When artist Janice Wu was approached by the City of Calgary for the Utility Box Public Art Program, she knew she could use her art to make a statement. With the street art location in Calgary’s Chinatown, she wanted to ensure her imagery was recognizable to the Asian community.
Called ‘Time to Heal,‘ the utility box illustration features ancient Chinese medicine familiar within a Chinese household, such as Pei Pa Koa cough syrup and White Flower oil. Wu’s art is metaphorical, relating racism to an illness and using the philosophy of Chinese medicine as a cure.
“A huge part of Chinese medicine is looking back on ancestral wisdom, and I believe that’s what it takes to heal from racism as well,” she explains. “When I think about racism and intergenerational trauma, the only way to heal is to think about past familial history and not just about our own community, but also banding together and reflecting on other communities’ struggles. There’s healing in that sense of unity too.”
Ancient Chinese medicine has been a staple in the Wu household for generations and it is a practice Wu hopes to learn more about. Intrigued by the rich history and complexity, she lights up when chatting about how the perfect combination of herbs can cure an illness.
“There’s a lot of beauty in that mentality and understanding that it takes so many elements for something to heal,” she says. “Rather than considering a quick, easy fix, you need to look at something holistically for one to heal. I look at racism the same way. We can’t try to fix one aspect or thing.”
Wu’s childhood sounds similar to many first-generation and immigrant stories: experiences filled with assimilation and micro-aggressions, self-monitoring to never be too ethnic and, specific to the Asian community, combatting the model minority stereotype. She has always leaned on her art to better understand her identity and the world, and she hopes this will help others as well.
With steaming bok choy and har gow in her recent portfolio, many can finally see their own cultural experiences reflected in art.
“A lot of my work is about being unapologetically Chinese in this country. I want my work to express my identity and redefine what it means to be Canadian,” she says.
The positive reception for her more cultural pieces gives Wu hope for what she believes is the more progressive younger generation.
“My parents had the best intentions to assimilate and learn English and be successful in a country they were new to. I have the most respect for that. They did that to be successful, but at the same time, it comes with a cost: Our voices are not heard. We silence ourselves.”
So what has Wu learned from ancient Chinese wisdom and remedies to help herself and others heal from systemic racism? She suggests, “We must do everything we can to raise the generation to not centre the conversation around Whiteness.”
Individual illustrations from ‘Time to Heal’ along with other works by Wu are available for purchase on her online shop.