A mother and daughter push against loose mud to haul a ship up a river. A stooped woman shoulders a bale of hay. These frozen figures in resin prints and tapestries line the walls of the Museum of Art and History (MAH) — an homage to labor by artist Hung Liu.
Community members gathered on March 3 in a gallery at the MAH to celebrate the opening of the new exhibition, “We Who Work.” The show theme centers around the poetic power of laborers and their unspoken stories.
Labor, in its ability to both empower and oppress, grounded the art show in the Santa Cruz community. The MAH partnered with the Working for Dignity Project at UC Santa Cruz and the Day Worker Center of Santa Cruz County to create an interactive installation. It shared stories of Santa Cruz County’s low-wage worker community.
“Narratives aren’t linear, and more and more now with our political climate it’s important that multiple identities are shown,” said second-year UCSC student and attendee Katherine Le.
According to the Working for Dignity project, 22 percent of the Santa Cruz County’s over 264,800 residents live below the poverty line. Over half are the major wage earners in their families and are supporting dependents.
In the center of the exhibit, a produce hand cart, a spatula, a welder’s mask, a squeegee and rags were arranged across a table. These everyday tools of Santa Cruz’s worker community were displayed for visitors to pick up and interact with.
Along with the tools were personal narratives of the workers who used them. Augustin Garcia, a local window washer, was one of the people who had their tools on display. On a placard accompanying the display, Garcia notes his personal connections with the tools he uses in his work.
“These tools help me pay the bills and my daughter’s education,” Garcia said. “Sometimes I risk my life on high places, feeling the cold burning on my hands on the winter days.”
These narratives shared powerful connections with the featured artist’s account of growing up in communist China.
Hung Liu was in middle school when Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution upended China in the 1960s. Mao’s communist regime displaced millions of families, forcing them into the fields to be “purified by labor.” For four years Liu worked alongside her parents and only received two days off during this period.
“I feel the weight of history because of who I am, where I come from, what I’ve gone through,” Liu said.
Liu’s work celebrates female workers and their struggles. By painting directly from photographs, she seeks to spiritually reclaim the stories of those lost during a turning point in China’s history.
“These women are not alone,” said UCSC student Katherine Le. “There were hundreds of thousands of women going through the same exact struggle, and I think that solidarity really shows in the beauty of the artwork.”
The show will be open through June 25, celebrating the lives of laborers from the fields of China to the streets of Santa Cruz County. Separated by 50 years, the combined voices of Santa Cruz’s workers and Hung Liu’s figures ring out powerfully. Liu reflected on labor often taken for granted.
“It’s so important to recognize the labor behind artwork, your dinner table, behind ice cream, behind anything,” Liu said.