Joseph Lee On Navigating Arts, Culture & Identity in Baltimore as a Proud Queer Asian American

AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH ARTIST, JOSEPH 이승현 (SeungHyun) LEE.

Joseph Lee -he/him pronouns- was born in Queens, NY and currently lives and works in Baltimore, MD since 2014. He received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a degree in General Fine Arts in 2018. He has exhibited his works at MICA, as well as Area 405, the Harriet Tubman Solidarity Center, Impact Hub, and the John Fonda Gallery. Outside of the visual arts, such as his ink paintings and ceramic vessels, his passion lies with creating opportunities and space for empowering people of color. Through 0ZONE, an artist collective he co-founded, Joseph has organized 2 shows, published a book of POC artists, and been featured in media such as the Baltimore Sun and ArtFCity. His work is centered around the liberation of identity, documentation of QAAPI history, and community healing.

SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & JL: Joseph Lee


AB: Joe, your practice explores a multitude of themes from being Asian American, being the son of a pastor, navigating your queer identity and community...you're working with a lot! How do you manage to stay positive while exploring all of these themes? There is a lot of emotional labor on your end that's required to make this work, so how do you navigate that?

JL: I think the first thing I do is acknowledge when I am struggling or in pain, and to name the reasons why I may feel that way. For example, it is definitely exhausting to un-pack and untangle the struggles of a multi-cultural identity, but then I remind myself this struggle comes from society's narrow expectations of me, not some inherent flaw of my being. I turn to my friends and the chosen family I have here in Baltimore to remind me that there is so much unappreciated worth and self-evolution that happens when we face our struggles instead of shoving them under the rug. I feel cleansed and recharged when I can openly empathize and talk about the challenges we face individually, and it encourages me to go further. No one was given a road-map of how to navigate our emotions, we just got to do it together.

AB: Your drawings are fascinating in that they encompass a world of symbolism that mirrors a form of self-portraiture. How do you view your work in relation to how you view yourself? Do you feel that your work is a vulnerable, yet accurate representation of what you're working through in your everyday life, or do you view it as a way to comment on narratives of others who might have encountered the same narratives in their own lives?

JL: I definitely see my drawings as a form of self-portraiture of the current moment they are made. Often times I go to drawing when I feel too jumbled in the head, unable to express or navigate how I feel. In that way, drawing feels like figuring out a maze in myself, and exploring parts of me that can come from a vulnerable place. Though I don't mean to comment on the narratives of others, I've found that my drawings have resonated with people from a place that can sometimes be hard to talk about. The quiet peace of loneliness, the death and rebirth of the self, the line between commitment and confinement - topics we all feel but seldom openly share. In this way, drawing is like confessing my doubts and meditating on where they come from.

AB: You place a lot of emphasis (rightfully so) on connecting with other QAAPI in both the DMV and NY area. How important is it for you to stay connected to this community, and how do they influence you and your practice?

JL: I can't number how many times my life and my sense of self-worth has been saved by my QAAPI family. There is a specific love that blooms when you see someone who looks like you, comes from similar societal expectations as you, struggles with similar familial trauma, and yet is ALIVE, striving, and thriving. I think particularly in the DMV area, QAAPI are still searching for one another, for a community that understands and accepts them. I also think it should be acknowledged that in our society, we are conditioned and discouraged from connecting with one another and upsetting societal roles. Part of my love for QAAPI is in destroying those old stigmas, reclaiming our ancestral magic, and affirming each other's existence/will to live. I think another way that QAAPI have influenced me is by widening the scope of representation in my mind. By seeing more and more QAAPI across cities, across generations, across cultural backgrounds, it expands my view of what is possible for QAAPI. We become trailblazers for one another, and the cheerleaders that affirm our struggles.

AB: One thing I find particularly interesting in your insistence, not only on connecting with AAPI, but ALSO standing in solidarity with Black and Brown folx instead of contributing to our furthered oppression. Can you talk a bit more about this? Though it's not a radical idea, it is still difficult getting other POC to understand how they're complicit in the erasure and oppression and Black and Brown people. What has made this an important goal of yours, especially as a queer creative in Baltimore city?

JL: If you don't question what ways society has conditioned you, you are complicit in the erasure and oppression of Black and Brown people. I think the difficulty for non-black/brown POC in understanding complicity is that no one taught us to recognize or question it. We (All POC) were compartmentalized and stereotyped, and it was seen as "dangerous" or "outrageous" to organize together against white supremacy. I think white supremacy tries to make POC compete for representation and resources, while the "American Dream" tells us to claim all of the rewards for ourselves, "our people". However, as an AAPI, one of my daily self-reminders is to acknowledge the Black/Brown people who toiled and sacrificed for "human liberation", and to be a better listener. By focusing on being a better listener, I can hold space for Black/Brown folx and recognize my own conditioned prejudices and privilege. I can choose to celebrate the lives of Black/Brown folx instead of perpetuating ignorance or favoritism for strictly QAAPI. Civil Rights are for every human, not just a chosen group.

AB: So what led you to ceramics as a medium? Is there any significance to the use of clay as a way to communicate your ideas?

JL: I first started doing ceramics earlier in college when I was taking introductory classes to determine my major. As a hands-on type of person, the physical labor and involvement of clay really appealed to me. Ceramics also became a way for me to tie myself to my Korean heritage. There was a yearning in me to be a part of a practice that my mother-culture had mastered for centuries. I think another reason I stuck with ceramics as a medium is because of the unpredictability in each stage of the process. You may sculpt and glaze a form, however once it enters the kiln, anything can happen. Something about loving and appreciating a piece for its' unexpected attributes reminded me of how I wished the world accepted the unique rather than the standardized.

AB: Sort with thinking about ceramics as a way to connect to your Korean heritage, what advice would you give to other QAAPI who have yet to find their voice and their communities?

JL: It's ok to feel confused, frustrated, unwilling, unmotivated, neglected, and hopeless. What isn't ok is to "settle" and make a home in those feelings, and guilting yourself for the ways you are handling systemic oppression. Your struggles are real, documented, theorized, and shared amongst many more than you imagine. You will find your "voice" when you've learned to listen to it, been kind to it, and allowed it to express itself.

Don't compare yourself to others' merits, and be humble when you receive recognition for your own. Give thanks to the people who have brought you to where you are now, and you will find that "community" in the people who've got your back.

ENGAGE in difficult/necessary conversations and never silence your story because white people didn't get it. ENRICH yourself by attending workshops, panel discussions, shows, conferences, anything you can find, you may find your community there too. EDUCATE yourself on the history that brought you here, and the history that perpetuates anti-blackness and racial superiority.

Most importantly, REALLY take time to appreciate yourself and honor your being because you DESERVE to, and because capitalism and white supremacists hate when you do that.

AB: Who are some artists who are currently inspiring you and your practice?

JL: A line from Erykah Baduh's "AppleTree" will always be on repeat in my mind:

He gave me the life that I came to live

Gave me the song that I came to give

Pressure on me

But the seed has grown

I can't make it on my own

I think one of the main things I am trying to practice is trusting my right to live, and using the voice I've been given. As someone who is Queer, grew up christian, and Korean American, I have many conflicting voices within me that say society does not want me. This song reminds me that I too have a mission and purpose in this world, and that though I may plant a seed myself, it is my community that helps me cultivate it. On that note, there is a story and seed within every human, and it's important that I become a nurturer of those stories.

I've also been revisiting Yuri Kochiyama's work and advocacy for Black Liberation and racial equality. One quote comes to mind:

"Remember that consciousness is power. Consciousness is education and knowledge. Consciousness is becoming aware. Consciousness-raising is pertinent for power, and be sure that power will not be abusively used, but used for building trust and goodwill domestically and internationally. Tomorrow's world is yours to build."