Facing Pervasive Trauma with Humor and Hope: Christine Sun Kim at François Ghebaly

Christine Sun Kim, Trauma, LOL, 2020. Charcoal
on paper, 58.25 x 58.25 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.

Despite last year’s somber circumstances, Christine Sun Kim found humor and hope within unending crisis. Known for charcoal drawings exploring the heterogeneity and intricacy of Deaf culture, language, and sound, Kim turns a critical and humorous gaze towards her 2020 experience. At François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, CA, Kim’s Trauma, LOL (all works 2020) remains authentic to the title as it elegantly transitions between unearthing racist histories and presents, jovial insights into American Sign Language, and the unrelenting oppression of others. Grounded in her experience as a Deaf woman of color, the exhibition dances between humor and trauma, work and rest, depicting a struggle familiar to anyone who dares to be anything but cisgender, white, heterosexual, able-bodied.

Kim’s year began with signing a duet with singer Demi Lovato for millions at Super Bowl LIV. Amid the signing and singing, the feed cut away to players, abruptly ending deaf viewer’s access to Lovato’s performance. In the enduring fight for inclusive and accessible media, Fox Sports’ decision came across as cold and disrespectful. She responded with a New York Times opinion article and a pair of drawings. A notation for her America the Beautiful performance hangs alongside the third verse to the Star-Spangled Banner. Kim’s notation of the underpublicized third verse directs the attention to its latent racist origin. The placement of “slave” within the marks for “stripe,” inside the fabric of the country, embodies the entrenched racist history we still occupy. The NAACP has called for the song’s removal, citing its anti-Black rhetoric alongside lyric writer Francis Scott Key’s holding of enslaved people.1 Still, Key’s writing stands as this nation’s rallying cry.

Christine Sun Kim, America the Beautiful, 2020.
Charcoal on paper, 58.25 x 58.25 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.
Christine Sun Kim, Now Your Turn, 2020. Charcoal
on paper, 49.25 x 49.25 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.

The pairing of When Grammar Mood and Pronouns in American Sign Language pivot the conversation to languages and the emotions within. While a gravitas still underlies their construction, the tonal shift provides a playful respite. Similarly, the I walk I see triptych jests about homophones and double meaning across English and ASL. The “I” panel has several registers of “eye” atop musical notes while “See” is accompanied by a sea of “spot,” a more faithful translation from ASL. Clock Face, a ring of expressions for various ASL literary art forms, once again interweaves levity and analysis of Deaf experience. The structure is replicated in the adjacent room with Deaf Traumas, now addressing intersectional conflict and privilege across the Deaf Community.

Round­ing the corner reveals the large mural Turning Clock in the second room. From the room’s center, you see a series of rotating hands, which signify “turn” in ASL, where the hours would reside. To your back are Now Your Turn and the titular Trauma, LOL, mirroring the mural’s design. The triad of pieces, with their timepiece design and addressing of the audience, communicates the need for shared responsibility in the fight against oppression. The pronoun “your” directs the call to action at the viewer. The artist is tired. Now is Kim’s turn to rest, and those in control and privileged to work. It is exhausting and unsustainable being an unsupported fighter for minuscule gains.

Christine Sun Kim, Trauma, LOL, 2020 (installation view). Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.
Nine graphite drawings on paper hanging on a white wall above a concrete floor. The rectangular frames are arranged like an undulating wave, some higher, some lower.
Christine Sun Kim, Trauma, LOL, 2020 (installation view). Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.

The eastern wall houses Trauma as a Baby, Trauma with Thick Skin, and, bluntly, Trauma. Trauma spans seven frames, each featuring a line undulating rhythmically across a label-less axis, capturing distinct encounters with trauma through variable text and stroke. Trauma as a Baby and Trauma with Thick Skin show different encounters with trauma on a singular graph, labeled as impact over time. Each piece elaborates on the long-term, possibly generational, influence of traumatic moments. Trauma sits with you, regardless of resiliency or coping mechanisms. It becomes not just the incidence of trauma but the labor and healing time that accumulate and weigh on the mind and body, the “trauma upon trauma upon trauma…” as the title work declares. The compounding labor and exhaustion from traumas emphasizes the need for collaborators in the fight for equity prescribed beforehand. Under ideal circumstances, allyship is this respectful symbiotic relationship yet history demonstrates how quickly zealous work fades into passive involvement to apathy.

Decades after the campaign for and signing of The American with Disabilities Act in 1990, fewer than one-quarter of parents sign to their deaf children and globally only 2% receive an education in sign language.2 In this hearing-centric world where live interpretation is classified as “bonus footage,” Deaf culture continues to be suppressed. Kim’s Competing Languages captures this discordant reality. The title’s severing and placement within two upturned notes create tension, mirroring the contending forces of a signed education and a hearing society.

Christine Sun Kim, Trauma, 2020 (detail). Courtesy of the Artist and
François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.

The struggle for inclusion is unsurprising because the system is intentionally designed. Three Tables III (AGB, HPA, DTS) nest musical bars to embody the personal strife for inclusion and access as a consequence of the larger bastions against progress. At the base is “Dinner Table Syndrome”: the common phenomenon of deaf people’s exclusion from dining table conversation by hearing people. “Hearing People Anxiety” is that same dread of exclusion when venturing to any hearing-centric event. HPA also encapsulates the additional effort deaf people undertake before going out in a hearing-centric world. The highest register reads “Alexander Graham Bell.” Bell’s legacy as an oralist and eugenic practices to eradicate signing has scarred the education for generations of deaf children. The layering of phrases crystalizes how macro systems generate an inescapable web, contorting and compressing the public and personal realities for deaf individuals.

Kim captures the moments where deafness, gender, race, and national origin, among other identities, collide with a society ill-equipped to make space. Layering humor, trauma, and lived experience gives multiple threads to connect with, inviting the audience to reflect on personal encounters with oppression and how, despite all odds, we coped and survived. Trauma, LOL reminds us that ally is a verb. Supporting the disenfranchised to create change is a continuous investment and promise from those empowered to help, not just those directly affected.3 While they have fought for the current conditions, it is through intentional collaborations that we advance reform.

Christine Sun Kim: Trauma, LOL
François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
December 12, 2020 – January 23, 2021

This interview is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color cofounded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Read more about Variable West’s Critical Minded Grant here.

1 CBS News, “National anthem lyrics prompt California NAACP to call for replacing song,” November 8, 2017, accessed January 24, 2020. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/national-anthem-lyrics-california-naacp-star-spangled-banner/

2 The Nyle DiMarco Foundation, “About the foundation,” accessed January 24, 2020. https://nyledimarcofoundation.com/about/

3 Carolyn Lazard, Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice, (Reading, PA: The Standard Group) 2019. https://promiseandpractice.art