Fifty paintings for fifty states: A Chinese-American artist reflects on ‘freedom’

Society & Culture

A Berlin-based art performance by LiLi Nacht uses traditional Chinese guohua techniques to reimagine the historical, symbolic, and material aspects of the American identity.

LiLi Nacht
All photos by G. Pe Benito.

With the U.S. election date quickly approaching in less than two weeks, Berlin-based Chinese-American artist LìLì 丽丽 Nacht unveiled a thought-provoking art exhibition addressing the essence of American identity. Affected by collective political trauma and geopolitical tension — from the Black Lives Matter movement to the China-U.S. trade war to the COVID-19 pandemic — Nacht picked up her brush to embark on a 50-day-long process of meditation and reflection, which resulted in 50 provocative paintings  in honor of the 50 states of America.

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Nacht’s 50 American flags.

The formal artistic qualities of this performance pay homage to the calligraphic mechanics and techniques that Nacht learned from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Inspired by the importance of repetition in traditional Chinese ink techniques dating back to 200 B.C., Nacht created daily paintings based on the American flag, infusing Eastern painting methods, namely, guóhuà (国画), with Western iconography. The unique style of guohua lies in dipping the brush, or Máobǐ (毛笔), in black ink or pigment ink, utilizing traditional calligraphy strokes to reflect natural aesthetics of landscapes.

When asked about the significance of employing this ancient Chinese art form to depict U.S. contemporary politics, Nacht said it was mainly to show the coexistence of her two identities. “It was to give this balance between being Chinese and American, expressing an image in the form of these two cultures,” she explained. “As a child of Chinese immigrants growing up in the American South, I never felt like I truly belonged. Similarly, whenever I am in China, my accent and my behavior immediately mark me as a foreigner, despite being able to speak Mandarin. I believe there is a huge population of young adults in my generation who can relate to this alienation from both societies.”

The inspiration for Nacht’s 50-day performance was the product of ongoing American domestic political upheaval and contemporary American youth dissatisfaction and frustration over a government that does not represent the concerns of the entire population. The main theme of the exhibition was: “What does it take to know freedom?”

You can see some her answers below, or find her on Instagram @lili.nacht.

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Nacht shows exhibition visitors how to use traditional ink-painting materials.
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Nacht’s flag from Day 14 displays a spray of bullet holes. It was painted on June 28, the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which launched the gay rights movement. The bullet holes signify not only the physical violence but also the psychological warfare in the current disinformation era: a time where piercing words and motivated reasoning are used to kill opposing ideologies.
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Nacht’s flag from Day 40 illustrates the falling of the 50 stars. Although Americans wage political wars with one another, secretly, all are tired.
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In the flag from Day 35, Nacht replaces the 50 states with a dollar sign, signifying the importance of capitalism. Americans pledge allegiance to the dollar sign.
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Nacht’s flag from Day 50 is a proposition to cure the current political frustration and disunity with “persistence and letting go.” Those words may seem contradictory to each other, but Nacht believes that only with both can we begin to build a better, more free future for all.
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Nacht questions the very core of the American identity by showing the simple illustration of only one star and one stripe.