A Sand Grain in a Whole Universe: Qian Li

Artist Qian Li in her studio. Photo credit: Joseph Clark

Qian Li speaks for herself. She recognizes the power of this, and the limits of that power.

Her art is humbling to encounter. She has exhibited art in an impressively-diverse range of media. Li’s body of work includes painting, installations, prerecorded and interactive videos, live performance, and animation. The content of her work is more than equal to its technical prowess. The artist bares so much of herself. She makes visible and visceral for her audiences her formative memories, recurring dreams, fears for her children, and feelings that can be difficult to admit to oneself.

Even still, she understands that while we can work to create a distinctive voice, we can only truthfully speak of that which we know from our own lives. Any individual trying to understand a vast, complex society will necessarily have a limited perspective. “I’m so little. I’m like a sand grain in a whole universe. I hope I can see the whole thing from a good perspective,” Li said.

Li’s perspective is broader than most. Born in Qingdao, China, Li earned her BFA from Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua University. She moved to the US to attend the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where she was awarded her MFA. She is now a professor at Cleveland State University, and serves on the board of SPACES Gallery. She has set down roots here, and continues to.

“I like Cleveland. It’s a very peaceful place to live. It feels like home,” Li said.

But the slow process of acclimation into a new culture is not without its challenges. English is Li’s second language. She speaks it well, but remains self-conscious. She worries that she misses nuances in conversation. Networking in certain circles can be difficult. “I feel like there is a community here that I can’t break into,” Li said.

The art department at CSU, and the creative community more generally, have been more welcoming to Li.

“I feel I’m treated more equally as an artist. Artists are more welcoming in their culture and personalities,” Li said. “My circle is still pretty open-minded. People take me aside and ask if everything is ok.”

Her students’ tolerance and curiosity especially encourage her. “Students are less discriminating. Younger people are more open-minded to difference,” Li said.

While individual colleagues have supported Li, institutions and audiences can be chillier to expression of Chinese culture. In 2015, Li curated the 2015 exhibition Tradition Re-Interpreted: New Work by Chinese Artists. It was a long and intense undertaking. More than a dozen contemporary Chinese artists contributed works in painting, photography, and digital animations. Some crafted site-specific installations for The Galleries at CSU. Li says the show attracted healthy attendance from the local Chinese-American community. Some Chinese-American high school teachers even brought students to the show.

However, Li was disappointed by the show’s reception among the mainstream Northeast Ohio art world. Many of the contributing artists, such as Chen Shuxia, Yao Lu, and Yang Yongliang, have high profiles internationally. Shows by artists with comparable clout—but hailing from non-Asian backgrounds—had received extensive press coverage in Cleveland arts media. Tradition Re-Interpreted did not. “I don’t think it was well-appreciated after such a great effort,” Li said.

Li is uncertain whether the exhibit’s attendance was hurt by American suspicion of the Chinese government, or by other anti-Asian sentiment. “I don’t know if we’re discriminated against as Chinese,” she said. But in any case, the lack of interest in art by international artists was disillusioning for Li. She is not sure if she will curate another large show of Chinese art. “It’s very discouraging,” she said.

Many AAPI people suffer from uncertainty about whether bad treatment they have faced was the outcome of anti-Asian racism. Reading motivations is always a game of indirect inferences and best guesses. Whole new layers of difficulty pile up when someone might be deliberately hiding socially-discouraged attitudes like racism. But society-wide changes in attitude are easier to recognize. Without hesitation, Li says racial discrimination has gotten worse in the last several years—years which saw President Donald Trump launch trade wars, and shift blame for coronavirus’ spread away from himself by branding it “the China virus” or “kung-flu.” By villainizing an entire nation with no thought for the collateral damage it would inflict on AAPI people, Trump and right-wing media gave permission to ugly impulses.

“People feel they don’t have to hide anymore. They kind of have an excuse to discriminate,” Li said.

As late as the summer of 2021, Li had not personally experienced COVID-related harassment because of her race. She took precautions to avoid it. During the earliest months of the pandemic, she had avoided leaving the house. When she did step outside, she wore a face mask, glasses, and mask to conceal her appearance. And Asian friends told her they had been flipped off or honked at by passing drivers. Li’s children had played with other children who seemingly paid no attention to race. But after the start of the pandemic, she said their classmates started saying things like “This is the China virus, don’t talk to Chinese kids.”

Li said she suspects the children heard anti-Chinese rhetoric from their parents. But she struggles to explain the bigoted comments to her children. “I don’t know how to talk to my kids about it,” Li said.

In Li’s perception, discrimination is a learned way of thinking. She circles back to her students at CSU. Older and more experienced than children, they are able to move beyond inherited prejudices.

“They seem to treat each other equally,” Li says of her students. “I think society is moving in the right direction.”



Sunday, March 28, some 1,000 Clevelanders walked down Payne and Superior Avenues, the arteries of AsiaTown. Across the country, they were accompanied by countless others in the street that same weekend. All had been spurred to action by the shooting of nine people in the Atlanta, GA, metropolitan area. Eight victims, six of whom were women of Asian descent, died.

The murders were only part of a larger grim pattern unfolding across the nation. Incidences of harassment, intimidation, and violence against Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have skyrocketed since March of last year. Aggressors irrationally have felt licensed by the Chinese government’s failure to contain COVID-19 to inflict collective retribution against anyone of Asian descent.

Not only are threats against AAPI people increasing, but they are more often escalating into violence. According to Stop Asian Hate, 16.6 percent of bias incidents in 2020-2021 involved bodily assaults; the previous year, 10.8 percent of reports did. Sixty-three percent of reports were made by women.

Locally, the AsiaTown demonstration drew participation from organizations like MidTown Cleveland, OCA Greater Cleveland, and OPAWL. Both mayoral candidates pledged to fight anti-Asian bias in city hall by requiring “bystander training” for city employees, or appointing more AAPI staff.

Even in the arts community, we cannot rest easy in the assumption that egalitarian attitudes alone make our institutions welcoming towards racial minorities, or engines of change in wider society. If the arts community is to be a partner in the struggle for real freedom and equality, we have to listen to the people inside it who have been hurt or excluded. And to listen, we must amplify speakers who have not been given platforms.

To that end, CAN Journal is launching a series of features centered on AAPI artists in Northeast Ohio. This piece is the first in that series.

Even in the most welcoming environments, discussions about race are difficult, emotionally raw, and demanding of vulnerability on the part of speakers. Those who stand up for themselves against discrimination can be accused of being “oversensitive,” “complainers,” or even “crazy.” Some people experiencing prejudice may still be employed alongside bigoted coworkers or within toxic institutions, and therefore risk reprisal if they speak out. Some artists fear being tokenized, being pigeonholed as “an Asian artist” whose individuality is not recognized. Some do not wish to relive painful experiences, or broadcast humiliations inflicted on them to a wide audience. Others don’t know what, if anything, they have to say about race. We are thus immensely and sincerely grateful to all AAPI artists who have agreed to participate in this series.

No individual can convey all the richness and nuance of another’s experience. Nor can they speak for an entire demographic with fuzzy, constantly-shifting boundaries. So readers should understand one AAPI artist’s statements as just that: one person’s statements. Even within a community like contemporary Asian American artists, there will be many different, even disagreeing, perspectives. It is from the respectful meeting of opposing narratives that people in democracies work out civic life together.