chinese as their own racial-ethnic group, or as Slack puts it, their own “foreign immigrant caste” (Slack, 81, 57, 59, 58).  

This first painting specifically serves as a recreation of the Casta-style painting, demonstrating how the Chinese would be represented if they were represented in a Casta painting. I drew directly from the primary source of the travel diary of Eliza Moore Chinn McHatten Ripley—“From Flag to Flag: A Woman’s Adventures and Experiences in the South During the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba.” Eliza Ripley, born in 1832, wrote about “her family’s escape” from their plantation in Louisiana to Mexico and then later Cuba in 1865 (Larson). The narrative documents her life in Cuba, as her family runs a sugar plantation called “Desengaño” with “enslaved black” people as well as “indentured Chinese servants” (Larson). 

Within her travel log, Ripley calls the Chinese “dazed” and “beardless, with long pig-tails, loose blouses, and baggy breeches” (Guterl, 216, Ripley, 170-171).  To Ripley, they looked like “women” with “inscrutable gaze[s]” (Ripley, 170-171, Guterl, 231-232). In “no physical condition to work,” they were never allowed to “saunter at their own sweet will under the mango trees.” She also describes the “low stone-fence that surrounded the cluster of plantation-buildings,… their swarthy bodies glistening in the sun;” “[they were] immovable as a sphinx” (Ripley, 172-173, 172-173, 200). Through my painting, I attempted to capture this “sexualized strangeness,” as Ripley describes through Guterl’s piece within my painting (Guterl, 231-232). At the front of the painting, there are two Chinese with “long pig-tails” in “loose baggy breeches” (Ripley, 170-171). Their facial expressions are “inscrutable” and I attempted to make their faces look more feminine (Guterl, 231-232). Behind them, lies the “mango tree” that they never will be able to “saunter” under, as well as the “low stone-fence” with the “plantation-buildings” in the background. A depiction of Eliza Ripley remains behind the two Chinese depicted in the Casta-style painting. I based her appearance on a painting done by Moïse at a supposed twenty-two years old. Ripley wears fancier garb and has a much bigger ‘presence’ than the Chinese, signifying her socioeconomic status, class, and power in the 19th century. The Chinese slightly fade into the background; their figures are slight and the colors literally almost disappear into the paper, representing their lack of identity or ability to form one, due to the stereotypes that Ripley enforces in her diary. 

This Casta-style painting is at the forefront of the succession of the total of three paintings, as it reveals how the European gaze and representation of each racial caste always trumped any other view, due to the privilege that they held within society. Although considered, ‘indentured laborers,’ the Chinese were subjected to a type of de facto slavery that obliterated their opportunity to form a life and even perception of themselves beyond the Spanish.

Painting II: "The Tiger Chases the Pigship: A River That Never Can be Filled"

The second painting depicts how the Chinese people perceived themselves. Their voice and this “truth” of their own opinion, was always hidden from reality, hence it lies behind the first painting. Within the Addendums, the Chinese describe themselves as being “cheated onto [this] Pigship, forced to travel across the ocean, and sold to a sugar plantation” (Yun, 255). They describe the “Havana Police” as “vicious tigers and jackals” (Yun, 254). Hence, the reason why this painting features a pig and a tiger as the central ‘figures,’ as they represent the slave ship from China and the enslavers. The tiger appears to be ripping the innards of the ‘Pigship’ apart that holds the hundreds of the Chinese who are blindfolded and crying for help. In the addendums, they outline their utter fear: “Now, we are trapped on this faraway desolate land without any hope of escaping.” They describe the process in which they were kidnapped to come to Cuba: “the Recruiters lured [us] into gambling houses, where they forced [us] to sign contracts” (Yun, 247). 

The tiger leaps over an empty riverbed, as the Chinese describe the oppressor's avarice like a “river that can never be filled” (Yun, 254). They go into further detail within the addendums revealing how inhumanely they were treated: “The managers act like tyrants. They seek bribes. The owners are greedy. They often overwork us day and night. Sometimes, they put shackles and handcuffs on us. They flog us brutally” (Yun, 253). The pig (Pigship) jumps from one place to another: the green land within the upper corner shows China—their homeland, healthy and lively—and the lower part of the painting shows the Americas. This place that the tiger is chasing the Pigship to has dying pea shoots that act as the dying hopes of the Chinese: “our hopes grow as pea shoots grow after being plucked” (Yun, 247). 

In the background in the left middle part of the painting, there is a figure being crushed by a green object. This figure is representative of the Chinese attempting to hold up the island of Cuba that is “shaped like an alligator” where the air is “toxic” and “suffocating” (Yun, 246). Within “Las gentes del mar sangley,” they describe the “presence of the Asian immigrants” causing the name “isla de los chinos” (Sangley, 61, ‘presencia de inmigrantes asiáticos’) The word “de” in “isla de los chinos,” could hold several meanings. First, it could signify the phrase “Island of the Chinese” or it could form the meaning of “Chinese Island.” These two separate terms are similar linguistically but can forge different connotations. For example, the “de” between the words isla and Chinos could provide separation between the two, connoting further objectification on the behalf of the Europeans, whereas, the “Chinese Island,” could represent that the Chinese “took over” or primarily dominated the land, giving the ‘power’ and ‘pressure’ of the Chinese to uphold an entire system of oppression. I chose the latter, as I drew a figure, a Chinese person, struggling to hold the entire island on their shoulders, further representing their souls being crushed. 

In the bottom left, there is a shadow of a defeated-looking centaur. According to López, the coolies were “put on display and forced to imitate animals” (López, 32). This work that the Chinese were forced to do was equivalent to that of horses and oxen, hence, the reason why I drew the centaurs as they thought of themselves as doing the same work as these creatures. They were becoming these animals. 

Finally, on the Pigship, I drew a dilapidated sign labeled “chino.” This wooden board that appears to be falling off of the ship entirely represents the lack of formation of identity, due to the varying connotations of the word “chino.” The word chino itself is so ambiguous and it is impossible to pin down one meaning for it, further showcasing the inability of the chinos themselves to perceive ‘one’ identity for themselves outside of that which was assigned to them by their oppressor. 

Painting III: “Do they even have morals?” - The Voices of the Enslaved Chinese

The third painting has quotes from the addendums in writing, showing how the Chinese really felt about their own treatment in words. This painting, being the last of the three, demonstrates the cultural and language barrier the chinos faced and how most were unable to communicate their needs. Oftentimes, they could not vocalize how they were being stripped of all of their rights and so inhumanely treated. This is why it is at the bottom and not visible to the “public.” These quotes specifically detail the insurmountable pain the Chinese were enforced to endure, revealing a voice that is almost never seen. Instead, it remains trapped behind the common European gaze that dominates the narrative completely.

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