Photo by Laura Hayes WSU senior Michelle Nemeth shines a UV light on the dots on the back black wall of ChunLok Mah’s exhibit “‘WE’nona.” Mah used ultraviolet ink to create hidden words on the dots.

WSU prof. mixes politics, art



After living in the United States for 20 years, Winona State University (WSU) Associate Professor of Art ChunLok Mah started struggling with his identity. Originally from Malaysia, Mah said that he found it challenging to tell his students how to be a good American or why voting is important.

Mah applied for his citizenship, and he remembers one judge who said that people don’t often think about how the country became what it is today. “America is what it is today when immigrants bring their culture to America and celebrate [it], not blend in,” he said. 

For the past six months, Mah has been working on an exhibit entitled “‘WE’nona: Going Beyond Minnesota Nice to Build a Vibrant Diverse Community.” The exhibit was unveiled in mid-March, and according to Mah, ‘WE’nona was designed as a study to bridge the gap between activism and interactive art. The project was designed to bring community members who typically don’t visit WSU to the campus. 

‘WE’Nona has three layers to spark conversation: dots on the floor,  graphic images on the walls, and a black wall in the back. For the past several weeks, the floor of the Watkins Gallery was covered with paper dots with a path bisecting the dots in half. On the dots, Mah said that he used the Bezold effect — an optical illusion where a color can appear different depending on the surrounding colors. From one end of the gallery to the other, the center color of the dots shift from blue to green or red to purple depending on the side. For example, then the dot is surrounded by purple, the center appears bluer, and when it’s surrounded by yellow, it looks to be green. 

Mah said that he was using the dots to make a political commentary. He explained that when someone walks into the gallery, they can see that one side is blue and one is red. “As you walk deeper into the gallery, the color perception will turn into green and more pink,” Mah said. “Nobody is pure liberal or pure conservative.” The dots, he explained, are influenced by their surroundings and so are people’s political beliefs. 

In the election, Mah said that the community was divided almost in half by political beliefs. Our community, he explained, should not be defined by politics, but by our common goals. 

On the back of the dots are questions that people can answer, such as what do you like about the community. However, Mah used ultraviolet ink to write a predetermined answer to the question. People are then encouraged to put their answered dots on the back wall, and next to the wall Mah placed several UV lights that people can use to look at the hidden predetermined answer. For example, if a UV light is shined at a dot that asked what one loved about their country, it would reveal “proud.” 

If someone shined a UV light at the black wall covered with dots, Mah said that it would show that everyone had the same goals. “We like to be proud. We like to be happy and joyful, but the way that we answered the question was different,” he said. Mah explained that while people may have common goals, their approach to achieve their goals may be different.

The black wall covers the word “fear.” Mah explained that fear is invisible. Fear, he said, can prevent people from forming a community. “The act of sharing, will cover up the fear,” he said.

Along the walls of the gallery are 12 pictures. Mah used different graphic techniques to convey two messages. For example, one image from a distance appears to be the word “pity,” but up close the word “empathy” becomes visible. Mah explained that pity and empathy are often two motivations for helping someone. When a beggar is on the street, Mah said that pity may motivate someone to provide temporary support such as money or food. Empathy, he compared, is more sustainable and would motivate someone to find a way to get the person out of poverty. 

Last week, Mah held a reception for the gallery opening. WSU senior Michelle Nemeth decided to come after hearing positive reviews from her friends. She said that the exhibit was interesting and thought provoking. After seeing others use the UV light on the black wall, she decided to try it for herself. “I didn’t know [the words] were there,” she said. 

“We create a lot of fear for the wrong reasons,” Mah explained. He hoped that his exhibit generated conversations throughout the community.




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