Opening doors: The life of Chicano artist Richard Lou
June 8, 2022
Richard Alexander Lou lived in Tijuana, Mexico until he was almost 9 years old, and every day for almost three years, he would cross the border to go to elementary school.
Around 6:30 a.m., Lou’s father would pack him and his four siblings in the car and drive across the border into the United States. Lou was young but remembers the mornings well and being questioned by Border Patrol agents.
After dropping off his kids, Lou’s father would go to work as a butcher at a grocery store in the U.S. After school, the kids would take the bus to their cousin’s house, where they would be picked up by their godfather. Then, they would get back into the car and cross the border back into Mexico. Finishing off their nine-hour long day, their godfather would make sure to visit the cemetery where his infant son was buried before heading back home.
“I was a border crosser since a child,” Lou said.
In 1988, 20 years later, Lou installed a door on the U.S.-Mexico border, about a quarter mile east of the Tijuana International Airport near where he would cross as a child to go to school.
Lou carried a metal door frame and placed it along one part of the 1,954 miles of barbed wire separating the two countries.
He then hammered dozens of nails to one side of the door and placed 134 keys on those nails. The only people who had access to the keys were those who lived on the side of the door that could be opened: the Mexican side.
Photographer and Lou’s friend Jim Elliot documented the installment of the door by capturing it standing against the vast backdrop of the border. Although the fence was bent, the door stood open, inviting people to walk through.
To Lou, the door symbolized the United States taking land from Mexico by force during the Mexican-American War, but also the way the U.S. Border Patrol agents treat those coming into the United States.
“It was also a response to how my grandparents were treated crossing the border,” Lou said. “Me as this young kid watching the Border Patrol agents be completely disrespectful to these elderly people.”
Lou is a Chicano artist who was raised by his Mexican mom and Chinese father in San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico. He is a visual and performative artist, who started his work at the border, but has since shown and performed his work in the South and around the world. Some consider the installation of the “Border Door” Lou’s legacy piece, but to him, his legacy starts with his four children.
“Having children is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me,” Lou said. “After that, then we can talk about the art.”
When he was first starting college in California, Lou thought that he was going to be a writer and dreamed of teaching American literature at the high school level. His dream quickly faded, however, once he realized he did not want to become a writer because of the inherent lack of financial security. Instead, he changed his major to psychology, but he had another change of heart when his sister handed him the camera that her boyfriend had given her, asking Lou if he knew how to use it. When he said no, he told her that he would take a class to learn how to use the camera and teach her.
The doors were opening for him.
After finishing the door installation, Lou then walked to his neighborhood, to the house where he grew up and where his aunt lived at the time. Starting at his childhood home, Lou handed out additional keys to neighbors and anyone who wanted keys to the “Border Door.” He walked through his neighborhood and all the way to Casa de Los Pobres, a Catholic charity orphanage in Tijuana. When the kids asked about the keys, he told them about the door, and they grabbed the last 50 or so keys. They ran into the streets to give them to everyone they could find, ending his performative piece in his old neighborhood.
“There was satisfaction, but there was this very humble gesture of placing this door right on the U.S.-Mexican border and then going back to the neighborhood where I grew up in Tijuana and then handing out over 250 keys, inviting people to use my border door, and them to use it with dignity,” Lou said.
Lou remained near the border for the first part of his artistic career, and started to work with the Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego, California. Their mission states that the centro “functions as an alternative space that encourages and facilitates artistic growth and cultural exchange in the San Diego/Tijuana region.”
Through the centro, Lou connected with mentors and artists about the racism he endured growing up.
“I would have all these traumatic experiences of being rejected, being told as a child always to go back to Mexico even though I was born in the United States, learning that my mother’s heroes were actually enemies of the United States,” Lou said.
Lou saw a chance to express himself working with Centro Cultural de la Raza and became affiliated with the Border Arts Workshop. The workshop aligned with Lou’s goals to reduce the social tensions the Mexican-American border creates.
[Anzaldúa]. . . described the border as an open wound, so it was an act of healing.”
— Richard Lou
From July to August of 1990, Lou and seven other artists who were a part of the Border Arts Workshop drove a mobile home crisscrossing the U.S.-Mexico border. They started at Matamoros/Brownsville and drove all the way to Tijuana/San Diego. Their travels led them to be a part of an artistic performance known as the “Border Sutures.”
Lou describes the “Border Sutures” project as a long installation or sculpture piece, where he and his fellow artists put 1/4 inch steel staples that were 3 to 6 feet long across the border.
“We used a sledgehammer to staple the two countries back together again,” Lou said.
At every town and in between, a steel staple was placed into the ground or let float down the Rio Grande. More than 25 staples were placed into the ground by the end of the trip. Art critics, curators and historians asked to join the project for a chance to write and document the journey, but Lou and the other artists refused. Instead, they documented the journey and did performances of healing for themselves.
“This is based on Gloria Anzaldúa’s work ‘The Borderlands,’ where she described the border as an open wound,” Lou said. “So it was an act of healing.”
Lou formed a community alongside artists Robert Sanchez, Marco Anguiano and Patricio Chavez at the centro. Chavez, who considers Lou a brother, started working with him in the summer of 1989. While the two friends have worked together on projects like the “Border Sutures” and had their work showcased in Istanbul, one of Chavez’s favorite memories of Lou is enjoying chocolate malts with Lou and their two friends.
“He has this interesting balance between that community, family, very sort of locally focused engagement and at the same time, a broader engagement with the U.S. and international intellectual community,” Chavez said. “He has a way of distilling complex subject matter into very understandable analysis. He’s like a poet to me, his work, his writing.”
Lou’s sense of community and belonging starts with his family and the love that he was shown by his mom and dad. To Lou, home is a shelter. It is a place with the best food and where you will always give and receive love. Growing up, his father would tell him stories of living in colonized China. Living in Shanghai, Lou’s father would walk past Huangpu Park, where he would encounter a sign that read, “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted.” Hearing these stories, Lou grew up around anti-colonialist discussions and brought that into his own work.
In 1992, Lou staged his performative piece titled “Headlines,” for the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus having “discovered” the Americas. Lou shaved his head every month over the course of the project and asked artists of color to write and draw images on his scalp, representing how they felt about Columbus’ invasion of the Americas.
Some artists painted his whole head with reds, yellows, blues and more. Others painted faces and words like “sailed” on his scalp. Lou said in an article in American Studies Journal that while he continued to shop and work, he remembers people looking at him differently with the various graphics and colors on his head.
In 2001, Lou took a job as professor and chair of the Department of Art at Georgia College & State University. After living in San Diego for his whole life, he decided to go through a different door and seek economic refuge from California. He grabbed a map and drew a line. He decided he would only move south of that line, a place he would not have to drive in the snow: Georgia.
His move to the South caused a shift in his work, one that better suited the needs of the new community. His artistic career began to reflect the Southern culture he now calls home. Today, Lou lives with his children and grandchildren in Memphis, Tennessee.
Lou arrived in Memphis in 2007, after being offered the position of chair of the Art Department at the University of Memphis. When he arrived in the city, one of his coworkers drove him to a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and from 1904 to 2017, a statue of him riding on a horse in his Confederate States Army uniform stood in the Health Sciences Park — formerly known as Forrest Park — in Memphis. Forrest and his wife’s remains were moved to the park when the statue was built.
As Lou drove back to his office after being shown the statue, he started to contemplate the history of the site. Forrest and his wife were moved to the park during a resurgence of white supremacy during the early 20th century.
Then, another thought crossed his mind. The park where Forrest’s statue and remains resided was a public park and was therefore paid for by the residents of Memphis.
“When we just think of it numerically, it’s like — so who is the majority of people that are paying in taxes are paying for the maintenance of this park?” Lou asked. “It’s absurd.”
According to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, 61.9 percent of Memphis’ population is Black or African American.
Lou knew that he wanted to bring members of the Memphis community together to create another narrative around the statue that had originally been built with the purpose to transmit fear and fuel white supremacy. This led to his performance piece titled “Recovering Memphis: Listening to Untold Stories.”
Lou sits back in his chair and sets the scene as he remembers the performance: his first performance in Memphis.
Imagine you are sitting outside in a park with about 50 other people on a nice summer day on June 20, 2009. The sky is blue, and the trees are green. There is only one object blocking your view: a huge statue of a white supremacist — Forrest — riding a horse. As you are looking at this statue, two people walk in front, singing Black spiritual anthems as six people move behind the singers, silently arranging 30 boxes in the shape of a pyramid before the statue. Finally, the statue is gone, and you are looking at a painting of a fire. Once the singing has ended and the boxes are in place, a storyteller comes forth to talk about anti-lynching monuments and the takedown of the statue in Memphis’ public park, with a fire ablaze as the backdrop.
With each of the six sides of the boxes comes another story, another image and more spiritual songs. Images of the Mississippi River and slave auctions are painted on one of the six sides of the boxes and are placed precariously so that each box forms an amazing scene. People come to talk about their experience with police harassment and their multicultural friendships. Finally, the last image is pieced together, and you see the park as it would look if there were no statue. At the end, an Aztec dancer, Agustin Díaz-Tellez, tells his own story before the crowd and dances all around the statue.
“I’m not saying I changed that site, but for an hour on a Saturday morning — versus probably millions of hours that statue’s been sitting there, transmitting its message — for one hour, I complicated the site,” Lou said. “And for one hour, provided an alternative viewpoint.”
Lou had only been living in Memphis for two years, but he worked with members of the community to create a new discourse. He opened the door to what the park could represent for the residents of Memphis.
Jody Stokes-Casey, who studied at the University of Memphis for her graduate degree, worked with Lou for her independent study. She has written many articles about his work and the performances he created around Forrest’s statue.
“He’s not from Memphis,” Stokes-Casey said. “He’s also not from the South, but he’s looking at [white supremacist monuments] and contextualizing them in a way that brings his own experiences and background to that scenario and brings his own skills and perspectives as an artist in order to reshape how we perceive those sculptures, and that’s what his work is.”
Every community that Lou has become a part of has opened his door of opportunity a little wider.
In a recent exhibition, Lou took the opportunity to include not only stories of his family, but communities that he has become a part of. His art exhibition “Stories On My Back” debuted in 2011 at the University of Mississippi, but he has since continued to showcase his work around the South.
In an interview with Crosstown Concourse, which is a nonprofit whose goal is to foster artistic change, Lou explained that the name “Stories On My Back” comes from a story passed down by his grandfather and from Lou’s children, who tattooed their last name in Chinese onto their backs.
In 1895, Lou’s grandfather decided to leave China and go to the United States. When he arrived at what was then known as Canton City in China, he realized he needed to tell his mother where he was going. Lou’s grandfather was illiterate, so he searched for an educated man who could write a letter for him. When he found someone, he handed them a pen and paper.
As the educated man looked at the pen and paper, he said he had nowhere to write. Lou’s grandfather bent over and offered him his back so that he could send a letter to his mother, explaining that she may never see her son again. Humiliated after feeling used as an inanimate object by the educated man, Lou’s grandfather passed down the story to his children, to propel their education and the story is still being passed down today.
As one of Lou’s favorite pieces, he perks up in his chair to say what the exhibit has looked like, but every time he is asked to do the exhibit, it grows with more stories being added.
Inside the exhibition “Stories on My Back,” there are columns covered with thousands of corn husks and pictures of his kids, parents, grandparents and other people who have become part of his community. Inside the columns, there are speakers with a recording of the person whose picture hangs outside the column. Each column allows the speaker to share their own story.
Weaving around the exhibit, everywhere someone turns, they find themselves standing in front of another person, listening to another story. Eventually, everyone is drawn to the video monitor where Lou’s kids tell stories about their grandfather.
Like a living, breathing exhibition, the doorway to the project continues to expand with more and more stories being added.
“If I get invited to do that piece again, I’ll probably do the same thing and invite members of the community to participate with me so that way it keeps changing, and it becomes not only a story about my family, but it becomes a story about a lot of people’s families and just families in general,” Lou said.
Lou says that storytelling is “as ancient as humanity.” With each piece, he tries to pass down the stories he heard growing up. He passes them to his children and grandchildren, but also to the communities of which he has become a part.
“I’m fascinated by the stories about my family, and I think a lot of it has to do with — there’s always question marks about family, and I want to undo those questions and maybe make them exclamation marks or commas rather than question marks,” Lou said. “Then also, I come from a family, especially my mother and my father. Oh my gosh, they were wonderful storytellers.”
Lou remembers listening to his father talk about growing up in China and the Mississippi Delta, stories about living through World War II and fighting in the United States Marine Corps. His father taught Japanese to Marine Corps and Navy officers. Lou was envious of his father’s life, and so he decided to tell stories through his art.
Now he leaves the door open to allow his stories to continue to be passed down to his kids and grandchildren.
“It’s their stories,” Lou said. “It belongs to them. It’s about their past and about their ancestors, and it’s about articulating their DNA, in a sense.”
Now, as Lou sits at his desk in his office, he is surrounded by moving boxes, books stacked on the shelves around him, and a Life Cycle elliptical bike that he’s only used once. There are DVDs and movies stacked on more books, but still more were in the possession of his students. When he thinks a student should read or watch something, he does not hesitate to lend it to them.
After doing her independent study with Lou, Stokes-Casey remembers his office vividly. No matter how much work was cluttered on his desk, Lou always made space for her. She specifically remembered the empty chair that was always sitting at his desk, offering people to come and sit down.
“Making that space in his day, in his calendar, in his schedule to take on an independent study and to literally walk me through one on one is part of that generosity that I’m talking about,” Stokes-Casey said. “He didn’t have to do any of that, but he opened that space and allowed me to work with him and study with him because I asked.”
After 15 years as professor and chair of the Department of Art at the University of Memphis, Lou will be stepping down on Aug. 15. He chuckles as he says that he is not demoting himself but promoting himself to faculty and trying to become a better teacher.
“It’s time for the new people to take us to how they see [fit], how they envision the future and for old people like me — I mean I would give them advice, but it’s really now their department,” Lou said.
At 63 years old, Lou is looking forward to stepping down from chair and being able to spend his weekends and summers with his family.
“I want to concentrate on a couple of things before I die: continue making my work and then make toys for my grandchildren,” Lou said, trailing off as he thought back to the last time he sailed with his children. “Actually, make toys for my grandchildren and then continue my work and build my [sail]boat.”
Lou’s journey started at the border with his family. Now, as he promotes himself to faculty and can clearly see his vacation time being spent with his family, rather than the pile of papers on his desk, the doors are opening once again.