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Artist Diana Oh Is Holding Space For Queer, Trans People Of Color Through Her A.R.T. Residency

Portrait photographer Liz Slaughter (left) and Diana Oh (right) at “Chosen Family Portrait," Oh's first installation stemming from her residency at A.R.T. (Courtesy A.R.T.)MoreCloseclosemore
Portrait photographer Liz Slaughter (left) and Diana Oh (right) at “Chosen Family Portrait," Oh's first installation stemming from her residency at A.R.T. (Courtesy A.R.T.)

On a Sunday afternoon in late September, Diana Oh — a queer artist, singer-songwriter, actor — radiated serenity as she greeted visitors at Harvard Yard. Feathers in her hair dangled over glitter-covered eyelids as she danced to songs from Cardi B to Kendrick Lamar, blaring from speakers.

Oh is in residence at the American Repertory Theater until next spring, planning five installations around Boston, including a final concert.

At the inaugural offering for the residency, “Chosen Family Portrait,” staged at the “Autumn (…Nothing Personal)” installation, LGBTQ people and their allies were invited to pose for family portraits. Visitors perched with their self-curated kin on red-velvet and gold seating or on a white wicker throne for their photo shoots. The gathering aimed to smash the narrative of heteronormative families smiling on holiday cards or captured during other milestones.

Micki McElya and Alexis Boylan. (Courtesy A.R.T.)
Micki McElya and Alexis Boylan. (Courtesy A.R.T.)

“To me it's a really radical way of taking over an art-form… to sort of, rip up this idea of who is family,” said Mei Ann Teo, Singaporean dramaturg, producing artistic director at the Musical Theatre Factory, and one of Oh’s main collaborators.

Oh, who is also a self-identified witch, was initially invited to A.R.T. to put on another performance piece — a protest of violence over women’s bodies — but after consulting with a spiritual counselor in the jungle in Thailand, Oh instead came to Boston determined to create joyful spaces for queer and trans people of color.

“I think for this year, it's about filling the well. It's about love. It's about creating a space of abundance, and kind of increasing the view,” she said during a recent interview. “I'm just picturing the camera, you know. It's like zooming out into what is kind of the bigger purpose and what is the bigger calling. Who are we as human[s]? And then, what does it mean to even be alive?” Oh said.

Marta Morais Pacheco from Brazil (L) and Rita Chen from Taiwan pose for their portrait. The two met the morning of Sept. 23 at their hostel and decided to explore the city together. Pacheco felt a pull from the environment and decided to check it out. (Courtesy A.R.T.)
Marta Morais Pacheco from Brazil (L) and Rita Chen from Taiwan pose for their portrait. The two met the morning of Sept. 23 at their hostel and decided to explore the city together. Pacheco felt a pull from the environment and decided to check it out. (Courtesy A.R.T.)

Oh’s growing body of work positions her in a landscape of ascending young performance artists expanding the form. In 2016, Refinery 29 named Oh one of the “Top 14 LGBTQ Influencers,” alongside writer, producer and actor Lena Waithe and gender non-conforming poet and performance artist, Alok Vaid-Menon. Oh is sharpening her acting chops as Devon on the refreshing web series “Queering,” wrapped up a week-long stint at the Ancram Opera House with a post-concert sleepover in August, and she was chosen as a member of the 2018-19 Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater.

But what Oh is best known for, is her 10-installation work, “{my lingerie play},” where she brandished brown bags emblazoned with messages that admonish catcalling and other haranguing behavior, from a soapbox in her underwear. That epic protest — which started on the streets in New York — with installation names such as “The World Bends Over Backwards To Make Excuses For (White) Male Violence,” ​and “Even If You Found Me Like This (You Still Can’t Rape Me),” bolstered her career, garnered a slew of publicity and allowed her to plunge deeper into her craft.

After word of “{my lingerie play}” crackled throughout the art world, Mark Lunsford, artistic producer at A.R.T., reached out to Oh in February to ask if she could do the show in Cambridge, and initially she agreed.

However, when she consulted a spiritual counselor at the Wonderland Healing Center in Thailand, while on break from touring with Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” Oh decided to pivot and let “{my lingerie play}” go for now. In this season, her battle cry calls for the healing and rejuvenation of herself and others through music and by carving out spaces for connection.

Even with the change in direction, Lunsford still wanted to have Oh as an artist-in-residence because her work is in line with the A.R.T.’s mission of expanding the boundaries of theater. He said, “I didn't know Diana before this relationship. In my few conversations with her, I just immediately trusted her and what she would do.”

Oh’s season-long, multi-installation residency at the A.R.T., “Clairvoyance,” aims to be an exchange of energy centered around the power and magic of queer and trans people of color (QTPOC). Throughout the season, Oh will work closely with Sophie Ancival, assistant producer at the A.R.T., who helps execute Oh’s vision. As it stands, the residency culminates with “Installation #5: Clairvoyance — The Concert and Tree Planting,” which Oh calls a “concert, witchcraft, catharsis, healing thing,” next April.

From left: Mya Ison, Michael Rosegrant, Arianne Banda and Sara Shin (Courtesy A.R.T.)
From left: Mya Ison, Michael Rosegrant, Arianne Banda and Sara Shin (Courtesy A.R.T.)

In her speech at The TOW Foundation’s 30th Anniversary Gala the day before “Chosen Family Portrait,” Oh shared that her father, Mark Oh, was a political activist who stood up against a regime of martial law in Seoul, South Korea and was arrested and tortured.

“This year I felt a real collision of my intersections and seeing that as a source of power and a source of truth and a source of, comfort you know? Where it's, like, yes, born of immigrants, Korean-American, queer, femme, gender questioning, survivor, sex positive, [and] speaking different languages,” she explained. “But that's amazing, rather than something that limits.”

There was a time when the LA native and New York resident with degrees from Smith College and New York University, had her sights set on becoming the Korean Meryl Streep. But, Oh grew impatient with the industry’s unrelenting obsession with whiteness and thinness and created her own work.

She took a deep breath, stepped on that soapbox in New York and sketched her own path. Oh believes “{my lingerie play}”, which she started working on in 2014, saved her and helped her “reassess her goals as an artist,” she shared on her blog.

Oh declared in an online manifesto last year, “I want to make art that makes people sweat from their soul, ​I want to create art that makes the impossible feel possible in the room and I want to make life better for people.”

Oh purposely centers the narratives of queer and trans people of color, but she does so in hopes that it will cease to be anomalous.

“I don't want our presence or our work to always feel like a disruption. You know? I don't want to be in the 4 percent of artists that are hired that look like me anymore,” Oh said.

Amanda Escamilla of Tex Mex Eats at Diana Oh's installation "Chosen Family Portrait." (Courtesy A.R.T.)
Amanda Escamilla of Tex Mex Eats at Diana Oh's installation "Chosen Family Portrait." (Courtesy A.R.T.)

During “Chosen Family Portrait,” she doled out hugs, urged attendees to start conversations and to make connections. Groups of old friends and new, and families of every kind basked in the electric atmosphere.

Michael Rosegrant and his friends, Arianne Banda and Mya Ison, students at Boston University, showed up at “Chosen Family Portrait,” to get their photo taken. “We’re experiencing a time when people of certain identities are having a hard time living in their bodies and I think [there’s] a lot of physical manifestation of stress, pain and worry right now,” Rosegrant said. “So, I think carving out spaces in which you can be with people who are going through the same things … can actually help distract from, and massage some of that stress away.”

In Oh’s work, there’s “this deep thread of collective liberation,” Teo explained.
At “Installation # 2 - White People Read,” slated for Oct. 27 at the Boston Public Library, Oh will have a curated list of books about the experiences and histories of marginalized groups that she wishes everyone, but especially white people in power, will read. The installation will also serve as a place to discharge one’s rage, with a private space after the performance meant for emotional processing. It’s meant to validate her rage and “bear witness to anyone who wants to validate theirs,” Oh said.

This thoughtful creation of space to hold pain, is what makes her work so resonant. Oh’s installations are at once a place to exude joy and expel rage.

That range of emotions merit visibility, acknowledgement, she said. “You will be witnessed, and you will not hold this alone. You will have your feelings validated, and you will not be dismissed.”

Oh is most concerned with creating the installations with love. She will hold hands, hug and stand in solidarity with whomever needs it.

It’s how Oh works in community, “reaching out, pulling in, lifting up,” said Teo.

Diana Oh (center) embraces Arianne Banda, Michael Rosegrant, and Mya Ison. (Courtesy A.R.T.)
Diana Oh (center) embraces Arianne Banda, Michael Rosegrant, and Mya Ison. (Courtesy A.R.T.)

Clairvoyance” runs now through April 2019.

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Jacquinn Sinclair Contributor
Jacquinn Sinclair is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Performer Magazine, The Philadelphia Tribune and Exhale Magazine.

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