Chen tackles these flaws in our academic system more explicitly in About Face (2020), in which Columbia University’s Butler Library is depicted with an additional, imagined frieze carved with the names of several prominent female writers of color. Alluding to the banner of women writers—most of them white—unfurled by Laura Hotchkiss Brown and four friends in 1989, Chen imagines a permanent intervention based on the third and most recent iteration of the Butler Banner (now supported by the university).
Chen encountered similar biases in her art studio courses as well. “When I first started figuring out how to paint figures during my MFA, I was taught (only) about two palette systems: the Cheetham’s Mud Palette and Zorn Palette. I couldn’t find a palette system for painting Asians,” Chen remarked. “One has to assimilate with the palette, too.”
Theories of assimilation appear in About Face, in which one of the four young women of Asian descent depicted outside the Butler Library carries a copy of Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (2019) by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han. Building on Freud’s theories on melancholia, Eng and Han describe racial melancholia as the unresolved feelings of loss experienced by Asian Americans due to migration and an inability to reconcile the unattainability of assimilation and the American Dream. Oftentimes, this is compounded by historical amnesia in which the range of cultural production and history of activism by Asian Americans feels unknowable. Since this knowledge is not readily available to immigrant communities, we’re unable to build upon the work of our predecessors, instead reaching the same conclusions decades later and leading to feelings of collective stagnation.